Coping With Fear

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Coping with Fear
By Julie Goodnight

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of horses. They’re big scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. In fact, it’s a bit of an intelligence test really; you’d have to be a complete idiot to have no fear.
Fear is a natural emotion and it’s an important one too. Without fear, we’d be likely to do really stupid things that could result in serious injury or even death. Everyone is afraid of horses on some level and you should not feel badly about yourself if you are occasionally experiencing nervousness or fear around horses. But when fear begins to control what you do and do not do and it begins to impact your enjoyment of horses, it’s time to do something about it!

Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to get back in control of this emotion. I know dozens of people that have followed these important steps and have gone from paralyzing fear to achieving their dreams on horses.
First, it’s important to intellectualize the emotion—to understand your fear, its origins and the effects of the emotion on your mind and body. You may be suffering from post-traumatic fear, which occurs after and accident or an injury. Or you may be suffering from general anxiety—which is something we do to ourselves by creating the “what if” scenarios in our minds. It’s important to think through your emotions objectively and understand them.

With post-traumatic fear, your fear will tend to surface whenever you are doing something similar to what you were doing when you got hurt. This known as a “fear memory” and it is a normal reaction—don’t let it take you by surprise. Expect it and be ready for it by having a plan to keep your emotions in check. You cannot erase fear memories but you can train yourself to over-ride them.

General anxiety tends to affect us more as we age (we don’t bounce like we used to) and have more life pressures on us. What if I get hurt and can’t go to work? Who will pay the mortgage? Who will take the kids to soccer? What if I look stupid in front of all these people? General anxiety is something we do to ourselves—I call it mind pollution. The important thing to realize is that you can control what you think about and you can chose to think about more positive things. Have a plan for what you will think about, even if it is only reciting poetry or singing a son.
Once you have really explored your emotion, it is much easier to objectify it. Our mind, body and spirit are all interconnected and one affects the other. By intellectualizing and objectifying your fear, you’ll keep your mind engaged and that will help keep the fear in check. Also, if you can learn to control your body language and look confident, no matter how you really feel on the inside, then your emotions don’t stand a chance. If you can control your mind and your body, your emotions can’t control you.

It’s also important to develop a plan for building confidence—it won’t just happen on its own. Start by defining your comfort zone—that exact moment that you become uncomfortable and nervous. Go about your daily routine with your horse, paying extra close attention to your bio-feedback and find exactly where your comfort ends and where your nervousness begins.
Then you will stay within your comfort zone as long as it takes, until you are ready for a small challenge. Take small steps outside your comfort zone, always staying within your comfort zone whenever you need to build confidence. By taking small ventures outside your comfort zone and always returning to safety, you’ll gradually expand your comfort zone.

For instance, maybe you feel comfortable catching, leading, tying, grooming and cleaning your horse’s feet; but when you go to pick up your saddle off the rack, suddenly you feel the butterflies in your stomach—you have just left your comfort zone.
So you’ll head to the barn each day, catch, tie, groom, clean feet, then put your horse away. And you’ll do that every day until you are so sick and tired of grooming for no reason, that you are ready for a small challenge. Then your next step will be to saddle your horse—then unsaddle him and put him away. And you’ll do that every day until you are ready for another challenge.

Next, maybe you’ll go to the arena and longe him—then put him away. Your next step may be to mount and dismount; then walk once around the arena; then walk for 10 minutes, etc. Gradually, step by tiny step, you are expanding your comfort zone. Always give yourself permission to drop down below your comfort zone to build more confidence and remember—there is no time frame here. If it takes you a month or a year, who cares?

The important thing to remember is that you can control your emotions. It’ll take a little work on your part, but it can be done. I hear from people all the time that have gotten back to enjoying their horses by following these steps. For more information on coping with a fear of horses, check out my website (juliegoodnight.com) for more information about dealing with fear. I have a book, Ride with Confidence, and motivational audio CD, Building Confidence with Horses.

–Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com
(800) 225-8827

Safety Concerns: Rearing Causes Death Of Rider

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Dear Julie

My cousin, who hadn’t been around horses much, bought a used 20yr. old Tennessee Walker, supposedly a calm, old gelding. My other cousin, who’s been around horses and was in 4H said he’d been starting to lift his front feet. Supposedly she and a friend were coming up a slight hill when he reared and she fell off and broke her neck, instantly killing her. Horses are big animals and not warm and fuzzy friendly, I love you like a dog pets. I believe there was a combination of factors: inexperience, lack of paying attention, and the wrong breed. I’ve seen footage of Tennessees moving and they do lift their front legs very high…Yeesh. I’d’ve never bought one.

