Chapter Three

Working with scared horses

Horses who have learned to view human contact with terror are relatively easy to reach with a patient, consistent, and confident approach. It takes time, but teaching these over-reactive mounts to calm down and gain courage is certainly doable if the handler offers assurance through kind, safe, and steady guidance. The biggest issue with these horses is not the initial concern, but the escalated craziness that occurs as they anticipate the punishment for their fear. The best course of action when they blow, and then really blow, is to do nothing. Merely wait out the ordeal with a steady, patient, but insistent attitude that makes it clear you are not going to attack them for their fear but will not proceed until the tantrum ends. Generally, a willing attitude to proceed calmly and quietly ensues. Initial work off their backs is key for these characters, as you won’t gain their trust while mounted until after you have been able to convince them that they need not explode when handled from the ground. Be careful and watchful, though, because you can easily be caught in a bad and dangerous position if you aren’t ready for, and mindful of, their likely next move. Once you learn to read your horse, predicting his or her blow becomes relatively easy, albeit not foolproof.

Instilling soundness of mind and body

Nette needed some reprogramming. She had been broke, but arrived at the track as a nervous, erratic filly that had no self-confidence and little trust in riders or handlers. Her reactive behavior was likely a large contributor to some subsequent soundness issues that had her on respite by the summer of her two-year-old year. Bloodlines were considered a huge contributing factor, as the stud was known for producing crazies. She arrived at Halcyon Acres that winter.

Groundwork was critical in the beginning to reshape this filly’s thinking and reaction to stressful situations. We spent a lot of time during her stay at the farm working on simple tasks in the stall with ample grooming and quiet contact that helped her learn to trust her human handlers. It was important to reassure this wary filly with calm and pleasant interactions with people. Making attention a welcomed treat versus a frightening experience was an easy initial and ongoing exercise for us and critical to Nette’s continued progress. Each day, a good half hour of time was devoted to currying, brushing, combing her mane and tail, picking feet, and getting Nette used to being tied to the wall (a black rubber tie with double-ended snaps is generally best for this as it stretches quite a bit and will break when the situation gets dangerous) for happy handling in the stall. Seemingly simple tasks such as grooming, leading to and from the paddocks, and merely getting her into the routine of the facility were not so easy for Nette. She overreacted to everything and expected harm with each new experience. It was important to address Nette’s anxiety with quiet and nonreactive time to prepare her for effective under-saddle work.

The second day Nette was at the farm, she spent a full twenty minutes rearing, nonstop, while being led home from the pasture. This was five feet from the barn entry door after calmly handling the trek from the paddock. We don’t know what set her off, but it doesn’t really matter. Ghosts, or imagined horrors only the horse can see from his mind’s eye, are as prevalent in panic attacks as reasonable issues with these scared characters. Nette must have gotten perpendicular to the ground at least thirty times during this tantrum. Initially, she tried bolting toward the door each time her front feet touched the ground. She was eager to join the other horses, but quickly became consumed with terror over what would beset her after her instinctive move.

We stood our ground, but otherwise did nothing. Finally, she calmed down and willingly and quietly walked into the barn. That was the last time this leading issue surfaced. It was amazing to see this filly begin to transform after this single incident. Once Nette realized her reflexive, excited move wasn’t going to prompt a beating, her fear subsided, she settled down, and she was willing to ponder a new paradigm.

Several factors were critical in making this incident so landmark for Nette. It was important that her fear was not reinforced with the aggressive reaction to rearing she was expecting. Doing so would have confirmed her expectations and reinforced the reactive, escalated behavior. Equally significant was the handler’s ability to weather this tantrum with a quiet, fearless, patient, and steady response. Scared horses have a keen sense for when the people working with them are afraid and respond in kind with intensified reactions. In addition, it was critical to keep a hold of this filly without injury to either horse or handler. We always work with long lead ropes that are either leather or cotton to give ample room to deal with explosive situations and reduce the likelihood of a tendon injury or burn if the horse gets tangled in the line. When dealing with scared horses in particular, it is imperative to stay with them – whether on the ground or their backs. These equines rarely want to go it alone and tend to get more anxious when they’re solo. They often run blind when released and can easily get hurt crashing through obstacles or running onto unsafe ground. Ensuring you maintain your contact with them (in a kind way) helps them calm down and gain confidence. With other types of horses, such as alphas or mean horses, a release would indicate a reward for their bad behavior. This is rarely the case, though, with scared horses, even though most have endured cruel or ignorant human handling.

