Equine Anxiety 101
You’re hacking peacefully along when you feel a tremor go through your horse’s body. His previously floppy ears snap forward, and his head rises up. As you wonder when your horse turned into a giraffe, his steps become slower and shorter, his back drops, and he emits the emphatic horse-in-jeopardy snort.
You look left and right, desperately trying to see the flesh-eating monster that must have just emerged from the bushes. But you see nothing. Nothing but rocks, trees and grass. The same rocks, trees and grass that have always been there.
But wait, what’s that? There, in the tree, a tiny shimmer of white. It looks like a piece of a grocery bag, caught on one of the branches. And just as you think, well, it can’t be that, your horse wheels, leaving you hanging in space for a moment as he hightails it back to the barn, not noticing whether you’re still attached to him.
Every person who rides encounters something they dread while they’re working with their horse. Maybe Dobbin has a thing about the trash truck. Maybe he’s convinced that whitetail deer are masquerading as peaceful, grass-eating creatures but are really waiting for the chance to pounce on a delicious meal. Or perhaps what really unhinges your horse is being alone.
Whatever your particular issue, equine anxiety is the No. 1 training and management issue for every rider and trainer.
No matter what the cause or expression of your horse’s anxiety, all riders need to accept that all horses will be afraid of something periodically. It’s the nature of a prey animal to always be “on the lookout,” and it’s a behavior we must accept.
The first step-and this often harder than you would think it should be-is to determine what’s causing your horse to be anxious and thus unruly or disobedient. The very thing that makes horses such fabulous animals to train, their incredible memories and ability to extrapolate from previous experiences, also causes them to hold on to negative memories and makes them difficult to convince that future situations won’t be negative.
Seven Types Of Fear
The causes of equine anxiety usually fit one of seven categories:
1. Objects. The objects that horses most commonly find terrifying include: rocks, farm equipment, cars, buildings, jumps, garbage cans and pretty much anything they consider out of the ordinary.
2. Situations. Many horses are uncertain about dark or enclosed places (like an indoor arena), and even more are genuinely scared of being alone (they are herd animals). Often this fear will be expressed by being buddy-sour or barn-sour, and sometimes they don’t want to go in a ring, either at home or in a competition.
3. Sounds. Highly strung horses are easily unglued by loud, unexpected noises (a car back-firing, a garbage can falling over). Others can’t stand hissing noises (like from a leaky hose coupling), and others don’t like rustling noises (in leaves or under something). Both probably sound like a snake.
4. Clipping or other grooming/handling. Some horses are genuinely afraid of clippers, either the sound or the sensation. Some don’t like to receive shots, and others are anxious about being shod.
5. New places. This can be as obvious as moving to a new home or going to a competition. Or it could just be moving to a new stall or riding in a new trailer. Anxiety could even be caused by more subtle changes around the barn (the jumps were moved in the ring, for instance).
6. Type of work/type of rider. Horses often prefer a certain type of rider. And often horses with a strong desire to please become anxious because they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, either because the exercise isn’t clear to them or the rider’s aids are confusing.
7. Other animals. Horses are often afraid of birds, cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, deer or other wildlife. And some are afraid of other horses.
The only way to deal with most things that cause equine anxiety is repetition, because they're things you just can't change or that your horse just has to deal with. | Photo Courtesy of EQUUS
Remove The Cause?
Once you’ve isolated the cause of your horse’s consternation, the big question is what can you do about it? And that’s where you have to be creative, confident and even willing to do an unusual thing or two.
The first thing to determine is the degree of your horse’s fear. Is he genuinely terrified? Can you feel his heart pounding? Is he shaking? Does he bolt blindly away? Or is he really using the object, which startled or unsettled him, as an excuse to produce bad behavior or get out of work? We know a horse who’ll walk past about anything on the buckle, but when you pick up the reins to work, the same objects immediately become terrifying.
If that’s the case, focus on your work and more or less ignore the horse’s behavior and the object of his concern. Once horses learn that their histrionics don’t produce the intended result, most will learn to go on with their work quietly after a momentary spook.
But if your horse is truly afraid, then it’s time to analyze the cause and to best determine how to combat it.
Sometimes you can remove or alter the cause of your horse’s anxiety. Perhaps he prefers to be in a quieter stall or turned out with different pasture mates or a different pasture. Perhaps he’s more comfortable in a taller or lighter-colored trailer.
But the only way to deal with most things that cause equine anxiety is repetition, because they’re things you just can’t change or that your horse just has to deal with.
Dealing with objects that cause your horse to shy can be extremely vexing. Most horses, if given a chance to look hard at an unfamiliar object-and especially to sniff and to touch it-will lose their anxiety. Usually, if you remain calm and just let them take a deep breath and assess something they haven’t seen before, they’ll accept it. Often letting them put their noses on it seals the deal.
If your horse is really unglued by an object, to the point where he becomes dangerous to you or others, discretion is always the better part of valor. Dismount and lead him to the object. You can even longe him near the object until he calms down.
Situational anxiety can be trickier. Horses that are worried about dark or enclosed places will likely always be that way, probably because they’re genuinely claustrophobic or they have poor eyesight. You just have to plan ahead.
Know that if you’re going to show in an indoor arena, you have to get there a few hours or the day before the show to school him in the ring so he’ll be comfortable.