My husband says he would’ve stayed on, but would never have let me ride him. How do you stay on a rearing horse, like Roy Rogers and Trigger? Can you train a horse not to rear?

The people who sold him to her said he was, of course well mannered. How can you tell? The first 2 horses she had were Arabians and she had to give them to my other cousin. They were high strung.

I realize there’s risk in just driving, but at least I’ve taken lessons. I saw your clinic in 2003 at the Equine affaire in Columbus, Ohio, and told you you’d shown me more in 1/2 an hour than I’d learned in 4 years. You had.

But I still feel she was taken by the used horse dealer, if you know what I mean. How do you keep from being taken, how do you stay on or prevent a rearing? And is it true that some breeds really are patient and pretty unspookable? All the breeders say theirs is the best and most ‘versatile’.
Sorry for the long letter. Thanks for your precious time. I wish I could afford to take lessons from you.

God Bless,
Julia Grauel, Cleveland Ohio

Answer: Julia,

What a tragic story and I am sorry for the loss your family has suffered. Rearing is indeed one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses. When left on their own, horses will rarely turn over on themselves, but when a human interferes, it is very easy for the horse to lose his balance and fall over, and that is what makes rearing so dangerous.

When a horse rears, you should instantly reach forward with both arms and grab around his neck like you are hugging him. This will keep your weight forward, keep you balanced on the horse and prevent you from pulling back on the reins and causing him to lose his balance. Some horses seem to have more tendencies to rear than others but it is an individual tendency not a breed characteristic. It has a lot to do with how they have been trained, their temperament and their general inclination (just like some horses tend to buck more than others, some tend to kick more than others, etc.).

There are several Q&As on my website about rearing. Basically it is caused by a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Fear, pain, obstinance or poor riding can instigate rearing. Who knows what caused your cousin’s horse to rear; we’ll never know the answer to that. But she probably did not have the riding skill necessary to be riding this horse. Horses can certainly be trained not to rear, just as easily as they can be trained to rear. The solution to rearing is always to move the horse forward; it is ineffective and cruel to hit the horse in the head for rearing, which a lot of old-timers will tell you to do.

I don’t think anyone should blame this tragic incident on a breed. Within any breed, you can find individuals that are prone to rear. While it is certainly true that some breeds are calmer, more docile and cold-blooded (insensitive) than others, you’ll always find horses with both good and bad qualities within each breed. Tennessee Walkers do tend to be on the hot-blooded side but there are many TWs used for trail riding with a great deal of success.

The only way to truly evaluate a horse’s training and temperament before purchasing is to be around him and ride him in several different settings. I always encourage people to look at a horse at least three times before purchasing and at least one of those visits should be unannounced, so that you can see the horse in it’s normal state. You should work with the horse on the ground, groom him, handle his feet, trailer load, etc. You should ride him in the arena and on the trail and in any situation that you might be subjecting him to, such as working cattle. Ideally, you should buy a horse on a two-week trial period, but the seller is not always willing to do that. Another idea would be to have an experienced trainer look at the horse and give you his/her impressions. Usually you can pay their normal lesson fee and get them to go check out the horse and ride him. A person that has had experience with hundreds of horses can generally get a pretty good feel for a horse in one session.

Seeing a horrible accident like this and losing a loved one can certainly lead to emotional trauma. It would be perfectly normal for someone who has witnessed such a thing to develop a fear of horses and riding. There is an article on my website called “Coping with a Fear of Horses,” that may be helpful for you or anyone else that has been traumatized by this incident.

Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Riding is certainly a risky sport but I fully believe that having a safe horse, good riding skills and taking all safety precautions, such as wearing a helmet, will help prevent terrible incidents such as this.

Kindest regards,
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: How To Be In Control And Feel Safe

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Question: Hi Julie,

I am a beginning rider, and have been taking lessons twice a week for about three months now. I have wanted to learn to ride since I was a little girl so this is a dream come true for me (I am 37 now). Initially I was very nervous approaching the horses, but more frequent visits have helped. I’m no longer afraid to get on the horse, but after we’ve walked around the ring a couple of times the horse will start testing me (either that or I’m not giving good cues but she parks at the barn and sidesteps across the ring). I end up yanking on the reins to get her back on track. Then I get tense and the whole thing makes me frustrated and I want to give up. I don’t want to jerk the horse around by the mouth to teach her who is boss but I can’t make her do what I want if I don’t. She is a 9-year old mare and an experienced trail horse. I want to move to faster gaits, but I can’t even get her to trot around in a circle. The men I ride with are naturals and don’t understand why I can’t just get on and ride. I can’t just “get on and ride” because I know I can’t control the horse and that makes me very anxious. I know if I could gain confidence through experience I could relax because then I would feel safer, but I can’t do that if I have to fight the horse every time. I wrote to you because I have read many of the articles on your web site and I think you are brilliant. I hope you can help me realize my dream of cantering across a field unafraid. Thank you so much.

