I know a fair number of people that would rather be on a difficult horse than on the ground with the rationale that at least they can’t get run over or kicked when they are riding. I’m guessing most of my readers are of a different opinion. However, that still begs the question: how can you successfully handle an anxious, potentially explosive horse while on the ground without putting your life in danger?
Maintaining a Distance while Leading
The first key to success is getting distance between yourself and the horse in question. Being too close will put you right in the way should the horse jump sideways, bolt, or kick out in fear. However, suddenly letting out a lead rope could cause the horse to rush past you, leaving you trailing behind and in range of any potential kicks.
I like to start out in front of the horse so I don’t run into that situation. From the moment I begin walking I expect the horse to keep at least a 10 foot distance between himself and me. This gives me time to react to a situation and keeps me out of the danger zone.
If the horse encroaches on my space I will shake the lead rope and use the end of my rope to defend my space. If he is casually encroaching you can be small about it, but if he is running full force at you, don’t worry about asking kindly first; be big enough to be effective. The number one goal is to keep you safe, which means keeping the horse at a safe distance.
If you didn’t start with distance between you and the horse, turn towards the horse and shake the rope to back him up while walking slightly forward to give yourself a safe distance from any hooves. If the horse ignores this cue, use the end of your rope directed towards his chest until he backs off.
Lots of pressure to back up your anxious horse might cause the horse to rear or try to tear away from you. If he rears, simply ignore him until he settles. After all, you are out of the way so he can throw his temper tantrum without your involvement. If the horse goes to tear away, take a firm hold of the lead rope and tug the horse’s head straight. If you let the horse get his body at an angle away from you you will lose leverage and be at risk of being drug. I attempt to keep the horse’s head turned towards me the entire time to avoid this.
Once you have established this distance, keep it at all costs. Let your horse have his panic attack or let out his frustration out of range of you. This way the horse can have an outlet, but you aren’t in danger while he does it.
Redirecting the Anxious Horse’s Energy
If you feel that your horse is ready to lose it behind you, try to redirect his energy and calm him down. Getting distance keeps you safe, but it does nothing to help reduce the horse’s anxiety.
If you have the space, ask the horse to pause by shaking the rope while turning to face him. Push his shoulder over and let him travel in a circle around you. From here you can do basic line work exercises such as pushing the horse’s shoulder or haunches out to help him soften and relax.
If you don’t have enough space to put your horse on a circle you can either try to get to a more open space and keep the horse behind you or attempt to calm him down with just walking. The second option is much harder and less effective, so I would always prefer to find an open space if I have a really hot, anxious horse.
If you instead want to try to calm your horse while walking, try to establish a connection between your feet and your horse’s feet. Walk forward and match the pace of your horse. Then slow to a halt and make sure your horse does the same by shaking the rope. Set off in a brisk walk again. Repeat until the horse is focused on you and following your feet. You can also add changes in direction to this or backing up with your feet. However, backing up will tend to make an anxious horse more anxious. That is a better element to add to get a better connection with your horse once he is already calm.
Calming an anxious horse really comes down to providing guidance and leadership that the horse can trust and an outlet for the horse’s anxiety. If you are calm, but firm in your requests the horse will tend to follow your guidance, happy for the help calming down.
As with anything, if you practice in an environment where the horse is relaxed and not reactive it will be much easier to work the horse through a future difficult spot. It is always harder to teach a horse an exercise when he is already wound up, which limits your ability to help him calm down. In this situation your pressure will initially cause a bigger explosion. If the horse understands the exercise he will fall into the routine he already knows with your pressure instead of worrying about it, thus leading to quicker relaxation.
I hope you all find these tips useful. Remember to never put yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable – seek an experienced trainer to help you out. Also, distance equals safety so make sure you are staying out of range no matter what you are doing with your nervous or reactive horse.