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How to Handle an Anxious Horse

I'm a horse rider, role-playing gamer, and science fiction and fantasy fan. I've also been married for 15 happy years.

How to deal with anxious and nervous horses.

How to deal with anxious and nervous horses.

Nervous Horse Behavior

Horses are flight animals. All horses will, from time to time, become anxious or nervous. Anxious or nervous behavior is normal for horses in strange situations. A horse at its first show is likely to be anxious. Some horses remain nervous every time they go into the show ring (it's even possible some horses may suffer from a form of "stage fright").

Nervous behavior can also be caused by specific triggers.

  • Some horses become incredibly anxious when being ridden in an indoor arena during heavy rain. It is possible the noise bothers them, or they may be fighting an instinct to avoid the rainstorm, as wild horses would probably attempt to do.
  • Some horses become extremely anxious if their rider carries a crop or a whip. Often, people claim this means the animal was abused, but I have seen this behavior in perfectly well-trained horses whom I know have never been beaten. Other horses are set off by bright colors—horses appear to have very sensitive color vision.
  • The third primary cause of transient anxiety is that horses that are in training may become worried when asked to do a movement they don't know for the first time. They can end up confused and start desperately scrambling to work out what you mean. I call this the "but moooom" moment, and even the smartest green horse will have one from time to time.

Some horses, however, are chronically anxious. These are the horses that spook at the drop of a hat, sometimes seeming to spook at nothing at all, or perhaps at something only their somewhat superior hearing or smell can detect. I have seen a particularly anxious horse tremble because somebody they did not know got on them.

How do you deal with equine anxiety? How do you help your horse take a "chill pill" and calm down?

Certain herbal supplements can benefit an animal that suffers from high levels of anxiety or nerves.

Certain herbal supplements can benefit an animal that suffers from high levels of anxiety or nerves.

1. Take Chemical Measures

In some cases, chronic anxiety may be a sign of an underlying problem. Horses can and do get mood disorders.

However, the most common "chemical" cause of heightened, chronic anxiety in horses is magnesium deficiency. It is worth trying magnesium supplementation (although you should not give too much—ask your vet or equine nutritionist for the exact dosage for your horse's size, weight, and type) on a chronically anxious horse. If it works, sometimes it is advisable to supplement the entire barn—only some horses seem to develop mental symptoms from magnesium deficiency, but it's likely none of them are in optimum health.

Are there anti-anxiety drugs for horses?

There are some anti-anxiety drugs for horses, but some are banned substances, and others may damage a horse's competitive edge. Generally, it's recommended that calming drugs only be given on a short-term basis. Ace, a common sedative, requires special care as it has been known to damage a gelding's ability to "put it away" if over-used. Certain herbal supplements can also benefit an animal that suffers from high levels of anxiety or nerves.

2. Handle "Show Nerves" Proactively

Show nerves are quite normal in horses. They are, of course, less common in veteran campaigners than in green horses and novices.

Prevention is a good idea here. Consider taking your young horse to a few shows but not actually competing. Showing your horse in-hand as a yearling can also be helpful, as it introduces the horse to the experience early when it is more resilient mentally.

In Britain, it is common practice for a horse's first show experience to be in a mare and foal class, alongside its dam. If at all possible, take an experienced older campaigner along with you who can reassure the young horse.

What if my horse gets stage fright?

If your horse appears to get stage fright, bear something in mind. Horses are extremely sensitive to the mood of the rest of the "herd." Studies have proven that equines can, in fact, hear and respond to their rider or handler's heartbeat. It might be that the person who needs to get over the stage fright is not the horse.

Try meditation and also try slowing your breathing down and bringing it into rhythm with the horse's stride (this works for almost all anxiety-inducing situations and prevents the feedback cycle where the horse gets nervous, the rider gets nervous about the horse getting nervous, and both end up wrecks. I have seen this happen many times).

3. Train to Reduce Anxiety

A horse that trusts its rider is less likely to become anxious. Horses prone to anxiety need a rider or handler who is calm, confident, and not intimidated by their size. They often benefit from clear signals and firm leadership.

How can I work with a horse that has anxiety?

Teaching a horse to trust its handler begins on the ground. Always be clear and consistent, and keep your motions slow. Don't tiptoe around, though, or the anxious horse will start wondering what you are so worried about. If you have had a bad day and are anxious or stressed, consider whether it is really a good idea to ride.

Horses look to us for leadership and to determine whether what they are encountering is safe or not. Again, consider your own reactions. Slowing your breathing can make a huge difference.

4. Use Desensitization to Prevent Anxiety

If your horse's anxiety is triggered by specific factors, then desensitization is the correct approach. However, you do not want to overly desensitize a horse. You want the horse to stop thinking the hose is a snake, but you may well not want him to stop being a little bit afraid of snakes just in case he bumps into a new one.

