A tense, anxious horse can take all the joy out of a ride. It's impossible to relax and enjoy yourself when your horse is fretting and you're worried he may be "uptight" the whole time: bolt, buck, whirl around, jig incessantly or hurry at all gaits, crowd other horses, or even rear. Equally important, you worry about your own safety.
"There's a big difference between a horse that's anxious or tense and one who's spooky," notes top trainer Linda Tellington-Jones. "The tense horse is often wary of contact with the mouth, flanks, or hindquarters, and is over-reactive to leg aids.
"He may be ‘touchy' all over the body and tight in the abdominal muscles. Tense, anxious horses tend to be that way all the time, unlike spooky horses that can shy from fear, or as the result of playfulness or habit."
The Tension Cycle
"When riding your anxious or flighty horse, you might inadvertently worsen the problem, says Tellington-Jones. "You'll have a tendency to ride ‘defensively' with shorter reins, but when you tighten up on those reins, you create additional tension in the horse's neck and may even cause him to raise his head high, which may click him into flight mode.
"This tension affects your horse's breathing and can create more trouble, because it actually makes him more tense. His tense muscles impair the blood flow to his brain, and he can't think clearly. His neuro-impulses are inhibited, which makes him less able to feel his limbs."
Each time you ride, take several deep breaths before stepping into the saddle.
"Before you mount, visualize how you'd like your ride to be," says Tellington-Jones. "If you're at all nervous before you mount, you'll be expecting spooking and anxiety from your horse. This makes you tense, and your horse picks up on it immediately.
"I've had Olympic riders in my clinics who have practiced visualization, and it has improved their riding and their horse's performance immeasurably!"
If you have a smartphone, you may want to download an "Equi-Tempo" app, which plays rhythms for the walk, trot, and canter. You can speed up or slow down the tempo.
Put the phone in your pocket as you ride, so you and your horse can hear the beat. Practice a variety of tempos at the different gaits. Horses seem to like the sound and will usually relax into the rhythm.
Balance Your Horse
At the same time, teach your horse to come into a more grounded, connected form of mental, physical, and emotional balance. This can be done with Tellington TTouches (a form of bodywork comprised of a variety of circles, lifts and slides done with the hands and fingertips), ground-work exercises, and under-saddle work.
(For Tellington-Jones' TTouches and exercises designed to calm your nervous horse, see The Joy of Riding, The Trail Rider, January/February '11.)
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for national horse publications. Horse-crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy regular trail-riding adventures.