Help him calm down

By Charlotte Bastiaanse

Just like people, horses come with all types of personalities. Some breeds even tend toward a certain type of personality more than others. Horses are prey animals by nature, meaning that their instincts tell them to constantly be on the lookout for potential threats, thereby making them very wary of their immediate surroundings. Some horses are naturally more skittish or nervous from birth, and other horses can develop anxious behaviour over time as a result of bad experiences or handling.

Constantly feeling anxious is a horrible way to live, so it’s our responsibility as owners to try remedy nervous behaviour so that our horses can live a more stress-free life. It can also become increasingly difficult and dangerous to own a nervous horse so it’s best for horse and rider to work toward calming the horse as soon as the issue is recognised.

The telling signs

High head carriage can be a sign of anxiety.

Handling a nervous horse can easily become frustrating and a little scary, as you start finding day-to-day tasks, such as leading him around the yard, to be a struggle each time. You might also find that he spooks at things lying around the yard, like feedbags, hosepipes or a wheelbarrow. Spooky behaviour can become dangerous, as it just takes one bad fright for your horse to jump sideways into you, or yank the lead rein out of your hand and run away.

Signs of stress include head tossing, crib-biting, weaving or pawing. Holding the head low is a sign of relaxation, whereas a horse who constantly carries his head high is demonstrating alert and anxious behaviour. Flared nostrils and wide open eyes are also a sign that your horse is feeling stressed.

Stress can affect the neuroendocrine system by increasing energy flow, making the horse seem high-energy, and this process uses up stored fats, proteins and carbohydrates. As a result, stressed horses can develop ulcers and muscle tension in their neck, poll area, back and shoulders. Internal signs require a medical examination but excessive stress levels can affect your horse’s nervous system, heart, glands and intestines. Signs that something is going on inside your horse are diarrhoea or a colic episode.

Stable yard scares

While it’s more normal for horses to experience anxiety outside of their comfort zone – in other words away from home at an away show or on an outride – they shouldn’t really exhibit nervous behaviour at their own yards. Horses thrive on routine, so if they are living in the same stable every day, receiving meals at regular intervals, being walked the same way to their paddocks and being ridden in the same arena, then they are likely to adapt very easily to their environment. They reach a certain level of comfort where they do not feel the need to be nervous of their surroundings. If a horse who has been stabled at the same yard for a prolonged period still demonstrates anxiety, it is likely that the anxiety is building up as a result of a basic need not being met.

Being forced to live in confined spaces with little time allowed outdoors can easily cause a horse to build up anxiety, resulting in an over-reaction when he sees things that he should in fact have grown accustomed to long ago.

Horses who spend hours cooped up in a stable are more likely to suffer from anxiety.

Horses need regular exercise, whether in the form of being allowed to gallop around in a large paddock every day or being ridden or lunged. Exercise is not only mentally healthy for a horse but also improves cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular function. Exercise has proven to relieve depression and anxiety.

Social anxiety

A top cause of stress in horses is social anxiety. Horses are herd animals, making them social by nature. Physical interaction with other horses is a basic need and it’s important that this is provided in some way.

It’s understandable that owners of competitive horses don’t want their horses to stand in groups, as playing and socialising can often result in kicks and bites. While this is completely normal, it only takes one kick in the wrong place to end your horse’s competitive career. Consider having your horse stand with just one other horse – possibly an elder horse who won’t cause too much of a problem. Alternatively, you can place your horses in paddocks next to each other where they can at least interact over the fence and graze with company nearby.

Many sport horses these days grow up on stud farms, where they are turned out in huge paddocks with all the other youngsters while they are growing up. Being brought up this way means that the horses become conditioned to large social groups where they live an established herd life. When moved from the stud to a stable yard, these horses can become anxious without company. It’s important to know your horse’s background in order to understand his social behaviour.

A horse who is anxious when alone will often call for other horses and might pace up and down his paddock fence restlessly. It’s best in these situations to keep him stabled next to another horse and allow at least one other horse to stand with him in the paddock.

Horses in the wild live in herds.

On the other hand, horses can often become overly attached to one another and this becomes problematic when trying to ride one horse by himself or trying to take him to the vet or a show alone. Horses who are overly attached will also call for each other when separated and can be difficult to handle and ride. In these situations, don’t try to separate them immediately. Gradually build up the time away from each other, and start by separating them by a few meters, for example putting them in neighbouring paddocks where they can still see and interact with each other. You can then build that up to putting them in paddocks that are further away from each other, but still close to other horses. Try stabling them with another horse in the middle if they were initially stabled next door to each other. Make the time they spend away from each other enjoyable, for example by taking the time to groom them or feeding them some treats. Ensure that neither horse has any bad experiences when alone so that they don’t develop further stressful or anxious behaviour. In these situations, the answer is not to separate your horse from this horse and all other horses, as he ‘easily becomes attached’ but just to ensure that his relationship with other horses is less exclusive, allowing him to be more flexible in terms of his work and other daily tasks.

Arena antics

A horse who is nervous and spooky when ridden is not only unpleasant but also dangerous. A horse with this type of temperament should only be ridden by an experienced and confident rider who can help him relax in his environment. Horses can develop anxiousness when ridden for a number of reasons, such as bad past experiences, insufficient exposure, bad handling, not enough exercise or overfeeding.

Firstly, identify what it is that upsets your horse.

  • Is he calmer with or without other horses in the arena?
  • Does he spook at things around the arena such as benches, potted plants or shady patches?
  • Does he only spook at arena equipment, such as poles, cavalettis or jump fillers?
  • Does he struggle to go forward?

Once you have isolated the problem area, you can work toward trying to help build his confidence. Remember that the key is to keep him as relaxed as possible and to take time helping him build up his confidence.

Confidence breeds confidence

A calm and confident rider is needed to help your nervous horse to relax.

It’s common knowledge that a horse cannot hope to become braver if he is handled and ridden by a nervous person. He will just end up feeling unsure of himself because he is not receiving clear guidance and support. If you have a horse who battles with confidence, consider getting a professional rider to help school him for a while until he has become more self-assured. A professional is more likely to stay calm and relaxed when your horse has an unsure moment, and will be able to help him work through his fears.

Regular exercise can also help your horse settle down as it keeps him mentally and physically healthy, and also exposes him to unusual things to the point where they start to become normal.

What you can do

At the end of the day, relieving anxiety comes down to ensuring that your horse lives a pleasurable life where his basic needs are catered for, namely regular food, company and exercise.

In more extreme cases, you can seek the help of a professional behaviourist who can help you make an accurate diagnosis of your horse’s stress, as well as the cause and how to go about helping him become more relaxed. It’s important for your horse to be in capable and knowledgeable hands at all times.

You can also consider calming supplements, such as Pharmacalm, which is successful in temporarily reducing your horse’s stress levels. This is, however, not a permanent solution and is best used in show situations or when your horse needs to box somewhere.

Take the necessary time to work through your horse’s insecurities and help him work toward being more confident and self-assured. If done methodically and patiently, the results can be very rewarding!