There is an old saying which goes, Nervous Rider, Nervous Horse. Truer words have rarely been spoken. If you tend to get tense, your horse is going to sense that and your ride more than likely won’t be a pleasant one.
When I first begin working with a horse who tends to be nervous and jittery, while I don’t necessarily vary from how I deal with any horse, I’ll be especially mindful of how much spook the horse has. Actually what I find is that those horses you don’t expect to spook are the ones that cause more problems, because you aren’t prepared for them to explode at any moment. If working with a horse you know tends to spook or bolt you are actually at an advantage, believe it or not.
From there, I’m going to start working on de-spooking the horse (also called “sacking out” or teaching the horse to “spook in place” if he’s particularly frightened of something). What I’ll be doing is essentially showing the horse a way to express fear and trepidation without doing something which can be dangerous to both of us. Exposing him to things which frighten him and getting him to face those fears is a good start. Just keep in mind, as riders, the more nervous we are, the more we transmit that to our horses, so we have to keep our cool no matter what.
Some horses are nervous in an arena and do fine on the trail. Others feel more secure with that arena fence around them and panic in the wide open world. After identifying what sort of horse I‘m working with, we can begin tackling those fears and nervous habits. I prefer to work the horse in the early stages in a round pen (as I like to begin all my horses), ideally one made of open pipe panels rather than a solid wall bull pen. While I like solid walls for working horses in longlines when I want their total focus to be on their job and on me, such as already trained horses that need a refresher, re-schooling or just conditioning, having those open panels can really aide you in training a horse who has a penchant for nervousness, because you’re forcing them to refocus on YOU as opposed to whatever they’re nervous about, and most nervous horses spend a great deal of time looking around gawking at whatever they think they should be afraid of.
Some of the exercises will include walk and halt with bending toward me and maintaining focus when I introduce something scary, such as a plastic bag, a flag, a tarp or whatever the horse finds scary. Letting him know it’s okay to be fearful as long as he doesn’t react is just perfect. Plenty of rewards await the horse who choose the right path! Obviously keeping his attention and not allowing him to get distracted by whatever he may find scary is what we’re working on, but we have to bear in mind that he may not react the same under saddle.
Now, if he tends to be fine on the ground but nervous once you swing your leg over his back, frequently that’s caused not by an inherently nervous nature in the horse, but instilled in the horse by a prior rider, and it’s something we also have to overcome.
Again, starting in the round pen my goal is going to be a relaxed, easy ride where the horse feels little if any tension. One of the biggest benefits of a round pen is you don’t have to worry about him taking off and being able to buck his way across a large arena. Sure, he can get moving and yeah, he may be able to buck (if you allow him to get his head down), but you can control it so much better. If something does spook him, you can easily let him run it out until he decides that running isn’t getting him anywhere but tired. Hopefully, though, we’re going to avoid that entirely, because we’re instilling confidence in him by not being that nervous rider.
Something I always tell my clients and students is that your hands on those reins work like a power cord to the horse’s mouth. If you are scared or nervous, he’s going to pick up on that immediately. When the horse senses you fear something, his immediate reaction is going to be that THERE IS A REASON you’re afraid and therefore, he needs to be afraid, too! How we combat this is to ride confidently and keep our hands quiet, soft and relaxed. Easier said than done sometimes, but it is crucial to the success of training (or retraining) a nervous horse.
After settling into the saddle, I’ll ask him to stand quietly and relax with a loose rein. He must stand there, not fidget, no chomping on the bit, head shaking, pawing or any other willful disobedience. If he starts on of those behaviors, I am going to take up one rein, put the opposite leg into his side and ask for a bend until he gives in, not longer than perhaps 10 seconds. Once I release him, I expect what I asked for in the first place. If I can get the right reaction, I’ll ask him to move forward in a nice, easy, relaxed walk. This is where many horses begin to fall apart, or at least fall into their nervous habit by wanting to jig or dance around. Under no circumstances is that to be allowed and in no uncertain terms I’m going to let the horse know such behavior is unacceptable. As soon as he begins the prancing or jigging, I’ll quietly and quickly stop him and ask for that bend as explained above. He needs to stop, pay attention and relax before I release him, and backing is not allowed, because I don’t want him to learn that backing is an acceptable manner of evading my request.
Eventually, though how long it takes depends on the individual horse, you can get a terrific walk on a relatively loose rein, once the horse understands there is nothing to fret over. It can take a long time, particularly considering that inherent nervousness isn’t exactly something you can explain out of the horse, but you will get there! We should then be able to move into an easy jog-trot and come back down again in a relaxed manner. From there we’ll repeat the same steps in an arena.
I will also spend a LOT of time stopping the horse, dropping my reins down toward his neck and insisting that he stand relaxed. By now he should understand that command, and what it means (stop, relax and stand still without fretting). By that time, you can begin doing the same out on the trail.
At first, instead of heading away from the other horses (and most nervous nellie’s hate leaving their buddies behind!), just wander around the farm, occasionally stopping and asking for that bend and flex. Then gradually begin heading down the driveway and around the corner.
Before long, voila -- your problem is cured as long as you remain relaxed when you handle or ride your horse.