Dealing With the Anxious Horse
The Anxious or Nervous Horse
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 horse 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, for example, become incredibly anxious when being ridden in an indoor arena during heavy rain. It is possible the noise bothers them, or it is possible that they are 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?
In some cases, chronic anxiety may be the 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 exact dosage for your horses'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.
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 especial 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 high levels of anxiety or nerves.
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.
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).
Training To Reduce Anxiety
A horse that trusts it's rider is less likely to become anxious. Horses that are 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.
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 and 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.
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.