Have you ever dealt with anxiety? Maybe an actual anxiety disorder, maybe not. Odds are, though, that you’ve at least felt the sensation of being nervous. Being anxious. Maybe before you take a big test, you jig your leg, tapping it on the ground in an attempt to find an outlet for your nervous energy. Maybe you fidget with your hands, running them through your hair, tapping them on a desk, moving around in some way. Odds are, when you are nervous, you are not completely still. If someone were to try to force you to be still, to be quiet, to be void of feeling and to hide your nerves, it would likely increase your sense of panic, to have the fidgeting, the outlet for said nervous energy, to be taken away. Much is the same with nervous horses and unfortunately, many humans expect more from them and their nervous fidgeting than they’d expect from themselves or their peers.
Anxious horses fidget. When they’re stressed in stalls, they may paw, weave or crib. When you ride off property, they may jig and not want to walk. May try to walk away immediately upon you getting on. May not want to stand for being tacked. Odds are, they’ll keep moving. If they do stand still, their posture will likely be rigid, focused on some invisible threat. Muscles tensed, rock solid, maybe even quivering in anticipation to run. These are flight animals, this is in their nature. The unknown is scary and unfortunately, as humans, we sometimes expect our horses to think far more logically than they’re capable of and disallow them the very normal expression of their nerves. So, how do we deal with the nervous horse?
First things first, a lot of riders grow frustrated with their horses when they’re nervous. They’ll want to force them to stand still, to stop fidgeting. They’ll get mad at them for their expression of anxiety and treat it like bad behaviour. They’ll expect them to walk off calmly for their first ride in a new area, or maybe even their 10th or 20th, it doesn’t matter. They expect them to keep it together and not show any signs of nerves. Often, this type of dictatorship in which the rider tries to take away the horse’s outlet for nervous energy without offering them an alternative just turns the horse into a tightly coiled spring, so wound up that they’re just ready to explode and incredibly tense. This is not the answer. Allow a nervous horse the ability to move and keeping your temper under wraps while trying to exude calmness is the way to go. Nervous horses like to keep their feet moving, they like to be busy. Maybe you don’t want them pawing or bowling you over, but they could walk in a circle around you. Give them the chance to walk off their nervous energy, to move, instead of letting it build up potentially to the point of completely boiling over. Talk to them, use a calming quiet tone. If you have the tendency to get frustrated or nervous as well, this may even help you with saying calm.
Now, under saddle nervous horses may not want to walk and odds are, they definitely won’t want to stand still. So, let them walk. If they’re jigging the entire time at the walk and trying to run through you, trotting and changing direction often, utilizing spirals, figure 8s and other sort of pattern work changed up frequently to disallow anticipation tends to help wind your horse down. Keep them focused on their job, don’t let them look around outside of the arena but be prepared for expressions of nerves. Sometimes, when anxiety builds too much, they may leap forward, buck, strike out, bolt, rear etc. Getting overly angry with them instead of riding through it and redirecting the behaviour will only increase their nerves. This is perhaps the most important thing for the rider to do. Be the voice of reason, don’t dictate, don’t get mad. It’s the same with humans, you wouldn’t yell in someone’s face or hit them when they’re in the middle of a panic attack. Why? Because, what the heck would that solve other than increasing their anxiety? Same with horses, keep in mind that not every undesirable behaviour is the horse “choosing” to misbehave, in fact, the vast majority of the time if not all of the time, the horse is telling you something. May it be “I have too much energy!” or “I’m scared!” or “I’m frustrated”, “I’m in pain!”, “I’m confused!”. They are trying to communicate and it is up to you, as the more intelligent half of the partnership, to accept their feedback graciously and figure out the best way to redirect the undesirable behaviour in a more positive direction.
So, back to riding. Trotting is my favourite gait to ride on an anxious horse. If they’re tense at the trot, the canter is pretty much guaranteed to be a shit show. I keep them at a medium trot, working on winding them down slower and stretching them down and out as they start to relax. I don’t want to crank them in, I don’t want a super high poll and overly flexed, tense neck. A lot of horses who are nervous try to hide from contact and go behind the vertical as a result or gnaw at the bit and get overly packaged together and dance on the spot. I want to work to get their neck stretching down and out, allowing them to stretch and relax their back. Soft hands are key, but obviously if they’re trying to run and bolt on you, you don’t want to just throw the reins at them. So, a giving and taking action is key. Check and release, ask them to move forward and stretch down and out. Try to turn the up and down motion of an anxious gate to a more forward and fluid one. This is why circling and other types of pattern work is so important, it’ll help keep the horse more contained while asking for a natural bend. Changing up what you’re doing to prevent anticipation is always key. If your horse always knows what is going to happen next, they have more means to think about whatever is bothering them and can then funnel said nervous energy into undesirable behaviours. Keep them wondering what’s going to happen next, it’ll keep them more focused.
It can take a while to wind a horse down and sometimes, they may not completely calm in a given situation which is why it is so important to stop while you’re ahead and not push too hard. Similarly, if your horse is nervous in certain situations, it is your job to continually work on exposing them to said situations and work on encouraging calm behaviour. Always end your ride with a quieter horse than you started with, even if it’s not perfect. Take your horse off property as often as you can and work on desensitizing at home, where they are most comfortable, as well.
Remaining quiet, calm and frustration free is so key for the rider. Fake it till you make it. Remind yourself that you’re aboard a flight animal. Be a sympathetic and kind rider. Try not to tense up, making your body a rigid board that merely fights with your horse and induces more stressed behaviour. Practice makes perfect and spooking is a normal behaviour in horses, so it is key for people to change how they view it. Disciplining a fear-based reaction will never fix it, it just creates more anxiety that may come out in other behaviours, or may be internalized which will cause other problems. Never get mad at a horse for being scared. You can correct their behaviour, you can redirect it but you don’t need to lose your cool.
I think it is key for riders to learn how to understand what the underlying causes of a certain behaviour are and remain sympathetic. While everyone may lose their cool or mishandle a situation occasionally, it is so important to remember that these horses truly owe us nothing. Getting furious at a horse for acting out, spooking, refusing a jump and exhibiting other behaviours commonly stemming from anxiety is just giving them another reason to be scared. Unfortunately far too many riders and trainers alike promote the mindset of getting after a horse instead of redirecting a behaviour and giving them a different means of handling their anxieties. In choosing to get on horses in the first place, it is our job to be as understanding and sympathetic as possible. While you can be firm and clear about what you want, you don’t need to be running a dictatorship. Growing confidence won’t happen when the rider chooses to bring confidence tumbling down from losing their cool or being overly upset over anxious behaviours. A horse cannot instill their trust in a rider who gets mad at them in a time where they need guidance instead.