How to overcome equine nerves

  • Imagine being a horse waiting to go into the show jumping arena at Burghley, the dressage area at the Dutch National Championships or the main ring at HOYS. Crowds of people are staring at you from three sides of the arena, the fourth is blocked in by tradestands. It is really a surprise if the horse starts to feel as nervous as the rider?

    Stage fright in horses is very common, according to Joanna Day, remedial trainer and breeder of Pippa Funnell’s event ride Primmore’s Pride. She works mostly with eventers, but estimates that 80% of competition horses suffer from some degree of stage fright that’s bad enough to affect their performance.

    For a flight animal such as the horse, going into an arena can feel akin to walking into a trap with no way out. A horse’s natural instinct is to run or to freeze. Mary King’s legendary eventer King William (pictured), dressage rider Ferdi Eilberg’s team horse Arun Tor, and Andrew Hoy’s eventer Swizzle In are just three big names that have suffered with stage fright.

    Joanna often works with event horses that won’t go into the cross-country start box, that run away going cross-country or freeze in the dressage or show jumping.

    “It’s usually an occasional lack of trust between the horse and rider,” she says. “The horse suddenly feels threatened by his environment and feels he has to take charge of his own safety. He may instinctively try to escape — flight or fight. If that fails, he may ‘freeze’, becoming unresponsive and rigid or even plant himself.

    “A horse is more confident if he can see all around him. If his view restricted by seating and tradestands then he can’t see how to get away if he needs to. The pulse and adrenaline then shoots up as the horse thinks he is trapped.

    “The worst thing that can happen is the rider becomes aggressive, adding to the horse’s worries, or becomes very passive by not offering any leadership at all or grabbing at the horse when he freezes.

    “Training needs to start by asking him to remain quiet and keep his adrenaline low, while accepting gradually increasing levels of energy and activity around him. It can take time because the rider must earn that trust through consistently exhibiting good leadership. Horse and rider need to develop a working partnership like ballroom or ice dancers.”

    When faced with a situation at a show when a horse is suffering from nerves, Joanna says there is plenty the rider can do to help.

    “Encourage the horse to ‘yield’ by assertively yet sympathetically moving its feet, which helps the rider regain the leadership role. It could be just by riding transitions, circles, leg yielding or shoulder-in to diffuse the tension.”

    Kelly Marks, a natural horsemanship practitioner, says it is often easy to blame the horse when really it’s the rider who isn’t breathing and is tense.

    “If the rider can be honest and work on his or herself, this can often solve the matter completely.”

    But for a horse that does get nervous at shows, Kelly recommends routine.

    “Some horses can do with steady long-reining or lunge work on arrival. One horse I know needs to be ridden straight away and then put back in the box to settle and is fine when he’s brought out again. Routines help everyone stay calm, which is essential.”

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