Whether your horse is fearful or sensitive, your own behavior can be influencing his. After all, horses are masters of reading body language. So if you find yourself bracing for an expected blowup as you hold your horse for the farrier, for example, your own anxieties may trigger, or amplify, the very behavior you fear.
If you suspect you may be contributing to your horse’s nervous reactions, try handing the lead rope or reins over to a more experienced handler. If your horse settles down quickly, it’s time to assess your own role in your partnership. Here are steps you can take to ensure you’re part of the solution to your horse’s anxiety rather than contributing to the problem:
1. Establish your leadership with groundwork.
Every time you handle your horse, he will behave as if you are a herd of two. One of you has to be the leader, and if he doesn’t trust you in that role, then he will assume it himself. As self-appointed herd leader, if something frightens or agitates your horse, he will make the decision to run. Instead, your goal—which can be reached through regular, focused groundwork—is to show your horse that you are the leader.
2. Control your own emotions.
Your horse will pick up on what you are thinking, whether you are sitting in the saddle or standing next to him on the ground. When you are sitting on him, he can feel your tension or relaxation through your seat and legs. And if you—the herd leader—are nervous, anxious or afraid, then you are telling your horse that he should be frightened, too. “Nervousness in a horse being ridden is often due to rider inconsistency,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, of Texas A&M University. “Often a show horse does fine at home, but when you take him to a show he goes nuts. The rider may be more tense and nervous at the show, and this makes the horse nervous.”
Containing your own emotions is a skill that takes practice and experience, and you’ll find hundreds of suggestions for relaxation techniques to reduce your own anxieties. But simply taking a moment to draw and release a deep breath and consciously shake out tensions in your body is a good start. Sometimes, however, if you arrive at the barn while you’re having trouble coping with other difficulties in your life, it might be wiser to skip the ride that day.
3. Use your voice—and speak softly.
You don’t need to keep up an incessant patter but speaking even a few quiet words may be helpful in soothing an anxious horse. “The first thing most people do is talk in a soft, calm manner,” Beaver says. “Research shows that this really doesn’t make any difference to the horse, but it tends to make the person more calm—which the horse readily picks up on—and this is what’s important. If you relax, the horse tends to relax.”
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