Training the Nervous Horse

Last year, I was hired to train the horse of one of my favorite clients, a woman who was an excellent rider, but who couldn’t train to save her life. She kept some of her horses at my ranch, while others stayed in her own barn, and she would bring them to me as they needed to be fine-tuned.

The mare she brought to me was named Nellie (short for Nervous Nellie, ha, ha) and was one of the prettiest horses I’d ever seen. She was a beautiful strawberry roan with kind eyes and near-perfect confirmation. She was trailered in on a Thursday, and I decided I would wait until Saturday to ride her, giving her a chance to settle in.

As soon as I led the mare out to the arena, I could tell why my client was having trouble. The horse was scared to death of everything she saw, but showed no signs of past abuse. I mounted, took the reins in my hands, and started her off around the ring.

We had no problems until our third circuit of the arena, when she noticed a lead shank that was lying in the dirt by the fence. She eyeballed it, jumped wildly to the side, and tried to take off across the arena. I kept her under control, and when I saw what had spooked her, I couldn’t help but laugh. We’d passed the lead shank thrice previously, and only now did it scare the wits out of her.

The problem with training nervous horses, versus working with an animal that has a bad attitude, is that nervous horses are not attempting to misbehave. They have no real reason for being scared, but they are, which makes the rider’s job much more difficult.

Symptoms of a Nervous Horse:

– spooks easily
– jumps sideways rather than confronting a foreign object
– takes off from any perceived threat
– paces in the stall or paddock
– repeatedly paws the ground while tied
– shivers when touched

Nervous horses are typically born that way, which is why they are so difficult to cure. I recommend the easy, painless process of desensetizing.

To do this, take your horse into a roundpen with only a halter and a lead rope. Turn the horse loose, and then collect several items:

– a long rope
– a blue or green tarp
– lunge whip
– saddle pad
– pvc pole
– brightly colored scarf

Take these items to the roundpen, and set them on the ground just outside the fence.

First, start with the rope. While someone else holds your horse’s halter, make a loop and swing the rope over the horse’s head. Your horse will probably flinch, and maybe even back up several steps. Follow your horse wherever he tries to go, and have your helper keep a tight hold on the halter. DO NOT TAKE THE ROPE AWAY.

Rub the rope over the horse’s eyes, cheecks, ears, and neck. Show the horse that the rope isn’t something to fear. When he’s calmed down, remove the rope and start the process over. Do this until the horse doesn’t shy from the rope.

Next, grab the tarp, and lay it on the ground in front of your horse. Let him sniff it, paw it, whatever he wants to do for a good two or three minutes. Then, attach a lead shank to his halter, and ask him to walk over the tarp.

This may not happen right away. If you try several times (more than fifteen) with no success, pick up the tarp and introduce it to your horse. Let him touch and smell it with his nose, then rub the tarp on his neck. Lay it back down and try again. You might also walk over it yourself to show him there’s nothing to fear.

That conquered, move on to the PVC pole. Holding the lead shank with your left hand, touch your horse’s hindquarters with the pole. He will probably jump. Follow him with the pole, never breaking contact, and then do it again. Repeat the process touching his hooves, his hocks, his hips, his back, and finally his tail.

Next, get the saddle pad. Make sure that it is brightly colored, and large enough to flap. While your helper holds the horse, flap the saddle padin front of his face, first on the right side, and then on the left. Do this until the horse stops bobbing his head as it’s flapped. Move around him and do this on his right and left side, behind him, and directly in front of him.

After that, repeat the process that you did with the rope with the scarf, except more. Flap the scarf in front of his face, behind him, and to either side of him, waiting until he has no reaction.

These simple desensitization tools will help your horse overcome his fears. You may not accomplish it all in one day – it might take weeks. Never spend more than half an hour doing these exercises because you don’t want to overload him, and remember that patience is key. If your horse is ten years old, then you’re trying to undo a decade of behavior! Keep that in mind as you work with the nervous horse.

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