High-stress is the enemy of learning. This is something I come across frequently, horses that aren’t coping well with even being in the arena and are really unable to engage with you as their stress levels are so high. This can be a one-off scenario when you’ve brought your horse in and he’s just “on-edge”, in that moment you may want to change your plans and do some groundwork first to see if you can help him feel calmer.
Unfortunately some horses are living in a perpetual state of high anxiety. These horses can be “rideable” so to speak and perhaps the behaviour hasn’t even been noticed for what it is and put down to their personality of being “sharp” or “spicy”. But a horse who cannot even stand still and relax and walk quietly is struggling mentally, it is not normal and we are setting them up to fail.
Have a good look at how relaxed your horse is in his day to day life, does he walk the fence? Does he pull when you’re bringing him in? Does he snatch bits of hay while he’s walking around the box? Does he shout for his friends? Does he barge through you?
This sort of behaviour can be caused by many and usually multiple things. Environmental factors such as high winds, being away from other horses, a new place, something looking different to usual etc.
Pain/discomfort can make horses incredibly edgy and unable to relax, whether it be pain in the body, pain from tack and equipment or anticipating pain from the trainer/rider.
Some horses just really struggle to emotionally regulate because it has never been addressed within training. If training is always about moving the feet and doing things the horse never actually learns how to just stand and relax. Also if a horse is having training experiences it finds very stressful, whether that is the trainer’s intention or not, they will start to associate the training environment with stress.
What is the answer? Any pain/discomfort needs to be addressed, then you can start somewhere the horse is comfortable such as their stable or paddock and introduce basic training such as leading well and standing, then take them to the more challenging environment and try to repeat the same.
Good, horse-friendly training takes time and patience and a lack of ego. Lunging your horse to “get the bucks out” or adding more stress by aggressively “moving their feet” is not teaching your horse to emotionally regulate. Emotions aside, a tense horse is not going to develop good posture or healthy movement patterns. You cannot force relaxation, don’t be fooled. 🐴