Coping with a nervous horse can feel like trying to parent an amped-up toddler crossed with a moody teen. You love them dearly—you truly do!—but some days you wonder why.
Whether it’s through epic spook-and-spins, a vehement refusal to stand for the farrier, or sitting back to break yet another set of cross ties, a “difficult” horse tests your patience and may make you worry for your safety and sanity.
Like a developing child, a horse doesn’t misbehave to irritate or defy you. In fact, it isn’t about you at all; it’s about him and his specific situation. Understanding that is the key to helping your horse keep his cool.
First and foremost, remember that horses don’t want to be bad—or good, for that matter. They just want to be safe and comfortable. It’s easy to see a particular behavior, such as refusal to stand still, shying, as a problem. But in most cases the horse is simply responding to his environment or experience.
One potential driver of seemingly anxious behavior is discomfort from ill-fitting tack, injury, or illness. Thus, any effort to deal with nervous behavior starts with a call to the veterinarian to schedule a thorough physical examination for the horse.
If your veterinarian rules out physical causes for your horse’s anxiety, you’ll need to consider whether his behavior is a manifestation of fear or simply reflects a hard-wired tendency to be more sensitive to his surroundings. Indeed, sometimes ‘nervous’ isn’t even the appropriate term. What might seem like anxiety is sometimes an expression of a horse’s instinct for self-preservation.
Regardless of the root of the behavior, a productive response requires time and patience. You can’t control what a horse has learned in his lifetime, especially if you didn’t raise him. What you can control, however, is the situation you are in and how you react to your horse.
Dialing Back the Horse’s Fear Response
What we call “nervous” behavior is often the result of fear. In a natural setting, fear quickly leads to one specific behavior in a prey animal like a horse: running away. “Horses as a species evolved to cope with danger by fleeing,” says behaviorist Bonnie Beaver, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, ACAW, of Texas A&M University. “They are naturally uptight and apprehensive if they don’t have the ability to get away from the things they perceive as dangerous.” To reduce those potentially dangerous reactions, Beaver recommends analyzing the situation and looking for ways to minimize the triggers for these horses:
Adopt a calm demeanor.
The body language we project as we 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. “This kind of approach will trigger nervous behavior,” says Beaver:
On the other hand, your instinctive response to back off when a horse acts up may reward nervous behavior. “Typically, when we approach a flighty horse, we stop when the horse starts reacting, and this rewards him, so that’s not what we should do,” says Beaver.
Instead, when approaching an unfamiliar or reactive horse, Beaver suggests easing up quietly. “If we are walking slowly and the horse is fine with our approach, we should periodically stop before he reacts, or even take a step back, and then take another step or two forward and then stop, just to gain the horse’s confidence and let him know we are not a threat,” Beaver says, adding, “We also should not stare directly at them as we approach, because that makes some horses nervous. This is what a predator does. In general, because their vision is much different than ours, we are better off approaching a horse more from the side, going toward the withers rather than straight on toward the head.”
Introduce new experiences gradually.
Horses often need to be acclimated to new objects and new situations. “Often the biggest mistake people make is waiting until they have to put the horse in a trailer, rather than taking time to trailer train that horse. So they bring him right up to a trailer and cram him into it,” says Beaver. “So now you have a horse who is shook up and upset. Once a horse gets agitated and nervous, even when you remove the trigger it will still take him about 30 minutes to calm down.”
Instead, she suggests beginning by bringing the horse up to the trailer at his own pace. Pause as necessary if he is apprehensive and give him time to investigate before loading. “Let him take his time to smell it and get used to the sound of it and figure out that it’s not going to eat him,” says Beaver. Ideally, you would start this desensitization process days or even weeks before the horse will need to be transported.
Giving the horse time to assess scary things is also a good strategy on the trail. “Perhaps you are riding, and the horse becomes anxious when you come across a plastic bag caught on a fence and blowing in the wind, or you come to a bridge the horse has never crossed,” says Beaver. “Give him time to look at what’s alarming him and assess this scary thing. There should be no rush to get past or over or through a scary obstacle. Horses are naturally curious. If you allow the horse time, and a chance to explore this new thing, we don’t see the distress happening.”
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. “This increases the horse’s anxiety level, and he becomes more nervous,” says Beaver. “The person may not realize that this has just reinforced the horse’s nervous, flighty behavior; the horse becomes even more concerned.”
Be aware of your surroundings.
Schedule events that you know will stress your horse—a veterinary visit, for example—for times when it will be quiet around the barn. Also select a site where the horse will feel safe and comfortable. Avoid making obvious changes to the scene before bringing the horse in. Remember that simple things, such as a blanket tossed over a nearby fence or a hose lying across the ground, can be worrisome to a nervous horse.
Likewise, a horse may be more nervous on a windy day, with the trees, grasses, and bushes all moving at once. Wind also distorts the sources of sounds and odors, which can confuse a prey animal, leaving him on high alert. If your horse seems unusually edgy on a gusty day, it might be best to postpone activities until conditions are calmer.
