Very few of us haven’t encountered an anxious horse. His state of mind may be plain to see or it could present itself subtly. Some horses wheel and spin or bolt to a place of comfort—the barn, a stall or a group of buddies. Others grind their teeth while otherwise performing well.
There are infinite reasons why a horse could be nervous in his job. Very often anxiety stems from confusion: The horse doesn’t understand where he is, why he’s there and what he has to do. Or he may be struggling to comply with a request he finds difficult.
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In eventing, for instance, we deal with a lot of off-the-track Thoroughbreds. Racehorses are asked to give 110 percent most of the time, but in eventing, as in most other disciplines, we actually don’t want our horses to be exerting that much energy too often. As the former racehorse makes the transition to eventing, it’s not uncommon for him to feel high anxiety about his new job because now he’s being asked to do something different from what he’s known his whole life. A rider might think that asking this horse to slow down a little is not a big deal, but for him it’s a huge change.
[For your bookshelf: Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse]
Whatever the source of a horse’s anxiety, there are things you can do to help alleviate it. Try the following techniques to reduce his distress.
Think small, especially in the beginning
When working with an anxious horse, it’s critical to avoid adding to his tension by asking too much of him.
First, recognize his physical limitations. Depending on his level of training or physical conditioning, he may not be able to do as you ask even if he is inclined to try. This means that you need to be aware of his physical capabilities and avoid giving him an aid for something he can’t do at that moment.
Second, recognize his mental limitations. Just as a horse may have trouble with your request physically, his mental ability to perform a task depends on his age, training level and past experiences. Don’t ever trap your horse into a problem that he doesn’t have the ability to solve.
[For your bookshelf: Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse]
Your horse will not calmly do what you ask simply because he likes you. Horses aren’t wired for that kind of loyalty. He will do what you ask of him if you lay down some ground rules and clearly and consistently communicate what it is you expect of him.
When I was a young rider, I was taught a great expression: “The horse has to be inside of a box and have complete freedom within that box.” This means that there are established rules and a clear purpose for the horse within a specific space. It’s important that he have complete freedom to think and express himself within the box, but he has to operate inside of the framework you create for him. The horse isn’t allowed to do certain things inside of that box. And as the leader, you need to communicate the rules.
This can be accomplished in simple exercises. I often use a drill based on this concept to get an anxious jumper to stop running out on a fence. I put cones or rails on the ground set fairly wide apart to mark the path the horse must follow leading to the jump, and I establish the rule that there is no running away from the fence. I put the horse in a box by clearly marking the space that he can occupy with the cones on the ground.
[For your arena: training cones]
The horse is allowed to stop and look at the fence if he doesn’t understand. But he is not allowed to run past it or to avoid it by running away. He can knock the fence down, but he has to follow the rules and go between the cones. He is free to express himself, to make mistakes—but the rule is that he must follow the path that I’ve outlined.
Use precise aids
We all communicate with our horses the same way. With the leg, the bit, the crop and with body language on the ground, we apply and release pressure to tell them what we want them to do.
The consistent application of these aids is a never-ending challenge for any horseperson, and when you’re working with an anxious horse, it becomes an even more important goal.
Most people focus on the application of the aids but not the release of the aids. The release of the aids, at the right time, is actually the most powerful tool you have. When it comes to the release, the age-old adage applies: Expect a little and reward a lot.
Every time you apply pressure, you are asking the horse for a little something. The exact moment he responds, you release pressure—you reward him by softening the aid. The goal is to get to the point that, after you begin applying pressure, you notice the precise moment the horse starts to comply and you reward him with immediate release. In other words, you instantly reward even his smallest attempt to get it right.
Be his comfort
To help an anxious horse make progress, you must become a reliable presence in his life. But keep in mind, you can’t pity him. Regardless of what caused him to become anxious, he won’t benefit from your feeling sorry for him. In fact, he’ll quickly learn that he can push you around. This could make you nervous, and your anxiety compounded with the horse’s anxiety will only worsen the situation.
Instead, bring him comfort through the consistency of your efforts and by using the pressure-release technique to encourage him to relax. Again, this reward is in the release or softening of the pressure—and as soon as you notice him relaxing into his job, it’s a big moment to praise.
For an anxious horse, it’s all about the one-on-one time. The more clarity he has in his partnership with a single person, the better. A nervous horse probably won’t do his best in an environment where he works with someone different every time he steps into the ring. This could be a goal for him down the line, but first work on overcoming his anxiety by committing to build a partnership between the two of you.
To avoid frustration for both you and your horse, focus on improving your partnership by little increments at a time. It isn’t realistic to expect big leaps forward or for the horse’s anxiety to suddenly dissipate. With lots of patience, you’ll almost always see results.
Some cases of anxiety in horses are especially difficult to deal with. For example, nervousness may originate from a bad experience: Whether by an accident or a rider’s mistake, the horse got hurt and something scared him. This kind of fear can be very hard to overcome. In these cases, you’ll need to seek the assistance of a professional trainer and figure out what’s possible.
However, the vast majority of anxious horses can improve with sensible and consistent handling. Easing your horse’s anxiety, much like any aspect of riding that you’re working to improve, is a never-ending process. We are all constantly working to communicate with our horses better, to make our aids clearer and time them better.
You’ll know you’re getting somewhere when the horse’s reaction to your aids is simple, easy and relaxed. His ease signals to you that he’s not just doing the job you ask, he understands it.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #452, May 2015.