Let Your Nervous Horse Realize It’s Tired
Calming a Nervous Horse
By: Anna Jane White-Mullin
If a horse is excitable when it comes out to work, riders tend to work the animal for long periods of time in an effort to wear it out to achieve compliance. The initial excitability of the animal causes an adrenaline rush, just as though the horse were fearing for its life and needed adrenaline to enable it to run fast for a long period of time to escape a predator. If the rider (or even someone longeing a horse) doesn’t give the animal frequent breaks, the horse’s emotional state remains frenzied, which keeps the adrenaline flowing.
If a horse is very nervous at the start of work, it’s fine to give it short spurts of canter with the rider’s seat off the saddle in two-point position — no more than three times around the arena — followed by a break of about five minutes so that the horse’s level of both adrenaline and oxygen can decline in intensity. As you know, adrenaline and oxygen can cause humans to accomplish what seem to be super-human feats of physicality, and the same is true of an animal; so it is important to get the horse back to a more normal physical and emotional state before you start to work again, or else you’ll find yourself fighting a battle you cannot possibly win.
The oxygen and adrenaline levels are very important, but the horse’s mental state and its ability to realize it is tired are equally important. A walk on a long rein (or at least as long as you can have and still control the nervous horse) provides the animal an opportunity to relax; once it has relaxed a little, it will realize it is tired. Just as you come to a point in a hard day that you think, “I’m worn out,” and start finding ways to take it a little easier, the horse will do the same. Instead of looking for things to spook at, it will just mind its business and cooperate.
This principle is true in all training of the horse. You don’t want to exhaust the animal, for this can be dangerous if your horse doesn’t have what it needs physically and mentally to do what you’re asking of it — for example, jumping a course of fences. What you’re really looking for is a relaxed horse that is willingly submissive. You’ll get this when you offer frequent breaks in your work routine.
If you’re longeing the horse, change directions about every five minutes, and take plenty of time while you’re switching the equipment to the other side, so the horse has a little time to settle. Also, don’t longe more than 20 minutes. After this time, when you get on the horse, walk it for at least five minutes on a long rein and let it relax. If you have time, you can even take the horse back to the barn, cool it out, then tack it up later for your ride. You’ll be amazed at how much more successful your work session will be if you’ll give your horse time to calm down, relax, and feel that it is a little tired.
If you’ve taken the route of short periods of canter in two-point, go three times around the ring, take a five-minute break, then do the same thing one more time. If this doesn’t sufficiently calm the horse, you can do the same thing twice more; but again, concentrate as much on a lengthy break time as you do on the cantering, so that the horse can become more calm, relaxed and aware of the fact that its body is tired.
The people who constantly resort to lengthy gallops or an hour of longeing end up with a horse so fit that the initial problem of the horse being at a physical advantage is greatly increased. Also, overwork can cause lameness and other physical problems, so it’s not a wise thing to do. The next time your horse is keyed up, use short periods of work, interspersed with frequent breaks, to make the horse’s mind and body more manageable, rather than taking the lengthy and less-successful route of working your horse nearly to death or attempting to muscle it into submission.
Using circular patterns and exercises to calm a horse and channel his energy can be effective. This is because patterns and circling in particular are naturally calming to prey animals. Channeling a horse's energy via patterns is also effective because it engages his mind and with his mind engaged he becomes less reactive and calmer. A rider can balance this by interspersing schooling with well-timed rest breaks that have the effect mentioned in the article above. Horse won't slow? Pick at it. Ask for little bits of slow and relaxation at a time. Really engage the horse's mind and body, then allow him the opportunity to relax. Continuously present the opportunity and your horse will start to take it. The more he takes it, the more it becomes a habit.
One point the article made was to limit forward ie, lengthy gallops. In my experience it can be helpful to allow a horse to stretch out and 'get the kinks out' ie, release a little energy, but it is also very possible to do too much of this and only contribute to the horse's excited state of mind. I agree with the author's take to restrict canters to say three times around the ring. Longeing, in my opinion, can be limited to even less than 5min bouts and less than 20min sessions. The latter mostly because that much repetitive circling is stressful to a horse's body. In my experience when you allow an anxious, tense, nervous, excited horse to be forward too much, you allow him to build up more adrenaline and to increasingly amp himself up. This is also related to the horse's nature as a flight animal. In flight, a horse does not have to think - in fact he won't. This is the reason you might see or hear stories of deer frantically running down the road when they could simply swerve out of the path of your vehicle - they are not thinking. They are in pure flight mode and flight mode does not allow for thought or rationalization. So it is important to not allow the horse who is excited and moving its feet as a result to continue moving its feet and to engage in full flight mode (visually, the horse will pick up speed and start to increasingly tune out your cues). The increased oxygen and adrenaline coursing through his body will only feed into a cycle whereby the horse becomes increasingly forward and excited, releasing and circulating more oxygen and adrenaline, causing him to become more forward, and so on and so forth. Instead, allow a little forward, then ask your horse to relax. This might mean allowing him to stand or simply walking him out or transitioning down to a gait in which he is more relaxed. If you see or feel your horse becoming increasingly excited and increasingly forward, transition down before he really gets rolling. Then when he is ready, ask him for forward again, and transition down again as he really amps up - or better yet, before. Do short bouts of forward so you can finish with relaxation (at least a little). Remember that if you can finish with relaxation you can develop that relaxation to the point where it is to a greater degree and to the point where eventually you are also starting with relaxation.
Above all, do not resort to wearing your horse out physically, whether on the longe or under-saddle. Doing so will only create a fitter horse and will not directly address relaxation. Remember to include an abundance of rest breaks in your routine with your horse - doing so can have a number of positive benefits and can greatly impact your session with your horse.