It’s the day of the show, and your horse is on his worst behavior. Could anxiety be the culprit? Let’s take a look at what you can do to help calm him down.
The start of a horsemanship clinic is sometimes a chaotic affair. Even the most docile horse can become overwhelmed with anxiety and temporarily forget how to act. With multiple horses in an unfamiliar arena, plus their caretakers (mostly excited and a bit anxious themselves), the energy can be frenetic. So what can you do to help ease your equine companion’s anxiety?
Pinpoint the cause and intervene
Temperament plays a big role in a horse’s level of anxiety. Some horses are flightier than others and worry more. As prey animals, horses can be stoic (instinctively hiding their stress and pain), while others wear emotions on their sleeves. It’s important to identify the source of a horse’s anxiety, because it will inform your strategy for managing it.
Research on the prevalence of gastric ulcers in horses has revealed how much stress and anxiety exists in horses of all ages. Common sources of anxiety include hidden pain, separation anxiety, unfamiliar settings, isolation, confusion (when the horse does not understand what’s being asked of it), or all of the above.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that pain is more often than not the root cause of many issues that can easily masquerade as training problems. When we talk about easing equine anxiety, we must remove stressors where we can and always rule out physical problems first. When in doubt, check it out.
A horse that displays overt signs of anxiety and acts out is a very unhappy horse. Intervention will help teach the horse how to cope with his anxiety and can remind him how good it feels to relax and seek out calmness.
Master the chaos within
Treat the horse’s emotionality as a mental health issue, not a training issue. Criticizing, correcting, or applying more pressure to an anxious horse usually exacerbates his anxiety. Before any meaningful training or performance can occur, the horse must return to a calm and thinking state of mind.
Putting the horse in a relaxed posture, cueing him to breathe and offering reassurance teaches him to let go of his fear and helps him manage his emotions. The anxious horse feels miserable, so once he’s coaxed to relax, he’s remember how much better it feels to be in that state.
With practice, the horse learns calm-down cues and soon begins seeking out that relaxed, safe feeling. Even for the most flighty, nervous horse this can become a reflex in just a few training sessions, and he will learn to go to his “happy place” without cues from the handler.
A horse’s emotional state is closely tied to his posture. The level of the horse’s head is like a needle on a pressure gauge. In other words, a horse with his head up, arched back and stiff is prepared for fight or flight. If he has his nose to the ground, back rounded and tail relaxed, he’s totally calm and compliant. Any change in elevation in between those two extremes indicates the horse is either tensing or relaxing.
When teaching a horse to relax, my first goal is always to get him in a relaxed posture with his nose to the ground. By using light pressure from the halter at the poll, then releasing it immediately when the head starts to lower, the horse will quickly learn a cue to lower the head. Then I cue him to take a deep breath by taking one myself. Horses will mimic the posture and breathing of others.
I exaggerate my body language and breathing to exude calmness (shoulders rounded, energy low, averted eyes, deep sighs). I’ll stroke and soothe the horse as he settles, praising him and making sure he feels safe. Everything I am asking the horse to do is easy and feels good, so the horse responds quickly. Remember – no horse wants to feel anxious!
Engagement and connection
Once the horse has returned to a calm state, it’s time to engage his mind. Give him simple cues, wait for the appropriate response, and then release and praise him. This builds the horse’s confidence, eases his anxiety, and reminds him how good it feels to be praised. Just like humans, when you praise a horse for a job well done, he’ll want more praise.
To engage the horse’s mind and get his focus back on me, I’ll give the easiest commands that I’m sure the horse knows: go, stop, turn right, turn left, slow down, speed up. All I want is for the horse to engage with me – to listen, think, and respond like he’s trained to do. This almost always has a calming effect on the horse as he starts thinking and finds comfort in doing what he knows how to do.
When your horse is anxious, it’s not the time to ask for the hard stuff or teach him something new. It is the time to remind the horse that he knows how to act and respond. Most importantly, I want to use this time to re-establish my connection with the horse.
With the right techniques employed, anxious horses can turn around quickly and dramatically – and perform at their best!