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Wrangling on the Range #147

The NERVOUS horse!



From "Horse Canada" - May/June 2005

Are you creating anxiety and confusion in your horse by the
incorrect use of your aids?

by Janeen S. DeBoard

Few things are as frustrating as a talented horse that simply
won't relax. No matter how his rider tries to calm him, this
horse refuses to walk or stand, is hypersensitive to any and all
signals, anticipates show ring commands, chews frantically
whenever a bit is in his mouth, and generally behaves as though
he were on his way to the starting gate rather than the ingate.

Some riders believe that a horse acts this way because he is
fearful of the schooling arena or show ring. Other riders confuse
nervousness with a refusal to work and resort to punishment, but
this could make the situation worse - if not dangerous. Many of
these horses are simply dismissed as crazy.

But in virtually every case, these horses have good reasons for
their actions. A nervous horse is a confused horse. He is not
afraid of his surroundings, but exists in a perpetual and
nerve-wracking state of confusion. The cause can almost always be
traced to the rider's incorrect use of the aids.

Incorrect aids

Using the aids too suddenly can make a responsive, willing horse
think he is being punished. If a mild tightening of the legs
would be sufficient to send him forward, a kick or a jab with the
spur is going to startle and confuse him and make him wonder what
he did to deserve such punishment. In an effort to avoid being
jabbed again, the horse will begin rushing forward at the
slightest hint of a signal from the rider.
A sudden pull on the reins to force the horse to stop or turn,
when a light touch-and-release would be enough, will have the
same effect as the jabbing spur. Not understanding what provoked
the hard pull, the horse may begin working either very much
behind - or above - the bit. He will attempt to halt or whirl
whenever he suspects the rider is about to cue him in an effort
to avoid being yanked again.

It is easy to see how the sudden use of leg aids and hand aids
can combine to produce a horse that both rushes forward and stops
suddenly. The horse tries to compromise. He cannot stand still or
walk quietly because he remembers being jabbed or kicked the last
time he did that, and so he must be ready to move instantly; but
neither can he go too fast or too straight, because a strong
command to stop or turn could come at any moment. The rider is
left with a jigging, over-bent horse that swaps ends, halts
suddenly, or rushes off at the drop of the proverbial hat.

The same reaction can be caused by aids delivered in a forceful,
non-stop manner. A rider who keeps her lower legs clutched
against the horse's sides, perhaps unconsciously bouncing them as
the horse moves, will be unwittingly goading him forward at every
step. At the same time she tries desperately to slow the horse
down with a constant pull on his mouth, and as before, the horse
compromises by trying to go and stop at the same time.

Doing it right

The cure for the nervous horse is to have his rider go back to a
basic study of the aids. Riding on the longe without reins or
stirrups is an excellent exercise and will help give the rider
the physical skills she needs to use the aids individually and

A rider must also understand the effect that each of the aids has
on a horse, and learn to search for the root cause of a horse's
reaction rather than simply blaming all the difficulties on what
she believes to be the horse's willful disobedience.

Yet even a strong, capable rider with an excellent balanced
position may have problems with her horse becoming nervous at the
walk and anticipating any change of gait. He refuses to perform a
flat walk and flings his head up on the transitions, especially
into the canter. The problem becomes even worse in the show ring
or dressage arena than it is at home.
This is one of the most difficult riding problems to detect, but
it is simple to cure. This rider has learned her polished,
upright, balance position a little too well. Her back remains
strongly braced virtually all of the time, especially in
competition when she is concentrating intensely on her form and
the horse's responsiveness.
Such a rider does not realize the effect of her braced back on
the horse. Bracing the muscles of the small of the back is the
correct way to drive the rider's weight deep into the saddle and
is extremely effective in sending the horse forward, but the
rider must also learn to relax the muscles of her back
- to turn off this aid - when she does not need to give the horse
such a strong message. A sensitive horse is very likely to react
with nervousness, anticipation and head-flinging canter starts
when his rider is unconsciously bracing her back and driving him
forward while simultaneously demanding that he walk quietly or
wait calmly for her signal to canter.

It is vital that a rider, or her trainer or instructor, be able
to recognize what is actually happening with a horse that is
"nervous." The causes are not always obvious; in the case of the
rider with a perpetually braced back, they are all but invisible.

Yet the extra time taken with this type of horse is often well
spent. Too many nice horses have been discarded in frustration as
nervous hotheads, when they are actually just confused.

Janeen DeBoard is an accomplished rider, trainer, and instructor
and has written for numerous national and regional horse
magazines. She also writes historical romance novels under the
name of Janeen O'Kerry.

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