When I'm starting a colt, or in this case, an older horse that exhibits nervousness, I'm looking to build a relationship of trust and confidence that will allow the horse to relax. In the first 30 days, I don't expect or demand perfection. I don't give in to wrong behavior; I allow the horse to make mistakes, and then patiently and quietly, ask for the correct response again, rewarding every response that brings the horse a little closer to the goal. In this way, we build slowly toward correctness, keeping stress and anxiety to a minimum.
With an anxious horse, the object is not to apply too much pressure. We do everything slow and easy. This Arabian mare is extremely nervous and hyper in the round pen. During our first session, she moved at a frantic pace, pointed her head out over the rail, and continually changed directions. She was in a state of avoidance, or "flight mode."
In the video clip below, you'll see this mare exhibiting avoidance behavior, looking away and turning into the rail, away from me, when asked to change directions. I realize many western trainers turn colts into the roundpen rail, but I don't like to turn a horse to the rail for direction change until I'm in the saddle teaching rollbacks. When I'm starting a horse in groundwork, I want the horse focused on me in the turn. This mare's focus to the outside is a sign of her anxiety. When pressured to turn toward me, her flight response takes over and she blasts through the turn. She begins to improve during this session, which in total, lasted about forty minutes.
On the longe line or under saddle, this mare wants to step out every time, every minute, of every day, despite having daily turn-out and a grass hay diet. We're dealing with a stress response towards pressure applied by humans in directing her behavior.
The last thing you want to do is make a horse nervous, frustrated or anxious. Creating anxiety is counter-productive to successful training. Understand that you're not going to make any lasting progress while a horse is in an anxious state of mind. Putting additional pressure on a horse that's already in flight mode is just going to ruin your day. If the horse makes a mistake, let him make it, and then offer a correction, with only enough pressure appropriate to that horse and its current state of mind.
To know how much pressure is appropriate, you need to learn to read your horse; learn to see where the anxiety tipping point is that day—what the horse is capable of giving you. Don't necessarily give in, but compromise a little bit so you don't frustrate both yourself and the horse by expecting more than your horse is capable of delivering at that point in time. If you always start with minimal pressure and increase your insistence gradually, you'll be less likely to hit that tipping point. If you make the mistake of asking for too much, then step back and ask for something you know the horse can do for you. That way, you can get back to a positive place, and tomorrow you can move forward again, slowly, quietly, and softly.
Horses want to be quiet, they want to be happy with their surroundings and with what you're doing with them. The trick is to get them to relax so they are able to focus on you and communication can begin.
You may need to develop your longeing skills on a solid horse before working with an anxious one. This article is not meant to teach longeing basics. If you need help in that area, please contact me about taking a longeing lesson.