Have you ever wondered why some riders can get on a nervous horse and within minutes the horse is calm or why other riders get on a calm horse and within minutes the horse is tense and worried?
As riders we all know how our emotions can be transmitted to the horse. The examples above clearly demonstrates this. If you are tuned in to your emotions and your realize you are distracted or upset about something that happened prior to your ride, you may decide to just do groundwork or an easy trail ride instead of working on your tests in the arena.
But what if you are feeling perfectly relaxed and still you don’t seem to be able to get on the same page with your horse? What are some of the things you can do? First of all, make sure there are no pain issues or ill fitting tack that could be causing your horse to act up.
Then pay close attention to your horse as you get ready:
1. How is the horse behaving while being tied and groomed
2. Is the horse tuned in to me on the ground
3. How is the horse reacting once I’m in the saddle
I will first address the nervous horse and then the nervous or fearful rider!
If your horse is already distracted and not standing still while tied, you might take some extra time with the grooming or increase the groundwork. A nervous horse can create nervous energy in the rider and of course that can turn into a vicious cycle. I never rush anything when I’m working with a nervous horse. I move slow and calm and try to convey my confidence to the horse. Usually I can see the results before I get in the saddle. If things have not improved during ground work or have escalated, you might choose not to get in the saddle that day. Safety comes first and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s to trust my gut.
Now what if you are at a show or on a trail-ride and your horse turns into a bowl of jello?
Again, safety has to come first, even if that means scratching your test or cutting short the trail ride. But the point of this blog is to hopefully give you some tools to deal with fear issues in either yourself or your horse safely!
The first thing you have to keep in mind when riding a horse, is that riding effectively is often counterintuitive to normal human reaction!
What is the first thing most riders want to do when their horse acts up? They lean forward, pull on the reins and clamp with their legs.
So the rider’s body is telling the horse to go forward while the hands are preventing forward movement. This will cause confusion and tension in the horse and probably manifest in more bad behavior like jigging, head tossing or even rearing as the horse feels up is the only direction he has left to go.
What the rider should do when the horse is nervous, is exactly the opposite of what human nature tells us, namely release the reins, sit up tall and straight, relax the legs and talk in a quiet, soothing voice. In the beginning you will have to remind yourself, but with enough training and reinforcement this will become second nature and you will do it automatically. So, let’s assume you are relaxed and your horse is still acting like the boogie man is after him. Just like a child throwing a tantrum, you don’t want to reward him by getting off and stopping the ride, as this will reinforce the bad behavior. Try to distract him and get his attention back to you by moving his feet and making him work. If it is a scary spot he doesn’t want to pass, turn his head the other direction so he isn’t looking at the object and leg yield him past it. I like using lateral work because it takes more strength and concentration on the horse’s part. Once he is focused on you, whatever scares him will drop into the background. You should be able to calm your nervous horse and instill your confidence in him. If you are in a high stress situation and things are not going to improve, try to get even a short moment of your horse’s attention on you, doing what you ask, then praise him and safely quit the ride. Once the horse looks at you as the leader you have accomplished a huge step in making him a fearless partner!
Obviously a nervous horse coupled with a nervous rider will make progress more difficult, but with the right help this too can be accomplished.
So let’s address the nervous rider!
Like I mentioned above, you first have to be aware of what you need to change, but just knowing what you have to do will not automatically result in you doing it. When you are afraid, instinct takes over and you may fall back into your old habits. Again, the only way to change it, is through reinforcement, so that the new habits become automatic.
The best way to practice this is when you are not actually in a fearful situation. When you are riding a calm horse, visualize your horse being nervous and afraid, then physically go through the motions that you want to reinforce: sit up, release the reins, relax your legs, talk quietly to your horse!
You have to commit to this practice and do it over and over again, because just a couple of times will not store it to muscle memory.
When this becomes instinctive, you can now take it a step further by not only visualizing the scary situation, but setting it up in a controlled environment on your calm horse. This time, lean forward, put tension on the reins and clamp carefully with your legs. Chances are your horse will react by tensing up. Immediately release the tension, sit up straight and talk calmly to your horse. Hopefully the horse will relax again and therefore reinforce the good habits in both of you. Keep practicing until it becomes second nature!
Happy, safe trails