Overcoming Nerves in Horse and Rider

Chrissie Turner By Chrissie Turner, 18th Apr 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Pets>Horses

A look at how tension around horses can cause issues and tips on how to solve the problem.

Our relationship with horses

In all our dealings with horses we must always be aware of the basic instincts which, despite thousands of years of domestication, are still lying just below the surface of even the most placid, well schooled horse.

When we associate with horses, the first thing to keep in mind is the fact that they are gregarious. They are used to living in herds and to be constantly seeking solace and leadership from other herd members. They also look to each other for guidance, warnings, protection …. If we wish to improve our understanding of horses – be it our own or horses in general, the most valuable time we spend will be simply used by observing the horse – it's behaviour both as an individual and within a group.

We humans are constantly asking the horse to step outside it's comfort zone – and require it to do so willingly! It is not natural for a horse to be alone, to tolerate a wide variety of positive and negative stimuli without reacting, to tolerate a creature which, in the wild, would be it's enemy... Because, after all, that what we would be in a totally natural environment – we would be hunters, whilst the horse would be prey. The horse's most valuable asset, when it comes to survival, is the ability to go from stationary to a flat out gallop in a few strides – and to sustain it's speed for some distance – the primary instinct of flight response.

So, when Man began utilising the horse's strength and speed for his own ends, the first obstacle to be overcome was to alter the hunter / prey status and to dampen the Fear /Flight response which is the most basic of the horse's instincts. To do this, Man has to become – in the horse's eyes – a member of the horse's 'herd' …. preferably one who can become a trusted leader. Yet there are many instances where the rider / handler desires the horse to be the one who bears the bulk of the trust in this relationship. A prime example of this latter scenario being the riding school horse.

When we are around horses – riding, driving, leading in hand – the horse will look to us for leadership, to warn against danger, for protection. It is this aspect of the relationship which is the main cause of issues when the rider is – or becomes – nervous.

Watch closely a group of horses grazing calmly in a field. If something unusual occurs, one of the group will become alert, focusing all it's senses on the source of interest. The ears will be pricked, the nostrils flared and the horse will be tense – poised to take action should the source of alarm prove hostile. When this happens, others in the group will follow suit – all ready to take flight if needed. If the sentinel feels there is no threat, eventually it will relax and resume grazing.... The rest of the group will soon follow suit. However, if the threat is perceived to be real, then the flight response will kick in and the whole group will bunch together and gallop away.

The key word in the previous paragraph is the word 'tense'. The fear triggered by the potential threat has caused the horse to become tense and poised for flight - the initial fear being instigated by the horse's inbuilt, instinctive nervousness as a prey animal trying to survive.

Tension & Fear going hand on hand...

When we are riding we become a herd member – it therefore follows that, if we are tense, the horse will interpret this as our having perceived a potential threat – the horse cannot use logic to work out that it is the horse itself which is making the rider nervous and causing the tension! Therefore, when the rider is tense the horse will begin to try and see what is causing the tension. Of course, the horse will not be able to see anything... so it will begin to look for a potential threat – and will begin to exhibit signs of tension and nervousness itself. This creates a vicious circle... The rider is tense and so the horse becomes tense and agitated – the rider becomes even more tense, waiting for the horse to do something ... This then creates MORE agitation in the horse – it can sense the fear and feels there is a potential threat but can't see anything! Rider begins to panic.... horse begins to panic.... etc....

There are three possible conclusions to the above scenario:

1. Horse gives in to instinct and the fear / flight response is triggered...
2. Rider forces themselves to relax and the horse calms down.
3. Rider dismounts and 'calls it a day'.

Option above is, obviously, both frightening and dangerous. Allowing the situation to deteriorate to the point where the 'fear / flight' response is triggered is to be avoided at all costs! A horse galloping blindly from an unknown fear is terrifying in the least! Even if the horse doesn't bolt, it is likely to react violently to the fear as adrenalin kicks in. Additionally , remember that, in the wild state, something on a horse's back is most likely to be a lion or similar predator which must be fought off! So the horse's reaction – if flight isn't an option – is to rear, buck or even throw itself down on the ground in an attempt to save itself!

Where at all possible, we must strive to follow option . Deep breathing helps.... relaxing the contact on the reins.... A tense rider often over-tightens the reins – which will increase the tension and the fear response in the horse - tense hands cause discomfort as well as tension. Tense hands can cause a horse to begin to fight against the rein, to pull, to throw it's head up - even to rear up! Relax the hand then begin to concentrate on relaxing each part of the body – even 'slump' in the saddle ... If necessary, get someone to walk beside the horse – even leading it if needed – until everything calms down again. Talking to the horse helps – anything would do... Even reciting nursery rhymes... This has the added advantage of taking the rider's mind off the horse's tension... It all helps to break the cycle...

Option is the 'last resort'. If this is the only option however, we must try NOT to simply 'call it a day'. If the rider cannot relax, they should try to quietly dismount before the situation escalates out of control but they should then try to avoid simply putting the horse away... Try to do something else – lunging for example... or a more confident rider takes over.... Take the horse for a walk 'in-hand' etc. Otherwise the most recent experience for the horse will be the fear – and it will make for a more negative response next time! Always try to 'end on a good note'.

So what about the horse which is tense and nervous to start with? There are countless causes for a horse to become agitated.... And often it is hard to remove the cause – or even to define it! Think back to herd behaviour.... Have you ever watched horses 'grooming' each other? Grooming is a great way of building a relationship with the horse – even scratching around the withers and neck will help the horse relax.... Stroking works too.... Long, firm strokes along the length of the neck and crest can soothe a horse. If the horse is okay with it's ears being touched, try cupping your hand around the base of the ear and gently stroking upwards towards the tip... Use both hands and a lot of horses will actually start to doze off! Quietly talking … utter nonsense if necessary …. in a soft tone of voice can sooth a frightened horse...

The keyword with horses is to try to remain calm and relaxed – difficult in stressful situations but we need to train ourselves to be a calm leader.... Always keep in mind that even the calmest of horses will still have it's most basic wild instincts deep within it's psyche... Our task it to ensure the horse never feels the need to give in to that instinct....

For every action, there must be a reaction.... It is up to us to try to keep the cycle positive.


Equestrian, Equestrianism, Horse, Horse Care, Horse Riding, Horse Trainer, Horseback, Horseback Rider, Horseback Riding, Horsemanship, Horses

Meet the author

author avatar Chrissie Turner
I am an experienced horse trainer / instructor. I have been involved in all aspects of horse care and horsemanship for 45 years.

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author avatar LoriAnne Hancock
19th Apr 2014 (#)

Thank you so much for writing and submitting this. I've mostly had a relationship with my horse on the ground because of just what you are saying. Would Love to be able to soar like the wind as a rider, but my body can't remember how to settle in and feel comfortable. Otherwise, I've got the perfect horse, and have had her since she was six months old. Lizzie McGee is 12 now and very very strong. Sometimes I doubt that she respects me on the ground...turns her butt to me sometimes and just waits for me to rub it, which I do. Thanks Again.

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author avatar WOGIAM
22nd Apr 2014 (#)

My daughter loves animals especially horses and dogs, while I keep my distance from them, thnaks for sharing this article, it has gievn me some courage to follow her to her riding lessons now. I may just be able to stand close to a horse on saturday.

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author avatar AjaySinghChauhan
26th Oct 2014 (#)

good post very useful and informative. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

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