Avoid “trapping” the horse.
Horses are naturally claustrophobic. If you make them feel as if they cannot escape—either by physically blocking their path or using equipment that constrains their movement—you risk triggering their fight response.
Instead, focus on showing the horse what to do, using pressure-and-release techniques, rather than simply trying to force him.
Keep the horse moving.
An anxious horse wants to escape the source of his fears—in other words, he feels compelled to move his feet. And here, a technique advocated by many natural horsemanship practitioners comes in handy: Try to get control of the horse’s feet—let him move but direct that movement.
This all begins the moment you mount up. Start each ride by walking around the arena on a loose rein to see how he reacts to the environment. The idea is to defuse any anxieties before the real work begins.
Here, though, look beyond the common technique that calls for forcing a horse to face something that scares him. Riding up to something that causes the horse to spook and forcing him to “get familiar with it,” can make him feel constrained, which is counterproductive. Instead, try to instill confidence by teaching the horse that he will not get hurt as long as he listens to you.
When a horse is nervous or wants to shy, try walking or jogging circles until he relaxes and becomes responsive again. The goal is to help the horse realize that he need not react to the scary thing and there is really nothing to worry about.
That dynamic changes, of course, when there is a legitimate reason for a horse to be frightened. If you encounter a grizzly bear on the trail, for example, a fear response is natural and appropriate. Properly channeled, it can result in self-preservation for both horse and rider.
Keep it positive.
“Historically, horse training has been based on negative reinforcement. We poke a spur in their side and when they move, we take the negative away,” says Beaver. “but this doesn’t work as well with a fearful horse.”
Positive reinforcement—administering rewards for good behavior—can be a better approach. “Reward-based training has been shown, in multiple species, to be the best at preventing problems and getting the trust of the animal the fastest,” says Beaver. “It can make the horse less fearful.”
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. Clicker training is another form of positive reinforcement that can be successful with horses. But rewards must be administered carefully. “Many people don’t have good timing on giving the reward, and they end up rewarding the wrong behavior,” says Beaver.
Maybe He Was Born That Way
Fear isn’t always at the root of difficult behavior in horses. Sometimes it’s just sensitivity. Certain horses, bloodlines, and breeds are naturally “hotter” than others.
Keep in mind that this is the flip side of the very traits that might attract you to a particular breed in the first place. A forward-moving horse tuned into his surroundings may be that way even when it’s not convenient for you. “‘Hot bloods’ are more active than ‘cold bloods’ and tend to be hypersensitive,” says Beaver. “For some of those horses, small things are more likely to upset them.”
When learning to work with a potentially anxious horse, keep the following goals in mind:
- Avoid constraining the horse. As with the fearful horse, trapping or constraining the high-energy horse only exacerbates the problem. Horses who feel trapped will fight. How long they fight and how hard depends on their level of self-preservation and how you respond.
- Increase turnout. Time spent living in a field with a friendly herd is good for any horse’s physical and mental health, but it’s particularly helpful for the hotter horses. Once he’s had a chance to gallop, cavort and burn off some steam, your horse will be a calmer, more relaxed partner when you’re ready to ride. A horse who lives outside will also be well accustomed to wind, rain, swaying trees, and wild animals and will be less likely to spook when encountering these elements again on the trail.
- Be prepared to back off. Push too hard and you risk a blowup. There are ways of dealing with these, but it’s far better to prevent them from happening in the first place. That means you’ll need to be tuned in to subtle shifts in your horse’s body language. “If the horse starts tensing up, you need to figure out what’s going on, and preferably assess the environment before the horse becomes nervous,” Beaver says. Then you can take action, maybe circling or asking for a half-pass, to keep his feet busy and his mind focused on you.
Take-Home Message: Time and Patience
As with any horse, your goal with a nervous one is to build a trusting partnership. “When you look at horses who work at the highest levels, there is a strong bond of trust,” Beaver says. “I saw this in a horse that I had that was being trained. When the trainer got off and I got on, the horse kept looking to the trainer asking, ‘What should I do?’ because the bond to that one person was so strong that the horse looked to that person for guidance. This is what you want in your relationship with a horse: total trust.”
Even when frightened, a horse that trusts his handler’s leadership is less likely to overreact. “He might get nervous, but it won’t be to the extent that an untrusting horse would have,” says Beaver. “The nervousness will be controllable because the horse is looking to you for security and guidance. The horse learns that the rider will not put him into a situation that he is not capable of handling.”
Of course, as with any relationship, developing trust with your horse will take time. And sometimes it will seem like progress comes in excruciatingly small increments. And you will make mistakes—accept that fact and simply focus on learning from them. Overcoming these challenges will help you build a stronger and more productive relationship with your horse.
As you work with your nervous horse, subtle changes will be taking place. And one day you might look back and realize you crossed a threshold. Somewhere along that path, you and your horse became a team, a true working partnership based on trust and understanding. Then even the occasional difficult day will be easier to cope with.
This article originally ran on EQUUSMagazine.com.