bay horse trotting

A Tool For Times Your Horse Makes You Nervous

My sixteen year old student did something the other day that I just loved. It was an easy and very effective way of working through the type of resistance from her horse that often makes her nervous. It’s a tool everyone can use anytime they need it.

They had taken a little walk break, and  she was supposed to be getting him back into a trot and onto a circle so we could work on her right lead canter transition, which can be a little sticky. Maybe there was already some hesitation in the back of her mind just knowing what was coming, I’m not sure. Or maybe he thought his walk break signaled the end of the lesson and he felt like he was done. Either way, when she went to gather the reins he pinned his ears and rooted against the end of the rein, so she held quietly and asked him to trot and he threw his head up and chomped his teeth, behaviors he’s used in the past to intimidate her when he doesn’t feel like working.

I watched quietly, which is sometimes hard to do, but we’ve been through this little routine with him enough times now… she should know the drill. He’s been checked for soreness, had his saddle adjusted, tried different bits, etc and this behavior does not appear to have any physical cause, and it often seems to be linked to when she starts to get nervous and give him mixed signals – like leg on to go, but at the same time tight and restraining with her seat and hand.

What usually works for her is to soften, deep breath, and let him go forward, backing up the light aid with a correction if necessary. Usually he does get back to work pretty easily, but sometimes he gets really stuck and then she gets nervous, feeling like he may buck she gets tensed up and stuck herself, which is totally understandable but only makes it worse. Once that cycle starts, it can take a bit of work to unwind both of them. It becomes a classic “behind the leg” problem, except that the horse has the rider convinced that she better not try to fix it!

Today however, as this started to unfold, I saw her do something different than usual.  She sat up, and in a very convincing, commanding tone she said to him, “This isn’t that hard, we can do it!”… and with that, the horse trotted off like a gentleman.

Big bay thoroughbred trotting obediently for his young rider.
A confident horse working for a confident rider.

I couldn’t help but smile, and wonder if she knew what she had just done, and what a fabulous tool she had used.  Of course as a trainer it’s always fun to hear my own words coming out of her mouth, but as she said those words with such conviction, her entire body reflected that confidence and instead of getting tense and tight and grabbing at the reins, she got deep in the saddle, giving with her hands, and put her leg on like she already KNEW it would work. When he felt that confidence in her, he stopped questioning her. He stopped trying to negotiate the idea of getting back to work and just got back to work. He took her leadership as absolute, instead of responding to her as a herd-equal, another of questionable authority he may be able to boss around.

Maybe she actually felt the confidence I heard in her voice, but my guess would be she did not, she tends to be a more nervous rider that has to push herself to stretch her abilities.  Maybe she knew I wouldn’t let her off the hook and end the lesson with him behaving that way, or maybe she just finally got sick of him doing that. Either way, she mustered up the determination, and she showed him the confidence that this WAS going to happen, before she maybe knew for sure it would happen, but by acting as if there was no doubt, she removed the doubt from her horse’s mind. ALL of her verbal and non-verbal communications to him aligned in that moment, and without any mixed signals to confuse him or make him think there was any other option, he simply did exactly what she asked him to without any fuss.

Here’s how you can use this tool:

You need a few powerful words, words that reiterate to yourself that you CAN, words that make you feel powerful and in control. “This isn’t hard” or “That isn’t scary” or “I know how to do this” to invoke your determination to get the job done, followed by something actionable, a “Let’s do it!” that tells your body and your horse that it’s go time.

In these situations, the horse is trying to convince you that whatever it is maybe can’t be done. Often, he’s picking up on your own doubt, so the idea is to erase the doubt from your own mind so that there is nothing about you giving him conflicting signals. Our bodies are fabulous at relaying to the horse what the back of our mind is thinking, even when the front of our mind is thinking something else.

We ride “determined to pass the scary rock” while also “holding on really tight in case he spooks”. It’s that “in case” part that is relaying to the horse that somewhere in the back of our mind we ARE in fact thinking about spooking at the rock! The horse feels this, wonders what about the rock is worrying us, and starts looking for monsters behind the rock. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then when the horse does spook, we think “Gosh, good thing I was prepared for that spook!” and we ride past the next rock the same way. And in this way, we can train our horses to be spooky if we aren’t careful, and we can train ourselves to be what we call a “nervous rider”.  But the so-called nervous rider is often just someone who has learned a body-usage that creates a nervous horse, so they promptly get on a horse, make it nervous, and then feel nervous riding the jumpy, spooky beast they are on.  Sadly, they are apt to decide riding isn’t all that much fun after all and give up, rather than figuring out why every horse they get on seems to be prone to spook.

When these riders can employ the tool my student did, they can learn to “fake it til you make it” or just BE confident, which then makes the horse confident, which then makes for a ride that can give the rider real confidence. The more often the rider feels how being the confident one first leads to real confidence, the easier it is to do. It’s a process and takes time, but at least now the seed of confidence has been planted in your mind. Next time your horse starts to balk, spook, or make you nervous, try using some power-filled words to convince yourself that you can handle it, and use the tone of your voice to give your horse confidence in you as his leader.


  • Mary Eckstein

    haha!! had this moment a few weeks back when the mare I ride for lessons (who loves to brace against my hands and is heavy as a ton of bricks on the forehand) started her nonsense when I got on, and, having been dealing with a mentally ill teen daughter in the hospital that day I said, “Cut it out, don’t give me any of your s__t today!”, and lo and behold, it worked! She was like “uh-OK….boss”.

    • dressagefundamentals

      Lol!! That’s awesome! Isn’t it funny how the just *know*? Hope you can channel that again on your next ride and get the same response!! 🙂

      • Mary Eckstein

        We’ve had our battles over the past two years. She’s as stubborn as a rust ring in a ceramic bathtub, but she’s learned that I don’t give up. Lol

    • Susan

      Your life is so much like mine in more ways than I will post here. How is that possible?
      Thanks for your comment.

  • Mary Eckstein

    Haha Susan- I ride to keep me sane. You can’t worry about anything else in your life while you are on top of a 1,000 # animal.

  • Sheri Williams

    Great technique! I will try on older lesson horse who chomps and verrs away from door to outside about 3/4 in lesson. She thinks enough is enough I want food! Will try next Friday!

  • Karen

    I have an ex racehorse who throws temper tantrums when he gets frustrated or is asked to be patient. I stay calm and try to keep his mind busy (backing, turning on his forehand or rear, etc) but he just blows up and kicks his back foot out ( straight out). There are a lot of kids, horses, dogs, etc at my barn… I don’t need anyone to get hurt! If I can’t figure out how to solve this problem behavior I will have to part with him and I REALLY LIKE HIM! Any help is appreciated!

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