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Calming the Anxious Horse

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  • Calming the Anxious Horse

    I've done a search and can't seem to find much on this, but if you recall a related thread, please point me in that direction!

    I have a 5 year old TB gelding who is pretty green but an absolute pleasure. He's extremely sensitive and responsive, but nearly every time we go to tack up, he becomes quite anxious. Part of his fidgeting is boredom, but most of it is just tension. We usually spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes of a ride just trying to relax and calm down by walking, often with a wide loose reign. A side effect of this is his constantly fighting the bit. I changed to a gentler bit, which really helped him relax and soften into my hands, but we still had to work through the anxiety at the beginning of the ride. After he relaxes, he goes back to being willing and responsive.

    He is very energetic but not high strung. I'm thinking tomorrow we will try lunging a bit to balance him before working under saddle.

    Anyone else have issues with this? How do you help your horse calm and relax? Based on your experience, any thoughts on the possibility of this being a personality trait vs something that can be trained away eventually?

    ETA: I post this here because we're training for eventing. His previous owner says he does pretty well on the trail, but even after a warmup, I tried to simply ride him in an open field- one he is familiar with- and we took an unexpected, tense gallop.

  • #2
    It may depend on the horse but my tensest horses actually did best when I put them to work and really asked them to be on the aids and focus, instead of spending time not asking much of them and trying to get them to relax. If nothing else it's an easy/cheap thing to try.


    • #3
      A few suggestions based on my own experiences with OTTBs:
      -try changing your tack up routine. If he is normally in cross ties, try tacking up in his stall or visa versa. My current guy is actually less pesky in cross ties but my last horse was Mr. Cranky in the ties. Most days I have to ride during my guy's dinner time. I just let him eat while I tack up, so he's happy and distracted. I say make tacking up as quick and painless as possible for both of you. You will get a better start to your ride.

      -not sure how often you are working your horse, but with young energetic TBs, I don't like to let more than two days go by without giving them a workout. I find sticking with a least 4 rides a week with my current guy has made a huge difference. Very few fresh or spooky rides when I ride 4+ days a week.

      -definitely try lunging before you ride if he is full of energy. It will let him get his kicks out and he will feel less tense when you get on to ride. Plus your warm up time will be shorter. If he wants to run or buck a little, let him get it out. I usually lunge my guy if I go more than two days in between rides.

      -try shortening the walking time during your warm up. Going into trot sooner in your warm up may help focus him more quickly since it keeps him mind and body moving better than the walk will.

      The more I work with my guy, the more I recognize his "high energy" and "low energy" days and can adjust for what he needs that day. (He doesn't really have "bad" days ). Best of luck!


      • #4
        Have you had this horse long? Because you mentioned the previous owner, it made me think you may have just gotten him. He may need more time to get comfortable with you and his new environment.
        I have a Fjord! Life With Oden


        • Original Poster

          Thank you for the responses so far! He is very intelligent and seems to get bored easily, so giving him more of a job sooner seems a particularly good suggestion.

          Cindyg, I have owned him about a month now, but I purchased him from my stable owner who has owned him for quite a while. He is a generally relaxed guy; there's just something about tacking up and going under saddle that makes him very tense.

          ETA: He is worked in some capacity about every day. I absolutely agree, Juxtapose- even taking a few days causes a less than smooth ride.


          • #6
            Did the barn owner have this issue with him before? If not, I'd look to your tack or routine and see what is different. Anything feed-wise different? Turnout time? etc...

            I own a horse who is generally a mellow personality but used to suffer from a lot of anxiety during work or new situations. Sadly, all I can say is lots of time and sticking to the basics until it became boorrrriiinnggg was all that cured him. It took a few years but now he is mostly calm in pretty much any situation. Sometimes he gets excited (getting ready to leave start box at XC or on a Hunter Pace) but it's not the same as the anxiety and tension.
            2016 RRP Makeover Competitor www.EnviousBid.com


            • #7
              My gelding was high-strung when I first got him. Lunging just made him uber-fit. When I realized he just had a hard time ever relaxing (he was nippy, etc), I reduced his grain and gave more hay. Worked like a charm.

              Since it sounds pretty constant, I would look at his diet. And chat with the prior owner to see if this is consistent. If not, what changed?
              Born under a rock and owned by beasts!