Rachel

Answer: Rachel,

You have a lot of different issues in your question and they are all very common issues that beginners everywhere are dealing with. I will attach another Q&A that I just wrote along the same lines (Gate Gravity), which may help you with your issues of control.

Without fail, the biggest mistakes I see people make when having control issues with a horse is two things that come instinctively to the rider but are the worst things you could do for the horse and only exacerbates the problem.

The mistakes are:
1. Pulling back with both reins at the same time,
2. Turning the horse in the direction he wants to go and then circling him back.

When the rider feels like she is losing control of the horse, she instinctively pulls back with both reins, sometimes with a turning motion. When the horse feels that much pressure on his mouth, he locks up, leans into the bit and generally does the opposite of what you want– if you want him to slow down, he speeds up, if you want him to turn right, he turns left. It is known as “running through the bridle” or “running through the shoulder” and are common responses of the horse when he feels steady and unrelenting pressure on both sides of his mouth at the same time. This horse becomes very defensive of his mouth and sticks his nose out and begins to feel to the rider like he has a steel pipe down the middle of his neck.

Sadly, this horse is often labeled “hard mouthed,” like it is his fault. In my opinion there is no such thing as a hard mouthed horse and I have never yet found a horse that could not be rehabilitated to become a very light and responsive horse, and we get a lot of these horses in training. Also, I have seen many school horses learn that all they need to do is get the rider riled up emotionally so she freezes up with both reins and then the horse knows he can have his way with the rider and go where he wants. When you lock up into a tug o’ war with the horse, he will always win because it becomes a pound-for-pound race.

Always try to use your reins one at a time and in rhythm with the horse, in a pulsating or dynamic fashion, not a static white-knuckle pull; always be quick to offer the release. Learn to ride through problems, not lock up on the reins. Your horse mirrors your emotions so when you feel frustrated, you horse is feeling the same thing. Try to keep your emotions in check. Some horses learn that all they have to do is challenge you a little so that you get emotional and lock up and then they know they can do anything they want.

When turning right, first slide your hand down the right rein, then slowly pick up on the rein toward your chest, releasing with the opposite rein. The slower you move your hands, the softer the horse will become. The outside rein should be totally slack– do not try to turn with that rein too, because as soon as you start pulling with both reins, the horse stiffens and you lock up. Keep the horse moving forward in the turn by reaching forward with your hands and closing both your legs on the horse’s barrel in a pulsating fashion. Don’t pull BACK on the rein to turn, that will interfere with his forward motion; gently lift the rein up or to the side.

The second problem is that when the horse becomes nappy and will not turn in the direction you are asking, most riders will give up before the horse does and turn the horse the other way, planning to circle back around to that spot you wanted to go to begin with. Although it often works long enough for you to get the horse positioned where you wanted him to begin with, you have just trained your horse to be disobedient by letting him turn the way he wanted to go and he most certainly will do it again. In the horse’s mind, he only knows he got to turn the way he wanted; he will not make the association of having to go back to where you wanted because too much time has elapsed in his brain. He was rewarded for refusing the rider.

The other problem you mention is with confidence on your part, which exacerbates the control problems that you have with your horse. This is a huge issue and I guarantee there are thousands of people out there that know exactly how you feel. There is an article on my website on dealing with fear that should be helpful for anyone. There is also a book coming out soon called “Ride with Confidence!” in which I am one of five contributing authors. The book is being published in England and should be out this fall and I think it is going to be a good one. I’ll be sure to publish it in my newsletter when the book is available.

