Our 14 stress-busting solutions will keep you calm when your horse panics or spooks, leaving you free to help him cope.
When your horse goes into panic mode, it can be difficult to keep your own anxiety under control. As we all know, the unexpected will sometimes happen especially out on hacks and your ability to stay in control and help him do the right thing when stress takes over will strengthen your partnership and make your time together safe and enjoyable.
Read on to learn simple techniques to keeping calm and managing your horse’s fear and gives you some quick solutions to help you contain spooky behaviour before it escalates into a deeper-rooted problem.
Dealing with the unexpected
You’re out hacking when your horse is startled by a bag flapping in a hedgerow. In a split-second his eyes are on stalks, his body is rigid and his heart’s pounding in his chest. What can you do when stress appears out of the blue?
The Stress Busters
1. Learn from the event
If something jumps out of the hedge and frightens your horse, things tend to happen far too quickly for you to be prepared. He may suddenly leap in the air and to one side, or spin round. You’ll probably have a fright, but it’s when you’re back at home that the fear can set in. Anxiety can quickly build when we dwell on what went wrong and we then become nervous the same thing will happen again.
In cases like this, it can be helpful to review what happened. You, as the rider, will usually have contributed in some way to the incident. Perhaps you were daydreaming at the time, with slack reins, or too busy chatting to a friend to make sure your horse was on the bit and listening? Run through the sequence of events and ask yourself what you’d change to make it better next time.
Once you’ve taken what’s useful from this process, be strict with yourself and don’t think about the event again. Whenever you find yourself doing so, think of something else. It might seem strange at first to control your thoughts in this way, but, with practice, you’ll find it really does work.
2. Squash unwanted thoughts
This technique is quick and simple think of a method to annihilate unwanted thoughts from your mind, such as putting them in a car crusher, and recall that image every time the same negative thought arises.
3. Embrace flower power!
I always recommend Bach flower remedies as a way to stop a spiral of negative thinking. Some people can’t let things go, the anxiety becomes more and more powerful until it turns into a real stumbling block that’s difficult to get over.
If you find your thoughts going round and round in your head, the perfect remedy to dispel them is White Chestnut which can help you think straight. By using all these techniques, you can prevent a simple set-back becoming an impediment to your riding enjoyment.
4. Look to the future
If, when out hacking again, you feel your horse starting to spook, don’t stare at the scary object yourself; instead, look where you want to go. Directing your gaze is powerful look as far, and even further, than you want to ride. Rather than staring at a point just a few metres in front of you, imagine riding right over the horizon. This will put all your energy into going forwards.
5. Control his head position
If you’re a nervous rider or your horse is particularly spooky, teaching him to lower his head on command is a useful technique. Use leg-yield or shoulder-in to bend him, but try to keep him moving forwards in the direction you want to go.
These are unlikely to be school-perfect moments as your horse may well be stiff and tense but that’s ok. The object of the exercise is to help switch off his stress hormones and stop him setting himself against you.
Keeping him calm and grounded
This time, your horse knows about the monster around the corner because it’s there every time you hack out. Whether it’s a pen full of pigs or a noisy dog that jumps up at the gate every time you pass, it’s enough to make him stiffen and resist as he draws near. How can you guide your horse if he anticipates fear?
6. Be his leader
In spooky situations, ask yourself ‘How can I help my horse?’. The horse-rider relationship should be a partnership and, if one of you abandons the situation, the partnership becomes unstable. By failing to help him manage his fears, you’re effectively leaving him to cope on his own.
When your horse is afraid, you can either follow him and become afraid yourself, or be calm and grounded; either way it will transfer to your horse. Horses are extraordinarily intuitive. I’m convinced that we communicate with them not just through our body language but with our thoughts and energy fields. The process is far more subtle and mum-layered than purely physical.
7. Breathe deep
If you anticipate a spooky situation, breathing techniques can calm you and your horse. Breathe in through your nose before taking twice as long to breathe out through your mouth. Practise this at home so that it becomes easy to implement in a stressful situation. Count three on the in-breath and six on the out to achieve a calming flow.
8. Stick to your saddle
The next technique is to relax your stomach and abdominal muscles, but only for a brief time as your lower abdominals need to support your back. Imagine you’re full of something heavy, like sand or treacle, that’s flowing down through your body and out through the soles of your feet. This sticks you better to the saddle.
9. Make a movie
When you know that you’ll be encountering a difficult situation, Visualisation techniques can help. Run a little film in your head of riding past the obstacle with no problems. Visualise everything going exactly to plan, then rehearse this film mentally for a few minutes each day. With practice, you’ll learn to keeps things calm enough that your horse won’t resort to instinctive behaviour, whip round and run off. If he gets tense, again, roll VT!
Preparing your horse for tough times
Changes are ahead, or perhaps treatments or procedures that you know may leave your horse scared or unsettled. What can you do to prepare him for difficult times, or lessen his fears if he’s not coping well?
The Stress Busters
10. Be his rock
Perhaps your horse has had to leave his friends to move to another yard and must fit into a new herd. What’s important is how you are around him which means keeping calm and grounded. Combine your breathing techniques with imagining yourself filled with something heavy (on the ground and in the saddle) to reassure your horse there’s nothing to be fearful of. Your state of mind will affect his, so be aware of the signals you send him if you feel yourself being sucked into his anxious state, step away, calm yourself then return to him.
11. Cope with change
Giving the Walnut Bach flower remedy to your horse to help him cope with change. The same applies if he’s worried by treatment from the vet or farrier, or over-anxious about something such as being clipped.
12. Fight fear of the known
The flower remedy Mimulus will help him cope with a fear of known things, especially if he anticipates discomfort.
13. Terror buster
Rock Rose is useful if your horse is really frightened, as it helps calm a state of terror. Sometimes scary things happen, so it’s important to have something handy like this to help him.
14. Repeat, repeat, repeat
As a general rule, if something works, keep doing it. Identify the element you changed and use that instead of reverting to old ways. Being able to stay calm and keep things in perspective is the key to giving your horse the confidence he needs to cope.