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High-Energy "Anxious" Horses

You know these horses.  You can't miss them.  They're the ones with high heads, wide eyes, and busy feet.  Spooking, running off, nervous sweating, and dragging people around by the lead rope seem to come with the package, as well.  They're really sensitive horses who are in a constant state of survival and "flight", and the goal is to calm their fears and give all of that sensitivity and energy a positive focus.  When this horse has a strong, compassionate leader who they trust, they become graceful, fluid, loyal, and highly responsive.

STRATEGY #1

Be consistent and dependable. This horse can only relax when they know what’s coming next and they know what to do about it.  Their prey animal brain is in over-drive, and they are wired to pick up on danger.  Anything new or different is dangerous, and if you want to earn points as this horse's leader, you need to stick to daily routines and introduce training concepts very slowly until they gain more confidence. 

STRATEGY #2

Keep new learning short and simple.  Break new things down into very small pieces, and just train one piece per session.  The way to make progress with this horse is to go slowly, so that you string together small successes, one after another.  That's much faster than doing too much and have to repeat the same training again and again.  ...or even worse, backsliding when they lose confidence.  DO NOT try to teach this horse anything when they're anxious.  You mush help them relax before you can even begin teaching.

STRATEGY #3

Use short simple patterns that repeat frequently to focus & calm them.  Don't try to hold them back and trap them.  Just put them on a pattern until they can manage themselves.  For example, ride a repeating pattern of 5 steps walk, 5 steps trot while bending them to the rail. Or put them on a small figure 8 or serpentine pattern with repeated changes of bend to manage their focus and their feet. 

STRATEGY #4

Respect their thresholds! Win this horse’s trust and confidence by retreating from scary places and things, and then approach them again gradually as many times as it takes. In their mind, a trustworthy leader would NEVER send them into danger.  Prove that you’re watching out for them and that you're paying attention to their needs.

STRATEGY #5

Match their energy. When they’re high energy and unfocused, BE HIGH ENERGY and FOCUS them on a pattern. When they come down and stop their feet, you come down too, and show them how nice it is. Connect with them and reassure them at that point.  

STRATEGY #6

Don’t hold this horse back! Being trapped is their worst nightmare, and you become a major source of their fear when you trap them. Give their energy a direction, and provide structure & boundaries until they can control themselves.  The biggest mistake that you can make when riding this horse is holding them low with both reins.  As the bit crushes their tongue and bars and pokes them in the roof of their mouth, you move to the top of their list of threatening things. Use one rein at a time on patterns that allow a deep lateral bend until they release tension from their ribs, neck, and jaw.

STRATEGY #7

Don’t train on straight lines or in open areas. These things cause this horse’s FLIGHT response to kick in. You can introduce these things in small doses as your horse builds emotional fitness.  As your horse learns to rate their own speed without being held back, you can use a long rein and straight lines as a reward and resting place. 

STRATEGY #8

Don’t rush this horse’s training or make assumptions about what they know. Revisit basic skills often. Repetition & reward builds confidence and relaxation. 

STRATEGY #9

Don’t be too soft or permissive! This horse needs clearly defined boundaries and someone else to call the shots. They are in no condition to make good decisions when
they’re scared & in FLIGHT mode.  Be clear about what you're asking, and be firm and fair in your feedback.

STRATEGY #10

Take on the mindset of being THEIR LIGHTHOUSE IN THE STORM. They need you to have a plan, an UNSHAKABLE FOCUS, and the compassion to redirect them with kindness when they get lost. They need you to understand that their behavior is fear driven, and to not punish them for it. But at the same time, they need you to be strong enough to direct them to safety. You’re saving them by taking control of the situation, giving them something specific and easy to do, and bringing them back to a thinking state and a feeling of SAFETY.  Your job is to bring order to chaos and help their world to be predictable, so that they can move out of survival mode into relaxation.

Happy Training!

University of Equestrian Arts

A "skill-building" approach to horsemanship education that focuses on heart-centered, evidence-based training for horses & riders of all disciplines and all levels. 

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