One of the most important components when dealing with fear is to surround yourself with understanding, empathetic and supportive people that can help you reach your goals. Also, you should pick the company that you ride with carefully. If you do, you’ll gain confidence more quickly, with more good experiences. I hope you can find a riding instructor or friend to help you work through this control problem. Read through all my Q&As because you’ll probably find other issues that relate to the problems you are having. Don’t worry, you’ll get there, just be persistent.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: Fear Of Being Thrown

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Question: Ms. Goodnight,

I recently read your article regarding fear of horses. I have a unique problem:

Recently I was involved in tryouts for a Horse Patrol position in my sector. I work on the U.S. Mexican border. We have excellent instructors. I was in the round pen and I was thrown off and I broke a few ribs. I didn’t know I had broken anything at the time. I got right back on and continued my training. Later that day I rode again and two days later I rode for about five hours. My instructor knew I was a little shook up so he gave me a very well trained horse to ride in the arena. I failed miserably. I’m normally very comfortable on horseback and through the walk, trot and canter. I became really nervous around other riders. I was really worried about my horse getting spooked. We were all beginners at this time. The fear got so bad I had to drop out. I can honestly say it was the most disappointing time in my career. There may be a chance to rejoin the group. I need to get over this fear because I doubt I will be given another chance if I fail this time. The failure was due to my fear not my skills. Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks for your time,
Mark

Answer: Mark,

Thanks for your question and although you are unique in many ways, I think there are lots of people that can relate to what you are going through. You are experiencing many different types of fear: post-traumatic, general anxiety and performance anxiety. That’s a lot to try and cope with.
I have had the opportunity to work with many mounted police officers, some of whom came to the mounted unit with little or no previous riding experience. Most people cannot relate to riding being a part of your career (adds another level of pressure) nor can they relate to the fact that your riding ability is paramount in your ability to perform your job well and in some cases, may save your life. These factors require that you are focused, calm and balanced and there are many things you can do to control the emotion of fear and achieve this ideal performance state.

There are articles and Q&As on my website that pertain to coping with fear on the horse and I also have a book and a motivational audio CD on the subject. They will help you understand the emotion, its causes and affects. My writings and recordings on this subject stem from the many clinics I have done to help people manage their fear of horses and it has helped many people cope with the emotion effectively, so I encourage you to check it out. In particular, you will learn through the articles, book, and audio some specific exercises you can do to control the emotion instead of the emotion controlling you. Specifically, learn to keep your eyes focused and engaged, looking around your environment and taking in information (think about the job you will be doing); learn to control your breathing, using deep abdominal breathing that will help you learn to control your heart rate (you have to practice this off the horse); learn to control your body language and look confident even when you don’t feel that way (an important principle for all law enforcement personnel); and finally, learn mind control tricks that will help you stay focused on the positive outcome. Because your mental being, your physical being and your emotional being are interrelated (mind-body-spirit connection), if you can control the physical and mental, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.

You need to take some lessons and ride to build your confidence up before you participate in the try-outs again. You have put yourself under a lot of pressure, especially since this is related to your career. The more pressure that is on you, the more your performance anxiety will rear its ugly head. Get some good riding practice time, with a horse and/or instructor that is confidence inspiring to you, so that your skill comes back. Once you are feeling pretty good about riding again, it is time to tackle the try-outs.

Not too long ago, I got a letter very similar to yours from a man that was 81 years old, in the Calvary in WWII and a rancher all his life and after a recent buck-off and broken ribs, he was fearful about riding for the first time in his life. But by working on it, he was able to overcome his fear of getting back on the same horse that bucked him off. Please read my articles and if you employ the ideas therein, you will have great success. I know many people who have.

Finally, you have an important purpose that you clearly feel strongly about. Purpose leads to courage. If you have the riding skill and your purpose is clearly defined, you will find the courage you need to succeed in the try-outs. You can do this, but it may take time and will definitely take some effort on your part. I wish you the best of luck and I am sure with your commitment, you’ll make the mounted unit.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Rearing Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight

I am writing to you in regards to my horse’s problem with rearing, as someone that is experienced in horse behaviour I can not find the cause that is triggering the behaviour, it’s like one minute is his normal self which a good natured, relaxed and laid back and the next minute he is running backwards then twisting himself inside out finishing with a rear that the black stallion would be proud of and then he is back to his normal self as though nothing has happened. I can’t work it out there is nothing the rider has done there is nothing in his environment that upsets him and there is nothing physically wrong. I have no reasons to explain his behaviour if I had I would be able to solve the issue. The only thing left is a neurological disorder or he is trying to tell us something but I just don’t get it. Do you have any advise? I am at a total loss!

Leonora

Answer: Leonora,

The behavior you describe sounds pretty volatile and dangerous, so first I would caution you to be careful about your own personal safety and to consider getting a professional evaluation of this horse. Since you do not give much history on this horse or his training and experience, and since I cannot actually see the horse in action, I really cannot say what might be causing this reaction or what the solution might be, but I can give you some things to consider.

