Some horses have calmer personalities than others, either by nature and/or through breeding. Even if your horse typically is calm, there are training techniques to help him cope with unfamiliar or stressful situations. You can’t account for every scenario that might excite him, but do as much preparation at home so that he differentiates between a real threat and a perceived one, and has learned to mind your cues to help him relax.
A trusting relationship with your horse helps keep him calm in stressful situations. For example, if he detects movement in the trees, but he believes, based on his experience with you, that you would never put him in harm’s way, he is less likely to overreact -- particularly if you ride confidently past the offending tree. In other words, if you’re not scared, he’s not scared.
The foundation of this is your consistently calm demeanor when you handle and ride him. Relaxed riding also is important; if you ride with tense body language, he “reads” that as a sign of anxiety and will react accordingly.
The more your horse is exposed to stressful situations, the more he becomes used to them. This is called desensitization, and it starts with habituation. If noise and chaos are part of his daily life, he trains his mind no longer to think of them as danger signs. They instead become part of his environment. This is habituation. For example, when he continues grazing with a chainsaw running in his pasture, he is desensitized to that stimulus. Even getting used to a saddle and rider is a form of desensitization.
Counter-conditioning is when you condition your horse to associate an unpleasant experience with a pleasant one. For example, if you start giving him treats after he gets a shot, he’ll associate shots with treats.
Lowering Head and Focus
When your horse’s head is lowered, he’s relaxed. Just lowering his head causes a physiological response; his heart rate slows, he sweats less, and the muscles in his neck and back relax. So, cueing your horse to lower his head when he’s anxious helps calm him. Practice by applying downward pressure on his lead rope until his head drops just a little. Reward him with treats and praise each time. Then bridle him, and pick up one rein and raise it. The pressure on his poll should cause him to drop his head; as soon as it does, release the rein. Do this on each side. When you ride him and pick up a rein, he should drop his head.
If your horse gets anxious while you are riding him, keep his feet moving. Do serpentines, side passes and trot over poles -- make him think about what you’ll ask him to do next, rather than whatever it is that’s causing him stress.
Feed and Supplements
If your horse is by nature a Nervous Nellie, evaluate his feeding program. Horses respond differently to certain grain formulations and too much starch or sugar can create excess energy. Similarly, horses on a low-protein diet may display excitability when suddenly fed feeds higher in protein. If your horse is on a balanced diet, or pasture only, and still nervous, try adding magnesium. This mineral helps relax muscles, among other things. You also can purchase commercial calming supplements with other effective ingredients; be aware that many calming ingredients are prohibited in competition.
- Horse Science News: Teaching Horses to Keep Calm
- Trail Rider: Bombproof Your Horse the Mounted Patrol Training Way with Horse Desensitization
- ASPCA: Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises
- America’s Horse Daily: Lower That Head
- Equestrian Life: Anxiety … Arousal
- Equusite: Horses that Rear While Riding
- Equine Therapy: Magnesium – A Calming Supplement for Excitable Horses
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.