My 5 yo Hano gelding is in his first six months of showing. His performance on course and under saddle is right on track for his level of training. But he is literally, a ball of nerves. My questions is, "how can I get get him to relax?" In the flat classes, he looks all tensed up. Over fences, his canter is more of the up and down variety, which makes the distances hard. I realize mine is the age old question for hunters, but really, what's a rider to do when a horse's body is tired, but his brain is anxious. This horse already gets Gastroguard at every show. He is hand walked,and lunged gently but not to the point of exhaustion.(I just can't do that hour plus on the line thing.) I know miles will take care of some of his anxiety, but until then? Thoughts? Suggestions? How to quiet the brain?
I have a very hot, quirky, jumper that would get very anxious and excited at shows. It was tough because you couldn't work him down, if you tried he probably would have keeled over! I know you are already hand walking, but I really found that strolling around the show grounds helped a lot. Sometimes after a class I would literally walk around for an hour, standing sometimes to watch people, or chat. I also figured out a warm up schedule that works for him, he get a nice long hack in the morning before his class and then does minimal warm up before the class. I find lots of cookies and pats at the in gate can help as well.
Have you tried hacking him around in the morning at the show grounds? Maybe just wander around the pathways and different warm up rings, let him see it all and be ridden without th epressure that he is going to perform. Or, if that hustle and bustle is simply too much for him, and/or you need to flat a little more, try finding a suitable patch of grass out in a quiet remote corner of the grounds somewhere, to do some nice relaxed work. I have known a few nervous nellies that this type of treatment did wonders for.
Also, as people have said, time and experience will help too. If it's all feasible, I would try to let him tag a long to as many outings as you can, including shows but also schoolings at other properties, trail rides, anything. At some of these, you don't even have to ride him...just walk & graze and generally show him that being in a new place is nothing to worry about. At other outings, go ahead and ride, but again, with the goal of being relaxed, not putting in a perfect performance. It's not totally clear to me from the OP whether you are riding or your trainer, but either way, it could be amping up his nerves. If you are at all nervous about showing, or about how his behavior changes at the show, you could be transmitting it to him. If it's a pro ride for the shows only, then he may be thinking "oh it's that lady, here comes all the crazy scary stuff in my life".
Now all that said, to directly answer the question "can you lunge the brain?" without a doubt my answer is yes. In fact, I like to think that most times I lunge a horse that is my goal in some way-mindless circles drive me crazy. Caveat that I mostly deal in jumpers, so I know the end product is something different and therefore the process, but....when I lunge horses to show it isn't because the riders couldn't handle them fresh off the trailer. It's about setting it up so they are in the best frame of mind to make warm up and showing a smooth, stress free experience. For some this is as simple as letting them trot around in a halter letting them stretch their backs and legs, take a deep breath, and relax. Some do lots of transitions to bring their brains back from outer space. Ones with a sulky attitude will get pushed forward and do sharp upward transitions, in spite of any hissy fits they want to throw about it. It's not about exhausting them, just making sure the brains are where they need to be and hopefully giving the rider some predictability of what they are getting on.
You can go in two opposite directions. Both end in the same place for the horse's brain. You have to commit to one at a time.
1. Try to desensitize him and make no demands on him at the show until he chills. In practice, this looks like lots of hand walking, grazing, camping out on his back, easy hacks. You put him away when he is relaxed.
2. Give him a job and make him concentrate so hard on you and doing it that he finds security in just.doing.what.you.ask. This looks like riding him on the flat with a lot of concentration. You get the trot you want. You do lots of transitions. The hard part about this strategy is committing to it. You can't quit until you get horse that's paying attention. You also need to be 100% focused on that quality ride even if he's not; he has to "make his mind go the same speed as yours," so you have to provide that focus first. When you get that obedient ride, stop, pet him and let him stand there and breathe. He should be praising Allah that the school has ended and know that he did a good job.
Here, you get to the same place as in scenario #1-- he should be pretty relaxed. If you hop off in the schooling ring when you are done and he starts looking around, you can work him in hand a bit. Remind him that he'd best listen to you because there is plenty you can do to fill up his brain. When you get obedience, stop again.
The second scenario is hard to explain because it happens "on the fly" and in response to what the horse is doing. If you have someone who makes very broke horses, have him/her help you interpret yours.
Today we tried the "hang out" program. Hung out at all the rings, by the vendors, concessions, etc. He really watched every scenario very quietly. Did two OF trips late this afternoon, and his stride was HUGE! Almost did the leave out in one, so today, he was really relaxed. Yay!
Who knows about tomorrow. If he sees something new, we may be back to a ball of nerves. For right now, we seem to have a working plan. Loved reading all of your suggestions. Thanks for responding.