First, I think it is important to rule out a physical problem. It is quite possible that your horse could have a problem in his back, ribs or hips that causes him sudden pain after moving a certain way. I would have this horse checked out by an equine chiropractic or vet that specializes in performance horse problems. Once you have ruled out a physical cause, you’ll have to look to the horse’s training.

Rearing is a behavior caused by one of two things: either a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Regardless of the cause, the solution is always to get the horse moving forward. Most often, rearing behavior is a fear response. From the description you give, it sounds to me like this horse is refusing to move forward. Horses don’t do anything without a reason, particularly when it comes to moving. Are there any common factors when the behavior occurs? Place, time, weather, tack, other horses? Does it happen every time you ride or only occasionally? Does he ever display this kind of behavior from the ground? If he doesn’t, I would want to check his saddle fit carefully to see if there could be some physical cause. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of awareness, the keen senses and the hyper-vigilant state that horses live in as prey animals. Their sight, hearing, smelling and instinctive survival is so much keener than ours that we are often tempted to say that the horse is acting a certain way for no reason. The truth is that they may be sensing something we are totally oblivious to. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. I am inclined to think that this horse has something physical going on or that there is something in his environment or in his experience that is frightening him. I would have him checked out by an equine chiropractor (ask your vet for a referral) and have the saddle fit checked by an expert. Once you have definitively ruled out a physical problem, I would look to the horse’s training history. Has he always been this way or is this something new? Was he given a proper foundation in his training or was he just rushed along by someone that didn’t really know how to put a proper foundation on a horse? Has there been an incident in his experience that may have caused him to get hurt or loose his confidence? Is there something in his environment that could be causing a fear response, such as another animal or object or something he has made an inadvertent association with? When we get horses like this in training, first we will definitively rule out a physical problem, then start the horse over from scratch in his training as if he had never been saddled or ridden. We would do both round pen and lead line work with the horse and take note of any “holes” in his training. We will proceed with saddle training once the horse is solid in his ground work, again taking it one step at a time and taking time whenever necessary to lay a proper foundation on the horse.

You would be surprised how often horses just have a saddle thrown on their back and someone hops up there and starts riding without ever really teaching the horse what is expected of him. Modern horses, for the most part, are so willing and kind that they will let you do just about anything that you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. They will gladly go along with you and will try to figure what you want them to do. But when the horse is not systematically taught to respond in a certain way to various cues and if he is not given the time and consistency needed to truly absorb the training and generalize it to different places and situations, his training can unravel in an instant. I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. I know from my years of working with horses and riders that sometimes what the rider describes is not at all what I would see, if I were able to watch. But hopefully this will give you some food for thought. Be careful with this horse.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Saddle: Nervous To Go On Trail

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there is a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary. Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you, Carol

Answer: Carol,
As always, it is difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 As a third party observer in person, I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you.

Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.

When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to the horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to the horse.

Your horse gains courage on the ground because you are there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you are on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you are on the ground YOU are more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion). Conversely, when you are on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness.

It is amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not.

We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla and me (Twyla has trained horses with me for many years and is now my Business Manager), he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does. However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.

Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.

It is physiologically impossible for the horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once the horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you are describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting the horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse.

Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.

When your horse feels spooky to you, put him t work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you from worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you are replacing the unwanted behavior with something else.

Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&As on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with the horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Nervous Horse On Trail

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there is a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary. Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you,
Carol

Answer: Carol,

As always, it is difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 As a third party observer in person, I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you.

Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.

When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to the horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to the horse.

Your horse gains courage on the ground because you are there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you are on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you are on the ground YOU are more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion). Conversely, when you are on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness.

It is amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not.

We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does. However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.

Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.

It is physiologically impossible for the horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once the horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you are describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting the horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse.

Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.

When your horse feels spooky to you, put him to work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you from worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you are replacing the unwanted behavior with something else.

Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&As on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with the horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Fear Of Riding And Inappropriate Horses

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie,

I first saw you in 2005 at the Louisville Equine Affaire. You were awesome, and you were so right about fear management, your seminars are packed yet nobody ever talks about the issue of fear!! Here’s my situation – I am somewhat of a nervous, timid rider. Every time, and I can’t tell you how sincerely I mean this, EVERY TIME I get on the horse, it is an accomplishment for me. That is how I view it.

