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The Anxious Horse: 8 Causes and Cures

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  1. Pain – Pain can come from a variety of areas but the two most commonly seen are dental pain and saddle fitting problems. Be sure to have your horse regularly checked by the equine dentist. Poor saddle fitting is probably the biggest cause of dangerous behaviour that I encounter. Your saddle needs to be professionally fitted for your horse and if you have more than one horse, you need to make sure that all the tack fits each horse correctly. Training with pain, which riding in badly fitting saddle, is a complete deal-breaker for your horse and will lead to high levels of anxiety and possibly very dangerous behaviour.

The problem is easily addressed by ensuring that your saddle fits your horse well.


  1. Not Engaged with the Rider – This is all about being the best teacher you can be and engaging the horse with learning. Remember when you were at school and you found those terribly boring teachers, the ones that spoke in a monotone? You weren’t learning in those lessons, you were likely to be daydreaming. Similarly, those scary teachers that shouted and threatened detention, you weren’t learning then either because you were too stressed. But do you also remember those great teachers? The ones that really engaged the students and made learning fun? That’s the teacher you want to be for your horse.

By getting your horse into the Engagement Zone you begin to build that bubble of communication – this is a safe and relaxing place for your horse to learn and engage with you.


  1. Lacking Foundation Training – People often assume that the horse knows the cue for particular movements. For example, “What’s the cue for canter?” The cue is whatever you teach your horse and it will be different, possibly only slightly, for each individual rider. If you’re cueing the horse to perform a movement and the horse has not yet learned your cue, then it will result in an increase in your horse’s anxiety level.

Be sure to teach you own horse the cues you would like to use for each particular movement.


  1. Rider Sending Confusing Signals – Are your signals always the same or do you have one signal/cue that can mean two or more different things? If you’re asking for a particular movement and the horse is not responding correctly, the horse will get increasingly anxious as you continue. I often see people asking for canter with the same verbal cue as they use for trot, clucking. However, this may mean trot faster to the horse, so the horse moves faster (very uncomfortable!).

Choose cues that are easily distinguishable for your horse. In the trot to canter example, a great canter cue is a ‘kiss’ sound if you already have a cluck for trot. I use a single cluck for walk or walk faster, a double for trot or trot faster and a kiss for canter or a kiss for canter faster. I do this from the very beginning, with liberty work and long reining so that when I first come to ride the canter, the horse responds well from the kiss cue and I don’t have to use a lot of leg.


  1. History of Poorly Executed Negative Reinforcement - Negative reinforcement is used extensively in horse training but, sadly, not always used well and this leads to confusion and anxiety in the horse. The off-the-track horses are the classic examples of this and we often see them being led around the racecourse with the handler yanking repeatedly on their mouths for no particular reason. This not only desensitises the horse to bit pressure but it’s also very unpredictable behaviour on the handler’s part. There is no pattern here for the horse to learn and that will make the horse anxious.

The horse learns from the release of pressure so be sure that you don’t hold pressure when you are not asking anything of the horse.


  1. Training Gaps – some horse’s training is like Swiss cheese, littered with holes. I see this frequently when riders are wanting to teach advanced level movements – release a video about teaching flying changes and everyone wants it, but if they haven’t yet got independent control of the hindquarters, it’s impossible to teach flying changes. That’s the gap and that needs to be addressed first. If this is not done first, the horse will start trialling behaviours, none of which will be correct and this will lead to anxiety.

Be sure you’re building on a strong foundation.


  1. Poor General History – Horses that have been abused or rescued fit into this category. Their problems can often seem insurmountable but it’s very important to address these because it’s awful for the horse to be afraid. It’s also very easy to use these past experiences as excuses for not taking the necessary action. However, the time will come when your horse needs this important foundation work.

Don’t let your horse’s past experiences determine its future.


  1. Not Previously Focused on Relaxation – it’s important to get the horse to relax when you are training. An anxious horse is not going to learn the lesson. When you first begin a lesson, your horse is likely to be more emotional for a while as he trials new responses but once the correct response is found you should visibly see the horse relax. The most obvious sign of this will be your horse’s head elevation, it will lower as the horse relaxes.

Focus on relaxation and make sure that the horse is becoming increasingly relaxed as the lesson progresses.