Desensitization involves controlled exposure to the object of the horse's fear. Horses can become afraid of the strangest things. I once knew a horse who was terrified to the point of dangerous panic... of going into a box stall. Another hated being handled by anyone wearing a long coat. Horses can become afraid of a specific location if something bad happened to them there in the past. Another animal tripped over a ring rope at a show because the idiot steward ran to pick it up too fast. It took a while before that horse would go into that ring again.

Loud noises and bright colors are the most likely to trigger equine anxiety. Obviously, so are situations associated with physical discomfort. I have known more than one horse that learned to identify the sound of the vet's car and would refuse to be caught until he had left the property. Most horses don't want their shots, and it's important to give them some positive associations with the vet. Giving a treat right after the horrible needle is the best and easiest way to do this... just like a doctor might give a child a lollipop.

The most important thing, however, remains trust. All horses need to learn to trust their handler. For those that tend to be anxious, this can be hard, especially if their anxiety is itself triggered by humans (although many so-called "abuse victims" turn out to be nothing of the sort).

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 16, 2015:

Great tips Jennifer on how to deal with an anxious horse for fellow horse riders. Voted up for useful!

jenniferrpovey (author) on August 22, 2012:

Vitamin B12 helps some horses, although I personally think magnesium deficiency is more common.

LittleRedRidingHorse on August 22, 2012:

I have had a hard time in the past with getting anxious or nervous horses to calm down, like many of us here. I know some people would rather use training/therapeutic experiences to weed out the anxious behavior, but I have found that supplementing training with a Vitamin B12 supplement for horses makes a huge difference. I'm not sure of the science behind it, but a lot of trainers have written articles on using Vitamin B12 for horse anxiety.

I use this calming supplement for my horse. Hope it helps.

Happy riding!

jenniferrpovey (author) on January 20, 2012:

Good point, Linkusbless!

Linkusbless on January 20, 2012:

Hi I just read your Lazy Horse post and now this one on the Anxious Horse. Heh. I have a horse who combines these two. He's an ex-galloper that I was given as a companion to a very bright part-Arab-- now gone to God. The Arab used to love going for rides, you could feel the zing and enthusiasm when you got in the saddle. The thoroughbred OTOH tends to fall asleep when saddling up and once in the saddle I've sometimes had to wake him up! Through bad handling and the general misery and boredom of a not terribly successful racing life, he seems to view being ridden as some sort of punishment. He's lazy in as much a he will always slow down whatever pace he's doing and can be hard to get going. Compared to the Arab he's not terribly interested in his surroundings or exploring.

However, when he 'loses it', he really loses it. We came across some wild deer and then some roos and he started to panic, we were in the middle of nowhere and amongst trees, so I decided to 'dismount' and wait for him to calm down--which didn't happen. He became hard to hang on to and I thought he was going to knock me down or over. Fortunately I went out with a halter and lead rope, so I tied him to a sapling in a cleared area and stepped back, to wait for him to calm down. He didn't. And he didn't calm down for several hours afterwards. I thought it best to get back on, as I didn't want him to get too used to the idea of me abandoning ship too often, but it was too dangerous, so I led him until we got to a gate and an open paddock. What surprised me was he was completely oblivious to me, the personification of 'blind panic', he just about trampled me as I led him a long a narrow trail, despite my protestations about not bloody treading on me! We got to a gate and an open paddock so I got back on. Everything in the paddock became a monster to shy at. Closer to home, I had to quickly jump off on the offside as he ran sideways into a tree and we both risked being impaled by it's branches. I was not very impressed at this point,so I led him back and put him in the holding paddock where he proceeded to run up and down looking anxiously in direction of the deer/monsters.

He's an incredibly gentle and very sensitive horse but compared to the little Arab, thick as two planks. Lazy until such time as he winds himself up into a blind panic and then is both a danger to himself and to anyone in the vicinity.

He has a good life, although I don't ride him all that much it's a bit too much like hard work. I'm a confident rider and a firm believer in the power of mutual trust between horse and rider. He's come a long way, is no longer head shy and comes towards me in the paddock, rather than running away. Such a marked difference between the two breeds Arab and Thoroughbred. Frankly I think the racing career really spoiled the T'bed. Long comment sorry, but it just goes to show that the lazy horse can also be an anxious horse.

Cresentmoon2007 from Caledonia, MI on December 08, 2011:

Though I do not know much about horses myself, I still find them to be wonderful, as I do all animals. Well written hub. Voted up.

Silke Juppenlatz on December 08, 2011:

Great post, and I totally agree with spooky horses benefiting from a confident rider.