Every horse gets tense occasionally, but some are more prone to it than others. So what can you do to ensure that your star performer doesn’t lose his cool before he has even entered the arena?

Investigate the cause

Sometimes the cause is obvious — pre-competition nerves or a new experience — but if not, the horse’s reaction needs investigation.

Carrie Humble, founder and director of the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, where former racehorses are retrained for new careers, says: “See why the horse is upset and what can be done. It can be pain-related, a problem with the tack or lack of confidence in the rider.”

Consider the horse’s personality. Some need to be kept on the move at a show, while others are best left alone.

Lucy Katan, the British Equestrian Federation’s (BEF) grooms’ representative, used to groom for dressage rider Peter Storr and found that his top ride Gambrinus was much calmer when given less attention. “The best thing on show days was to leave him alone as much as possible,” she recalls.

Sarah Shears, groom to show jumper Sarah Lynch has found lunging and loose schooling to be a useful tool.

“When I worked for show jumper Malcolm Pyrah he had a particularly hot horse that I would let out in the indoor school for 20min before loading it on the horsebox to go to a competition,” she explains.

“I might lunge a horse for an hour before it went into the ring. I might then walk it around at nine or 10pm at night to keep it interested and calm, if that had proved the best way to handle it.”

Feeding and stable toys

The horse’s diet should be considered. If you think that food is fuelling the excess energy that may cause a horse to become frustrated or stressed, a change may help.

“I think high-starch diets with a quick energy release have a major effect on a horse’s state of mind,” says Alison Pocklington, groom for eventer Chris Bartle. “Fibre and oil are better and give a slower energy release.”

Toys for horses are a fairly recent phenomenon. Most involve food and are used for extending feeding times and encouraging natural foraging behaviour in stabled horses.

“I like Likit toys and plastic footballs. I also use a slightly more old-fashioned swede on a string,” says the BEF’s Lucy Katan.

Gail Howard is a yard manager for racehorse trainer Mark Johnston and uses footballs or empty plastic containers in the stable for box walkers to play with. Ronnie Dawes, head girl to show jumper Tim Stockdale, also prefers to save some cash and make her own. Plastic bottles filled with stones are a favourite with one of her charges.

Regular routine

Horses are very similar to children in their liking for routine — if you want either to behave well, avoid spontaneity at all costs. For those who compete regularly this is difficult, but it will help if you stick to your usual timings and activities as far as possible.

Alison Pocklington says: “This season, I had a couple of point-to-pointers in and I would try to keep the day as normal as possible when they were going racing. In the morning, they would go on the horse walker as usual. I wouldn’t plait them because it’s not essential for racing and I think plaiting tends to wind them up.”

You should wash and trim your horse in plenty of time — attempting to pull a mane or trim legs on the morning of a competition is bound to cause stress to your horse.

Calming massage

Riders might not think twice about booking a massage if they were feeling tense, but alternative therapies are still not mainstream for horses. Carrie Humble uses Tellington Touch — a therapy that uses circular hand and finger movements on all of the body to increase cell function — and finds it extremely effective. Plus, a Shiatsu therapist visits her yard once a week.

“Shiatsu is a non-invasive treatment that makes the horses calmer, especially those on box rest,” she explains.

Helen Galbraith, Michael Whitaker’s former travelling head groom, uses massage. She found it worked well for Two Step, Michael’s top ride at the time.

“When I was travelling, I’d try to massage Two Step regularly to relax him,” says Helen, who discovered an unusual side-effect to a product used for warming up horses’ muscles.

“We use a magnetic blanket for half an hour or an hour before a competition and many horses do seem to switch off completely when that’s on,” she says.

Rider anxieties

If you’ve had a good look at your horse and found no clues as to its behaviour, maybe it’s time to have a look at yourself. Carrie Humble believes that many behavioural problems begin when the rider is frightened.

“Some 75% of the horses we get don’t come directly from racing; they’ve been bought as riding horses and things have gone very wrong. If the rider backs right off, it all falls apart,” she says.

Another common cause of anxiety in the horse is having a “last-minute merchant” for a rider, who arrives at competitions late then rushes around stressed.

“Getting to the ring early is important, especially with a horse that’s inclined to be tense. They have plenty of time to absorb the atmosphere then,” says Ronnie Dawes.

For competitions, Alison Pocklington advises leaving home 15min earlier than you might think necessary.

“You can get the horse off the lorry, let it have a graze and put it back for a while. If it does get switched on, I would put it back on the lorry rather than fight with it.”

A little thought and organisation can mean the difference between a disaster and an excellent performance. When you’re at home, you still want your horse listening and learning, so it’s worth noting our interviewees’ advice — keep exercise in line with feeding, try to stick to your usual routine and, above all, don’t lose your cool and expect the horse to keep his.

This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (7 July, 05)