Riding the nervous horse

Freedom was quite calm when we set out on our hack. It was a beautiful day -- warm, and still.
Freedom was quite calm when we set out on our hack. It was a beautiful day — warm, and still.

I’m a fan of Denny Emerson’s Facebook page, Tamarack Hill Farm. Today he had a post that resonated with me, especially after my last ride on Freedom. Although our ride started out calmly enough, he soon turned into one of those hard-to-ride, nervous horses. Every snapping branch, every rustled leaf, every dog on the trail set him off. He had a total and complete melt down.

Nervous horses are hard to ride horses. Hard to ride in that they are too reactive. They may not stand quietly to be mounted. They may not walk calmly. They may escalate the speed at all gaits. They may not handle downward transitions very readily. They may dance sideways in anxiety. They may leap into the canter. They may spook and wheel from all sorts of perceived threats.

It is difficult and frustrating to ride nervous horses. Many riders “fight fire with fire” by getting tense and rigid and abrupt and strong. They will try to force the nervous horse to obey, maybe by lunging and lunging and lunging, or by using stronger bits, or draw reins, or leverage rigs, or by spinning the horse in tight circles, or by withholding food and water, or by tying the horse for hours so that “he can think about what he did wrong.”

The reason the horse is nervous is usually either because he is “high” and has pent up energy, or because he is scared from past experiences, or because he is green, and is afraid of new situations, or is in discomfort, or some combination of these. And, I think, some horses are born more nervous than others, and that isn’t ever easy.

To try to force a horse to be calm, short of drugging him, is futile, because it is impossible. You can force him to be tired, you can force him to “give in” to draw reins or long shanked bits, but those are not cures, only temporary fixes based on force, and force may well be why he is nervous in the first place.

Most riders are not equipped with either the skills or the patience to deal with highly nervous horses. And some highly nervous horses have been so emotionally damaged that they never recover even when correctly handled.

One thing NOT to do is fall back on that anthropomorphic “He is being bad.” cop out. Horses are not people. I repeat: Horses are not people. One more time—Horses are not people.

The spring melt down is not unusual. I’ve owned Freedom for about 12 or 13 years. The first few springs he was almost unrideable; I can still remember a few early rides where I doubted my sanity. Now I get only a few days when his brain completely shuts down. For him it’s a combination of pent up energy, spring fever and a natural tendency toward being anxious. He is a horse that will feed off of your anxiety, so you’d better stay calm and relaxed, which is not always easy.

It was a lovely spring day. It was hard to remember it was still February.

On Sunday, there were two tipping points. He had been walking quietly on a loose rein through the woods. I opted for some less traveled trails because it was such a nice day that I knew people and dogs would be out. Unfortunately, on one of those, we encountered a large group of walkers with kids, dogs, and lots of excitement.

One minute we were walking quietly toward them, the next we were galloping in the other direction!

It was a very narrow trail, so thankfully I managed to contain him to continuous bouncing (thank goodness he doesn’t buck), and finally settle him into a cross between a jig and a walk. At this point I decided to take the “safe” way home and headed for a quiet dirt road.

Well, that didn’t work out quite like I thought it would. After we’d gone a short distance, a Great Dane burst out of the woods. That was the end of it. Again, he turned tail and we were — or at least it felt like it — going in several different directions simultaneously. I figured the best choice was to get off but that is surprisingly difficult when your horse is leaping, bounding and spooking.

Once I managed to get on the ground (on my own terms), he settled down. There’s something infinitely reassuring about having your human leading the way when the woods are full of lions, tigers and bears. I figured I’d lead him for awhile and then get back on.

We did about a four mile circuit. I got to ride two miles and then hand walk him the last two. He still managed to work himself into a lather!

That didn’t work quite as planned either. Although he did let me mount him again, he immediately reverted back to brain melt-down mode and once again, I decided it was better to dismount while I still had a choice.

The two mile walk home was a better workout (for me) than initially planned but at least we got home in one piece.

6 thoughts on “Riding the nervous horse

  1. I bought my last horse on June 1, 2008 and on June 20 I fell off another horse and broke my back. I could ride again in a few weeks but now I was afraid and never did bond the the green OTTB I’d just gotten. He was the kind that would shy at things that were always there, like the mounting block and fence boards. I never knew what he was going to jump at and he’d jump a serous several feet to one side. I never fell but it was a close thing and each close call make me more nervous. I could ride other horses that I felt comfortable with but I never could comfortably ride him again. It broke my heart to sell him but I need a packer now. I’m too old and don’t bounce well at all. I used to pride myself on riding anything but now nervous horses are not in m book any more.

    1. The timing certainly stunk on that. Fear, especially after a serious accident, is a huge issue to overcome. And, I agree — now that I’m older, I am much less willing to hit the ground and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Luckily for me, I know Freedom will calm down after his bout of spring fever, but my days of going to the track and getting an OTTB are probably over.

    2. How did you sell him? I’m having a hard time selling my guy. He is a nervous gelding as well. He has bounced away from his own shadow-twice

  2. I know that feeling oh too well! Wise words. It’s not easy at all, those meltdowns.. I know! I get off and walk with my horse too, when I have to. I learnt that the hard way a couple of years ago by leaping into and getting stuck in a terrible mess of old barbed wire in the woods. Luckily we got away more or less unharmed that time (I still cannot believe how all the guardian angels came to our rescue), but the horror I felt at that time is something I will never ever want to experience again!! However, when you GET your spooky nervous horse to trust you and hit a clear cross country round, nothing can beat that feeling! 🙌🏻⭐️🎉

  3. I need some advice, I’ve been teaching a nervous rider and horse for over a year now. We have good days and bad. I know the only way would be to ride more regularly but weather causes us issues.
    I have managed to get as far as trotting on the lead rein and twice walk off the lead. Unfortunately, if pony stumbles or anything really, adrenaline takes over and he stresses himself up and he’s hard to calm down. There is no way I can take the lead rope off incase he bolts with the rider.
    I won’t ride him myself because I can’t chance it. I would normally ride anything.
    We seem to take one step forward and two steps back and it can be sole destroying for the poor owner.
    Saddle , back, teeth etc are checked regularly.
    He will not lunge unfortunately and I’ve tried the in hand schooling to ware him out.
    Any ideas please?

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