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Knowing how to calm a nervous horse is something every rider should have in their toolkit. A nervous horse cannot perform to their best and may increase their risk of injury. Meanwhile, a calm horse is free, flexible and focused.
Whether you’re a cross country fanatic or a dressage lover, a nervous horse can hinder your performance all the way up the levels. This is because, compared to a calm horse, a nervous horse holds a lot of tension.
Tension in your horse’s body can be a sign of anxiety or excitability, and feels as though all the muscle in your horse have become stiff and tight. With contracted, tight muscles, you can expect your horse to not be able to perform to the best of their ability. Tight muscles could mean their range of movement and suppleness is limited, as well as them not using all their muscle groups to work efficiently and effectively. Therefore, with continuous work in a tense state, you could start to notice that your horse begins to lose muscle tone.
Additionally, tense muscles are more prone to quicker onsets of fatigue, painful lactic acid build ups, and injury, which could all hinder performance too. Riders could also start to notice that they need to do more to protect horse’s joints.
To conquer nerves and tension, consider;
Make the unfamiliar, familiar, by getting out and about as much as possible. This could be;
This will simulate the competition environment and ensures horses are not overwhelmed be new and busy environments.
Taking horses to unfamiliar places can also assist in knowing what to expect when your horse is put outside of their comfort zone. This can help riders keep one-step ahead of their horse, avoid potential stressors, and ultimately keep the rider as calm and collected as possible.
As a rider, addressing problematic pieces of equipment in the home environment should be completed before a tackling them in new environments. Seeing different objects on the day to day, whether that’s out riding, whist turned-out, or in the stable, can help to de-sensitise horses to strange and new items.
The importance of warming up efficiently and correctly can never be more important than it is on a tense horse.
The warm up is a chance to make sure the horse is listening, despite everything going on around them. Grabbing focus through engaging in slow-paced lateral work can be beneficial. Horses who are focused on the rider will be able to benefit more from reassurance given.
Not only is the warm-up a chance to draw the horse’s focus to the rider, but it will also help loosen off tight muscle and begin releasing endorphins from exercise. The exercise induced endorphins will help to settle and focus horses too.
Through warm-up and the main body of exercises, rider should provide regular positive reinforcement, especially to calm a nervous horse. Positive reinforcement is essentially rewarding your horse for good behaviour. Positive reinforcement whilst riding may look like praising good behaviour with pats and/or scratches and using a calm voice to settle and reward horses.
Studies have shown positive reinforcement to be very valuable in horse training and one of the most effective ways to encourage learning. With the stress hormone, cortisol, hindering learning capacity, riders should avoid using techniques that may cause more even more stress! Therefore, when horse’s become tense during riding, riders should employ strategies to calm them down before continuing with work. One strategy could be lengthening the reins, with a study revealing that this causes significantly less conflict behaviours.
Teaching techniques such as negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment could put a halt to improvement, releasing less serotonin and therefore less good behaviour reinforcement! In addition, positive punishment and negative reinforcement have to be used extremely precisely to have the desired effect – poor use of these methods could make behaviour worse.
On competition days, riders may want to employ more calming techniques to ensure performance is at top level.
Some added extra to calm a nervous horse, include;
Calming supplements have profound effects on horse anxiety levels. Key ingredients for calmers include elements such as magnesium and calcium, seem to have the best effect. However, natural, herb-based calmers are also effective for some.
Meanwhile, riders may also want to use classical music to calm their horse down. Drowning out the variable noises in new environments and a soothing tone, classical music has been shown to positively effect horse’s emotional state.
Essential oils, such as lavender, also have a calming effect which is very similar to that of humans.