I bought a well-trained, well broke paint horse 4 years ago, when he was 15 years old. He’s a real cutie, but boy does he have my number. I regularly work with trainers to help me be the leader for my horse, because I know that this is not my strong point. Here’s what happened – I hopped on today and went outside to the outdoor arena to putz around before picking up a trot. Before I knew what was happening my horse rolled – I rolled out of the way and was not hurt, but boy did it scare me. Is this common? I was having trouble getting him to stand still while I was mounting – was the rolling his way of telling me he didn’t want me to ride him?

Here are the emotions I am feeling – fear, anger, hurt feelings (yes, believe it or not I am trying not to take this personally, but I can’t help wondering whether he did this because he didn’t want to be ridden). I have had trouble with him lately in the cross tie putting his ears back when I approach with the saddle. He does not try to nip but gets a sour puss face and wrinkles his nose. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to get him to stand still when I mount. I do give him treats before I ride, but only in his bucket in his stall. Thank you for any help you can give me. I don’t want this to happen again. It’s never happened before. Is this a behavior problem?

Christine

Answer: Christine,
I commend you for your courage and also for getting a mature, well-trained horse to help you gain confidence. Far too often, people that are dealing with fear issues are also riding totally inappropriate horses: too young, too green, ill-tempered or with other training issues. The horse is a very important part of building your confidence.

It sounds like your horse is a pretty good guy and the issues you describe are minor. All horses, no matter how wonderful they are, need leadership, guidance and discipline from their owner or rider. They need you to be a leader and they are very adept at discerning your leadership skills. There is never a void of leadership in the herd and at any time that you fail to show your self as the competent captain of the ship, the seeds of mutiny are planted. When you are dealing with a fear issue, it is easy for the horse to pick up on your uncertainty and therefore hard for him to view you as the leader.

The best way to maintain your authority over the horse is through ground work, where you control his actions and move him out of your space, and by being aware of your actions and the horse’s reactions at all times, from the ground and from the saddle. We often allow small erosions to our authority over the horse with little things like not correcting him when he moves into you, letting him walk off without a cue when you mount, letting him cut the corners of the arena or slow down or speed up, unauthorized by you. You must be thorough and always follow thorough on what you have asked your horse to do, no matter how small a thing it is.

As for the rolling, this is not uncommon and usually not too big a deal. The horse is not rolling because he doesn’t want you to ride him, although that can become a learned behavior (if your horse rolls and then you put him away and don’t get back on). It is not too big a deal because when the horse goes down, he goes down slowly, giving you plenty of time to slip your feet out of the stirrups, stand up and step off. Usually what makes a horse roll is an itchy back, sweating, after a light rain shower or when he comes upon a particularly choice rolling spot that is irresistible. Most horses will try it at some time or another and when they do, they should be spanked, kicked and yelled at until you get them moving. Then you might want to trot a little, so he associates his actions with having to work harder. A horse will usually give you warning that he is abut to roll by pawing or gathering his legs up underneath him; when you feel him do this, get after him right away and move him off.

Your horse pinning his ears when you saddle is also not too big a deal, as long as he doesn’t gesture like he is going to bite you or break some other rule like moving when you told him to stand still. If he does break a rule, correct him. If he is just expressing his emotion (ears back and wrinkled nose), ignore it. You can’t punish him for having an emotion. Of course, you want to make sure your saddle fits him well and that he is not anxious over being saddled because of pain or a sore back.

The horse not standing still for mounting is more of a problem and it indicates that your horse is willfully disobedient and does not respect your authority. You need to work through this issue from the ground, by going back to lead line work and getting control over your horse’s feet. He needs to know that you mean what you say when you ask him to stand still. This is covered in detail in my groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership and there are some Q&As on my website about retraining a horse to stand for mounting.

The fact that you are taking your horse’s behaviors personally and having your feelings hurt is more of a concern to me. I think you know that you are being very anthropomorphic (instilling human characteristics in an animal) and that is dangerous territory with horses. He is a horse and he is acting like a horse; he is not trying to get back at you or hurt your feelings. By taking things personally, you are not able to be an effective leader and you are not controlling your own emotions. Horses are very emotional animals and they will mirror the emotions of the animals around them, so it is imperative that you remain cool, calm and objective. Don’t ever get sucked into a horse’s emotion and don’t give the horse more credit than he deserves. He is just a horse, not a human, and he doesn’t have the complicated mixed emotions that come with human relationships.

You have come a long way and you can become the leader that your horse needs you to be. Review the article on my website about coping with a fear of horses again as a reminder of how to control your emotions. Continue your work with trainers and keep investing lots of time doing ground work. With persistence, you can work through these issues and your horse will give it up.

Good luck!

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.