Dealing With a Nervous Horse: What You Can Do To Fix It

Dealing with a nervous horse and can't seem to find a solution? Keep on reading.

World known trainer  Doug Mills shades some light on the situation and offers expert advice on how to deal with a scared and anxious horse.

1. Understanding The Root Cause

With all the different programs out there we almost need a translator for the different terminology’s. My view of a nervous horse is a sensitive horse. Arabians and Thoroughbreds generally fall into this category. But because of good breeding programs you can find sensitive horses in any breed. 

Some people get along with sensitive horses while others don’t. I find leadership is what’s lacking and communication is the key.

 Pressure Without Clarity Is a Recipe For Disaster

A sensitive horse cannot handle unclear pressure. I find most of the time horses are nervous from a lack of understanding. The rider is trying to control the horse and the lack of understanding causes anxiety.

People use pressure to control the horse and too much pressure without clarity causes nervousness  in a horse. Sometimes people will jerk on the halter shank to try to get the horse to stand still, which is another form of misunderstood pressure and causes extreme anxiety.


Pecking Order Instinct

Horses will also become nervous and anxious if they are exposed to a group of strange horses that they are not able to interact with. It’s natural when horses first see one another to establish the pecking order. That is the first thing that happens in nature. Horse will always be uneasy until he finds his place in the pecking order. He needs to know who the leader is!

The pecking order is established through movement. The horse that is able to cause all the other horses to yield from a suggestion of an ear pin is clearly the leader. When in a situation where there are other strange horses and the handler is trying to contain the horse or make him stand still,  it’s like pouring gas on a fire. Instead you need to move or threaten to move your horses feet. If you’re having trouble or your horses arguing with you, there lies the problem. If it’s not a nervous horse problem it’s a leadership problem.

Remember just making him move is not leadership. Having him move from a suggestion is where the respect comes from. Then clear patterns of understanding is were you and your horse get to know each other. When you see horses that have been in a heard for a week or more, very seldom will you ever see any kicking or biting. I call that harmony in the herd. The leader has been established and the conversations are kept at an ear pin or suggestion level. 

In a fearful situation a nervous horse needs a confident leader for them to lean on. Leadership is not showing them who’s boss. Leadership is knowing what to do, when, for how long and when to restart or quit.

The result of knowing these things is good horsemanship, harmony, connection, relationship, willing partnership or as we call it (leadership). You can call it what you want but the result are the same. 

 "Clear Communication! I am living proof that Horsemanship is a journey. A never ending learning, progressing and rewarding journey!"


Curious about most common Horse Training Mistakes? Click here to read more.

2. Practice

Once you have the knowledge of the above, it is going to take some time to master it, which is ultimately learning how to speak horse clearly. Our communication ability will be decided by how soft, smooth and precise we can be with our hands and legs.

Communicating with horses is like learning a delicate dance, the softer you can start your build of pressure, and the slower you can build, the better you can time your release to the exact moment your horse decides to do what your asking, not the second after he moves his foot.

The more we practice and slow down our communication, the more we  get to know our horse, understand it and truly have a conversation with your it, giving them what they need, which is you to be as their herd leader, it’s a beautiful thing! 


3. Leadership = Success

Once you start practicing you're going to see results - as soon as you get clear and consistent with your pressure and patterns. For all you perfectionist out there, it’s OK to suck in the beginning. You don’t need perfection to get results. 

You will start being consistent with how you ask, and slow enough for your horse to follow. You will work in a clear pattern that makes it easy to read your horse and for your horse to review.



Want to learn more about Doug Mills and his Training Thru Trust method? Click here.

There are seven steps to having a conversation with a horse. The beauty of it is that we use those seven steps for every thing we teach. Imagine learning a language when there was only seven steps to the entire language. 

  1. Preparatory command. It’s very important that you always give your horse a preparatory command. It’s the command that says get ready, I’m going to ask you something. Especially important for nervous or sensitive horses. It also helps the rider slow down and organize his thoughts regarding what he's asking.
  2. Pressure angle. You need to be consistent with your angle of pressure since each angle teaches something different.
  3. Careful with pressure. Your pressure needs to be slow enough to give a horse choices to do all the wrong things before he does the right thing. The amount of pressure you deliver also becomes the amount of speed your horse gives in each command. The lack of understanding is why a lot of nervous horses will not stand still in the first place.
  4. Execute taps. You will need to learn how to execute taps. Taps are how we establish and maintain respect of soft and light pressure. 
  5. Time release. The release is how we pinpoint the precise movement of a body part. This will be a specific body parts in a specific direction at a determined speed. 
  6. Restart. The restart is how we carry on a conversation until we get acceptance to a command. The release teaches what we want, the restart of that same command teaches what we don’t want. For example if a horse is moving his feet and we don’t want him to. We need to move his feet slowly until we feel him want to stop. Then release and allow him to stop but the second he starts to move his feet we need to control what direction and speed he moves his feet. Until he no longer moves his feet without being asked. 
  7. Work in patterns. You need to know the pattern that you were going to work in with each individual exercise before you start. Patterns are the key to reading your horse. It’s how we ask questions to see how they think and what frame of mind they are in. You may have heard it as the preflight checklist. If you take control of what direction, and how fast your horse moves his feet every time he wants to move his feet, he will eventually wait for you to move his feet.  I am constantly progressing in my understanding of how smart horses are strictly through patterns.                             


Final Thoughts

Hopefully you will now be able to understand your horse better and work on our 3 steps towards eliminating your horses' anxiety.  We owe it to ourselves and to them to them to learn to communicate the best way we can, for a safe and fun relationship, where there the sky is the limit!


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