              • #8
                Try hand-walking him around the arena for a few minutes before mounting. Let him get a good look around and a deep breath before putting your foot in the stirrup. Make sure he's relaxed before you mount. You can even bring him out to the arena saddled but not bridled yet - and let him graze a bit by the ring before getting started. Break the cycle that he's currently in.


                • #9
                  After you walk for a few minutes, trot a fig 8 to check for soundness (that he didn't do anything stupid to hurt himself over night), then try cantering a large circle on a soft rein for about 5 min, until he relaxes. Then reverse, and canter again for about 5 min until he seems to relax. THEN walk for 5 min or so, to let the adrenaline drop. Then go to work with your regular flat routine.'

                  I've found that many times TB's seem to relax easier if they can canter before trotting. Trying to keep trotting when they are a little high, can actually feed into their tenseness.


                  • #10
                    I own this horse, too! Like Ako said, lunging them just makes them more fit. We go to work pretty quickly - it is a good distraction from any scary stuff that is going on, and it takes the edge off. I do lots of trotting - serpentines, figure 8's, circles - forward busy work. It also helps build their confidence, which can be an issue with this kind of horse. I've used Quiessence with a great degree of success, too.


                    • #11
                      Lunging, not to blow off energy, but to get them paying attention & realize it it time to get to work. same with any ground work before mounting. Make horse work so he has other things to think about.

                      Once on, do anything but a straight line around the rail. Circles, leg yields, spirals, square corners, write your name in the arena, transitions, etc etc. They have to pay attention to you b/c they have no idea what is coming next.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Hippolyta View Post
                        Once on, do anything but a straight line around the rail. Circles, leg yields, spirals, square corners, write your name in the arena, transitions, etc etc. They have to pay attention to you b/c they have no idea what is coming next.
                        I think this is key. Keep him busy, and if going in a straight line, circle immediately if/when he gets tense of quick. Keep him busy and guessing.


                        • #13
                          Keep in mind that any amount of tenseness on your part, either in anticipating these behaviors, or a determination to "work this out and stop it" can magnify the behaviors--and TBs are especially sensitive to this. Some of these behaviors, if they are not dangerous at the moment, I might tend to ignore--but not allow them to escalate at the same time. Put the horse in a position for success, no matter how slight it might be.

                          Maybe you just have to live with the tenseness at the beginning for a while, but be sure to analyze what your own body is doing and try your hardest to eliminate any tenseness--hard to do, I'll admit. Reward any inclinations on the horse's part towards acceptable behavior.

                          And remember to breathe.


                          • #14
                            Break it down a bit if you can. Is it standing on crossties that makes him start fidgeting? (most OTTBs have no conception of cross-tying) Is it grooming? (sensitive skin? try towels or the softest brushes only) Standing on concrete? (try a rubber mat) Saddling or girthing? (maybe he has ulcers, or girth him up more slowly, or check saddle fit) Mounting and moving off? (plenty of opportunity here to teach an ex-racehorse to stand politely since they are NOT required to do so at the track)

                            Does he have plenty of turnout and playtime?

                            How does he behave if you groom and tack up but DON'T ride? Different? Better?

                            Do you spend time doing ground work and focusing on good manners: standing quietly, leading politely, moving away from you when asked?

                            Sometimes young horses are just a little fidgety. Does he seem genuinely worried and things escalate, or just a case of (as my mom likes to say) "ants in his pants"?
                            Click here before you buy.


                            • #15
                              I didn't see another reply mentioning tack fit. But for a horse that gets anxious while being tacked up, I would take a very good look at that.

                              This seems obvious (to me!) but I've known many people, most of whom had been equestrians for decades, who didn't know enough about saddle fit to be able to tell if the saddle they were using fit the horse they were riding. So I don't just assume anymore that people are considering tack fit when these issues crop up.

                              It has become kind of a joke on COTH, that someone will always mention tack fit, no matter what question is being posed by the OP! So today I am that person. consider it brought up.


                              • #16
                                Originally posted by Aeternitee View Post
                                It has become kind of a joke on COTH, that someone will always mention tack fit, no matter what question is being posed by the OP! So today I am that person. consider it brought up.
                                Maybe it's lupus.