Make A Circle
Horses that are barn-sour or buddy-sour can be a long-term challenge-and sometimes you can’t completely cure them. Be sure to ride barn-sour horses strongly and actively away from the barn. Don’t hesitate to use your spurs or your whip to make them really walk (or trot or canter) away from the barn, because you want to develop their own belief that they’ll be fine and to confirm their respect for your aids.
Buddy-sour horses usually call repeatedly for other horses and jig, and sometimes the fireworks are even more explosive.
Five Tips For Anxious Moments
1. Don’t look at the object or area of fear. Focus your eyes on a spot in the distance and ride to it. This prevents you from acknowledging the object as something fearful and keeps your eyes, head and balance up and forward.
2. If you have a horse who’s perpetually spooky, try riding with a breastplate, racing yolk or grab strap. This will give you something to grab if he wheels or bolts, other than his mouth. Catching nervous horses in the mouth can often send them over the edge.
3. If the horse is contorting its body to look at an object in or near your ring every time you go past it, and thus disrupting your work, instead of fighting to force him not to look at it, force him to look-but keep working. Ride a leg-yield or half-pass (or even a simple outside bend) that puts the horse’s eye on the object, but follow it up with strong leg aids that force him to continue stepping forward and working.
4. If your horse is walking like a tense ball about to explode, pick up the trot and start riding figures like serpentines or figure-eights. Concentrate on the geometry of the figures and the rhythm of the trot. Ignore everything else. Some top riders sing while they’re doing this to force themselves to breathe consistently and release tension, and the rhythm of the song helps them create a consistent rhythm in the trot.
5. Remember, the hardest thing for some horses to do is walk on a loose rein. The loss of contact with the rider can feel like abandonment, and they’re more likely to become anxious or startled. Although being able to walk on a loose rein is a must, be patient with horses and riders who struggle with this concept. Begin by trying brief periods of loose rein between two letters of a standard dressage court, increasing the amount of walk over time.
Put the horse to work. Don’t just try to walk calmly around, because it usually doesn’t work. Make him work to force him to pay attention to you, using circles and leg yields, to get his mind off his friends heading toward the barn. Then, when he’s settled and answering your aids correctly, walk, reward him with a pat or two, and walk to rejoin the other horses or to the barn. But be prepared to go back to work, right away.
Barn- and buddy-sour horses usually balk or refuse to move forward, away from their friends or home. Balking can evolve into the extremely dangerous behavior of rearing and is not to be tolerated. When you ask the horse to go, he must GO. If your horse balks, you must IMMEDIATELY become far scarier to him than the cause of his initial anxiety.
Use your legs, spurs, whips and voice (growl and scold, don’t scream) and GO FORWARD. Having to gallop out of the barnyard for a week to get past this problem is worth it, if it prevents the horse from eventually rearing.
Noise anxiety is extremely tough to school. How do you prepare a horse to stay calm in the midst of a backfiring engine or gunshots until it happens? The most useful advice is to hang on and stay calm. And immediately return to whatever work you were doing, so that the horse sees that you weren’t fazed by the sound. He should learn from your example.
But if your horse is unusually anxious about noise, you can condition him with a sensory-overload type of training, like they use in police-horse training. Shake, rattle and bang pots and pan, bells, rattles, plastic bags or other common items around him while you reassure him (with your voice, stroking or food) until he accepts the sounds.
It’s rare that you can’t convince a horse who’s afraid of clipping or other care requirements to relax. But it can take considerable time and repetition, repetition, repetition. There’s nothing wrong with using some Acepromazine or other mild tranquilizer to settle his mind, if you don’t have the time or the situation is too urgent to take a slow, proper training route.
For most horses, 1 to 3 ccs of Ace (depending on his size and temperament) will do the trick. But, remember, tranquilizers are not training substitutes, and some horses won’t learn anything while under their influence. Plan a proper training session in the near future. Note: If you use tranquilizers to facilitate care, be sure it’s under veterinary guidance and far enough ahead of competition to avoid breaking the show or event’s rules for using performance-enhancing substances.
Convincing horses to not be afraid of other animals is usually an uphill struggle. If they’re afraid of cows, pigs, goats, dogs or wildlife, often there isn’t much you can do, except try to avoid them and hang on if you can’t.
The anxiety you have the best chance of changing is that caused by horses who are worried about the work they’re doing or the ride they’re getting. Everyone who’s trained more than a few horses has come across horses who don’t like to do certain things (such as jumping) but love to do certain other things (such as herding cattle).
Your job as rider or trainer is to determine if they can be convinced to do the job you want them to do or if the horse (and you) would be better off by selling him to someone who wants to do the same job. Almost always, both horse and rider are far, far less anxious if they’re both doing a job they like.
From a training perspective, it’s often extremely challenging to meld a partnership between a horse and rider who aren’t suited. Perhaps it’s a mismatch in style-the horse is hot-blooded and his rider is so busy in the tack that the rider is, in effect, shouting at him all the time. Or perhaps the horse and rider are too similar-each is green, nervous or unambitious.
One, or both, has to change, and sometimes that’s not possible. And, although it’s always far preferable for riders to truly work to improve their skills and suppleness and to expand their experience, sometimes trainers just have to admit that a change needs to be made. Sometimes, though, riders can’t bear to make the change.
As trainers, it’s our job to tell our students when things are going wrong. Make riders aware of the tremendous challenges they’ll face with their current mount given their respective personalities. Honestly explain what changes will have to take place to achieve harmony. But, ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide.