What seems like nervous behavior in horses is often a sign of fear. Here five things to do—or to avoid—when dealing with an anxious horse.
DO: Adopt a calm demeanor.
The body language you project as you first walk up to a horse sets the tone for the entire encounter. An aggressive approach raises his defenses at the outset. Especially if the horse doesn’t know or trust you yet, striding right up—quickly and purposefully, as a predator would—may scare him.
DON’T: Punish your horse for being fearful.
Reprimanding a horse for nervous, spooky behavior is about the worst thing you can do. It tells him that he had good reason to be afraid. Punishment risks increasing the horse’s anxiety and risks making the situation worse.
DO: Introduce new experiences gradually.
Horses need to be acclimated to new objects and new situations. Whether you’re loading your horse into a trailer or riding him on the trails, give him time to assess scary things before proceeding.
DON’T: “Trap” the horse.
If you make an anxious horse feel as if he cannot escape—either by physically blocking his path or using equipment that constrains his movement—you risk triggering his fight response. Focus on showing him what to do using pressure-and-release techniques, rather than simply trying to force him.
DO: Use positive reinforcement.
Treats and food rewards are the “big guns” of positive reinforcement, but other gestures, such as verbal praise, rubbing the horse’s neck or pausing for a rest break, will work as well. The key is to get the timing right when administering positive reinforcement. You don’t want to inadvertently reward the wrong behavior.