Holle is an expert in all things dogs, gardening, and horses. She is a professional writer by trade.
How Do You Calm a Nervous Horse?
How much experience do you have with horse training? If you’ve ever ridden or handled a horse, then you’ve been part of its informal training, whether you realize it or not. Every experience an equine has can leave a mark on its behavior—for good or for bad.
Think about that for a moment. When you stop a horse, you pull back on the reins, placing pressure on the animal’s mouth. When the horse submits and stops, you loosen the reins, relieving the pressure. The horse is rewarded for good behavior. On the other hand, if the horse bucks, causing you to dismount and turn the horse out to pasture because you’re afraid to ride, the horse is rewarded for bad behavior.
Horses aren’t stupid, and they often know how to get out of work. They can be confused fairly easily, however. Equines have natural instincts that have allowed the species to survive for many, many years—long before man had a hand in it.
The best horse training methods usually work with natural horse behavior—not against it. Some of the behavior problems seen in equines are directly due to improper training or mismanagement by humans. One such problem that’s often seen is a nervous horse. If you have a hot horse, I’ve provided some horse training tips and other remedies that you might find useful.
If you own, work with, or ride enough horses, sooner or later, you’re going to encounter a nervous horse, sometimes called a hot horse. Nervous horses are no fun to ride. Unless you can get the animal to settle down, it’s going to be so busy with being nervous that it won’t pay much attention to your cues or to the business of working or trail riding, no matter what sort of horse training techniques you use.
Some horse breeds are naturally more high strung than others, and some individual equines are more prone to nervousness than others. Any horse, however, can feel nervous or fearful from time to time, regardless of how much horse training it has received.
Of course, older, well-trained mounts that have experienced lots of different situations are less likely to become suddenly nervous or afraid, but it can still happen. If you know the horse well and are alert while handling and riding the animal, you can often prevent “spooks” from happening.
To be effective with horse training, you need to understand the basics of horse behavior. In other words, you need to understand how most horses think in a variety of situations and how they’re most likely to react based on their natural instincts. Much of equine behavior was shaped by the fact that for thousands of years, horses were prey to large animals and to humans. Thus, they’re generally considered to be flight-or-fight animals, and they’d much rather escape than fight if given the opportunity.
Many horses feel safer when they’re moving than when they’re standing still. And for such horses, this preference or need to move comes out when the animal is fearful. Modern equines don’t understand that there aren’t saber-tooth tigers and hunters with spears around every corner, so they might always feel the need to be ready to escape.
A horse can get hot or nervous for reasons other than fear, too. Think about a horse that’s cooped up in a stall most of the time with little or no exercise. That’s unnatural for an equine, so you can understand why such a horse might be overly excited about finally escaping its prison-stall. Frustration and confusion can also create a hot horse. When your animal doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do, it can show signs of nervousness.
One way to assess horse behavior is to learn to understand horse body language. Most nervous horses are easy to spot, so it’s not usually difficult to know whether or not you have a hot horse. The animal usually acts “hyper” and is unwilling to give to the bit. When you stop the mount, it wants to keep moving.
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Those are the most obvious signs and behaviors of a hot horse, but they’re not the only way to tell if a horse is nervous, upset, or anxious. Another sign is tail wringing or tail swishing. Of course, horses swish their tails to remove flies, but when a horse twitches or wrings its tail in the absence of insects, the action reveals nervousness, or even anger.
A nervous or annoyed horse might also stamp its feet or paw with a front hoof. The neck might be stretched out, too, and the animal might toss its head and/or chew on the bit. If the horse is frightened or extremely nervous, it might tremble and snort. The whites of the eyes might be readily visible, and the ears might be pinned back.
A calm, submissive animal that’s ready and willing to obey your commands exhibits certain horse behavior, too. The head is usually down, and the muscles are relaxed. The ears will be in a neutral position, or, if the animal is expecting a signal or command from you, the ears might be pricked forward. The tail will be relaxed, and the eyes will be diverted. Most of all, the horse will be able to stand still without fidgeting.
Believe it or not, your horse feed might be at least partially to blame for your nervous horse. Horses are natural grazers. They’re meant to spend a significant amount of their time each day chewing roughage. The problem is that many owners have taken this away from their animals and have replaced large amounts of low calorie, high fiber roughage for smaller amounts of high calorie, concentrated horse feed. Corn and barley are often the worst culprits here. Both are high in calories and carbohydrates, yet they’re lower in fiber than oats. Think about how human children act after eating high sugar snacks. They can practically “bounce off the walls,” right? Horses are no different. When you give your equine horse feed that’s high in carbohydrates, the animal is going to have a lot of energy. If this extra energy isn’t allowed an outlet, behavior problems can easily occur.
Chewing is calming for equines, so you need to make sure your horse gets in enough chewing time with forage. Make sure your equine gets plenty of roughage in its diet, through grazing and eating good quality horse hay. In my opinion, grazing is usually preferable, as it kills two birds with one metaphorical stone, so to speak. The animal gets plenty of chew time, and it also gets to walk around a pasture in the sunshine and fresh air. Talk to your veterinarian about a sensible, healthy feeding program for your equine. You might be surprised to learn that some horses do well on forage only, with no grains or other concentrated horse feeds at all.