Nette’s behavior and demeanor as she walked off the trailer led us to suspect she was taught to be reactive, but this incident underscored the fact that her fear was, at least in part, learned, as she became more explosive after her initial outburst. This type of heightened response to a misstep is a key clue in determining when you are working with a scared horse.

We didn’t even hop on Nette’s back for two full weeks, instead opting for early handling and grooming lessons supplemented by training activities in the round pen. While we try to get out of the round pen as quickly as possible with a horse, we do find this space a great tool for horses that have had a communication breakdown with the people they’ve encountered. Nette was no exception. The circular nature of the space and required close proximity of the handler to the horse provides a useful environment to establish a connection. Body language is the first step to drive, encourage, or stop the horse. Putting yourself behind the horse’s center drives them forward. Moving your body toward their shoulder or in front of their head (while in the center of the arena) should slow, stop, or turn them around. If you want them to accept your approach as nonthreatening, turn your back to them (this helps with persuading them to stop, too). . . .

10 Responses


    1. Hi Lola,

      It’s tough to tell if she’s scared or there’s something else going on from your brief note. Horses like routine and it’s possible that she is comfortable with the one you set. There’s also a likihood that something happened to her that nets this response, but obviously I don’t know her history. Sometimes people interpret horse behavior as scared when it’s not. What’s she doing?

      If she’s concerned about saddling outside the roundpen, I’d start with other activities outside of this area – grooming, leading, etc., and work toward introducing her to tack over time. You might even want to let her graze while you’re putting a saddle towel on her, showing her the bridle – whatever. Taking it slow is often the best approach with a horse that is frightened (or any horse, for that matter).

  2. i have a horse that is scared of you getting off of him, he will run or circle real fast…. he has also reared up too dont know what to do anymore

  3. We just took in a 14 year old paint gelding he is a rescue that no one wanted. My question is he is scared to death of us. He stays away wont come to close to be touched I can brush him while hes eating or on a lead rope. A little head shy and definitely neglected worms hooves over grown coats a.mess.etc….. what can we help him they rode him and he looked nervous but on the ground he is extremely scared

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Sorry for the late reply – I’ve been without internet service for much of the week. Generally with a horse that’s is that frightened of people (he likely has good reason) it’s best to let him come to you while taking your time trying to progress with ‘lessons.’ Simply taking a book out to the pasture to read and letting him decide when he wants to approach you can go a long way toward beginning to build trust. A lot of people like to use treats (I don’t – I prefer to find a favorite spot to scratch on the horse) which can help as a ‘lure.’ The key though, is to let him do the approaching instead of pursuing him. Once he gains confidence with you on the ground, that will carry through to training activities. Please let me know how things go with your boy. He sounds like he’s due for some patience and understanding. It makes you wonder what he’s endured in life to create his angst.

  4. Hi Sharon,

    Building trust takes time, particular with horses that have issues borne from prior handling. Often, just hanging out with the horse not asking anything of him will spur curiosity and result in an approach. I wouldn’t focus on trying to groom or ride him for now (although, obviously, it’s important to address health issues). Give him some time to settle in, relax and chose to be with you (instead of forcing activities on him) and you might be surprised at how quickly he comes around. He’s probably never been asked to join the conversation as demands have been placed on him. Simply letting him know you’re listening and willing to let him set the pace is likely to create remarkable strides. Please come back and share your successes (and notice the little ones with big rewards given to this poor guy for trying).

  5. I purchased a 4 yr old gelding from Germany. I rode him there and we did great! After he arrived here, I came off of him thus creating a very ingrained fear in him. I can do anything to him on the ground including having him carry tarps on his back. When I get on him he is instantly nervous. I have had absolutely everything checked on this horse and came to the conclusion that I must “ride” through this. Howevever, I am scared to do this because his reaction is big and I can’t come off. Not only because I don’t want to get hurt, but he can’t have that again! Please help me through this 2 year frustration for a horse that has so much potential!

    1. This is a challenging situation, Shannon. If you’re scared, he will be too. Four (or six if you’ve been dealing with this for two years – too long) is very young and with a horse that lacks confidence to begin with, not a good age to be determined to ride through your fear.

      I’m guessing you imported this horse? If so, you probably have a lot invested in him already. Adding a bit more in the form of a professional trainer (who rides and understands young horses) and coach to be with you on this ride would be wise.

      While I understand many have financial and geographic limitations with horse issues so always try to provide do-it-yourself ideas, This is a case where it sounds like you’re in over your head – literally. Please do check back and let us know how you fare.

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