Horse Calming Supplements:
Equine Calming Supplements
Have you tried equine calming supplements? They’ve become pretty popular in the past few years. Most horse calming supplements contain one or more of the following ingredients: thiamine, licorice extract, L-tryptophan, taurine, valerian root, black cohosh, raspberry leaf, hops, passion flower, ramisol, inositol, ginger root, wood betony, or magnesium. Some also contain omega-3, omega-6, and/or omega-9 fatty acids. Supplements are available in pastes, wafers, liquids, pellets, and powders.
Some calming supplements for horses use what are referred to as “adaptogens.” These are substances believed to enhance an individual’s ability to adapt to its environment without causing undue stress or excitement. The concept of adaptogens was first conceived by a pharmacist in 1947. Since then, veterinarians and horse trainers have endeavored to find the right combination to use with equines. Some horse trainers and owners report many benefits from using these supplements, while some saw no benefits at all. I suggest talking to an equine veterinarian before using such supplements.
How to Calm a Nervous Horse
Horse Training Tips: Hot Horse
I’m going to share some basic horse training tips here with you for how to calm a nervous horse. These horse training methods are especially helpful to beginners, and practically anyone can use them. First, you’ll need to decide how often your equine is nervous or fidgety. Does it happen on a regular basis? Is the horse nervous only at the beginning of a riding or working period? What stressors seem to make the problem worse?
Any horse can have occasional nervous moments. For example, a calm, gentle mare I had once would always get a little nervous whenever there was a strange dog around. That’s understandable. Once the dog was removed, the horse settled down immediately. I’m talking here more about horses that are nervous for no apparent external cause.
If your steed is nervous when first being removed from its stall, give it a chance to stretch its legs a little. A good way to do this is on a longe line. If you’re not familiar with longeing, or horse lungeing, click the highlighted link for an article and videos on the subject. Some horsemen refer to this as “taking the edge off.” We’ve had a few equines that needed this activity before being ridden by kids or novice adults. They simply had too much energy, making them more difficult to handle. Once these same horses were lunged or “ridden down” some, however, they were safe for beginning riders to take on trail rides.
If your horse is nervous once you’re in the saddle, force it to travel in circles or in figure eights. This makes the mount pay more attention to you and to what it’s doing instead of concentrating on its fear alone. When the horse seems to have settled down and is giving to the bit, try stopping the animal. If it stands still, the nervous spell is probably over. If the horse refuses to stand, continue working it. After a few more minutes, try stopping again. Loosen the reins and praise the horse with a pat on the neck and a soft word or two.
Horse training methods that lower the head can also be very effective for calming a nervous horse. Horses with lowered heads are relaxed and unafraid. When an equine drops its head, the animal is unable to flee, and trust and compliance usually follow. You don’t want the head to be dragging the ground. The poll, the area at the top of the head between the ears, should be just a tad lower than the withers. Apply pressure to the poll and nose to teach the horse to lower its head. Gently stroke the horse as a reward for dropping its head.
Something you definitely want to avoid is reinforcing bad horse behavior. Some horses will “try” their riders by acting nervous in order to get the rider to give up. When that happens, the bad behavior is rewarded because the horse got its way and doesn’t have to work. Don’t allow this to happen. If the animal is so nervous that it’s unsafe to remain in the saddle, get off, but don’t stop working. Put the horse in a round pen or on a longe line and continue working it.
It’s a lot easier and more effective to prevent a horse from becoming nervous than it is to cure the problem once it has developed. Calming a nervous horse isn’t always easy, and it can escalate to a situation that’s dangerous for both horse and human. Equines are big and powerful, and it’s important for the human to be in charge at all times. If you have a hot horse, closely examine what you’re doing that might be contributing to the problem. Assess the horse feed you’re using, and give some honest thought to how much forage your animal is receiving. Also, examine the amount of exercise and “down time” your mount gets every day. If your animal spends a lot of time in a stall or stable, buy it some horse toys. You, and not the horse, could very well be the main source of the nervous behavior. Before you turn to a professional horse trainer, try some of the management and horse training tips provided in this article.
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.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 31, 2019:
Hi, Audrey. The paint belongs to a friend, and he's perfectly healthy. I think he'd just finished urinating when I shot this pic. I understand what you're saying, though. I've seen horses with colic stand like this.
Audrey Pavia on July 29, 2019:
The photo of the Paint described as “laid back” actually shows a horse in pain. Horses do not normally stand in a stretched out position like that unless they are feeling abdominal or hoof pain. Please correct!
DuchessDuCaffeine from United States of America on February 03, 2013:
Great article and you really hit the nail on the head: every ride is a training session! :)
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 27, 2012:
My son says he is getting a horse - so I will be learning more about the ins and outs very soon, I think. Great tips!
amandaines on December 23, 2012:
really good article. Have a good Christmas
Ibrahim Kamrul Shafin from Dhaka, Bangladesh & Washington DC, USA on December 23, 2012:
I have ridden on a horse only once.
Now our blog HelpSleep.org is like a horse, on which I ride on everyday.
Very informative hub, thumbs up :)
I am your follower and I reached this hub right from my inbox.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 23, 2012:
I thought you were going to suggest calling in Robert Redford to whisper to the horses. LOL Great suggestions and I do love working with horses.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!