We’ve all known one—an insecure horse, that is. He’s the gelding that doesn’t like being by himself in the ring; she’s the mare with the serious FOMO, “screaming” and carrying on the minute you turn her down the trail and out of sight of her buddies back at the barn. The insecure horse can be a real problem for a rider who dares to hope for the occasional quiet ride alone with her thoughts, or a solid training session in the ring before or after rush hour.
This issue manifests in more than near constant vocalization. You might struggle with your horse’s continued attempts to turn toward home with him sticking his nose in the air or rooting at the bit (to try to get some slack in the reins and use that as a good excuse to head back toward his pasture pals), shaking his head, traveling sideways instead of remaining straight between your legs, and spooking at anything and everything in this nervous state of mind.
So what can the average rider do to reassure the insecure horse and regain some of the fun of riding without an accompanying herd?
Lifelong rancher and well-known author Heather Smith Thomas offers five recommendations in her book, GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS.
1. Horses are very emotional animals and when their sense of security is involved, it is impossible to “reason” with them. If the horse is “screaming” and whinnying because he’s frantic without his buddies, stumbling all over himself in a panic to get home, firmness and/or punishment won’t help. It just convinces the horse that being “out here away from home” is a terrible thing, and he’ll try all the harder to run back to his buddies. If YOU smack him every time he screams (as some riders do), it just makes him head shy or more jumpy and insecure.
Patience is the key to dealing with this problem. Try to find ways to build his trust and confidence in you, rather than fighting with him. You must build gradually on his level of security when out alone with you. Take him on short rides, bring him back to the barn, and ride right back out again. Some horses will begin to relax when they realize they really are not far from home and other horses, and you can gradually extend the distance you travel.
2. Ride with a friend on a quiet, calm mount for a while. Go miles and miles cross-country together, and get the horse settled into a routine of daily rides. Once he is more accustomed to regular rides and has learned to pay attention to you (you’ve built rapport and trust), he may not be so insecure and frantic when you ride by yourself. Note: Be prepared for insecurity again whenever the horse has had some time off.
You may always need to ride with a buddy the first few rides in the spring, for instance, until the horse settles back into his work routine. He must transfer his trust and confidence from his herdmates to you before he can work in a calm and relaxed manner.
3. Work on getting the horse to focus on you and pay attention to your cues rather than frantically trying to get back to his buddies. You need to establish a connection and communication with him so he always looks to you for direction. To get his mind back on you, give him lots to do: If you are in the arena, ask him to trot lots of big circles, do transitions between and within gaits, and negotiate changes in direction. Ride over ground poles and weave around barrels, cones, or jump standards. Do serpentines and figure eights the entire length of the ring and keep him guessing which direction he’ll be going next. Occupy his mind to take the focus off his buddies.
4. If you are out on the trail or riding cross-country and he’s throwing a fit because he’s alone, don’t fight with him. Just trot him briskly for a while, but don’t let him break into a canter. Trotting can help use up some of his nervous energy and is more calming to a horse than cantering or galloping because of the even cadence of the gait. If there’s room to get off the trail, trot circles, or trot around rocks, bushes, or fallen branches. If there’s an open meadow, trot all kinds of loops and go different directions. Use leg cues to bend him and both the direct and indirect rein so he has so much to think about, he doesn’t have any leftover time or mental space to worry about missing his friends.
5. One way to defuse the horse that can’t be ridden alone is to turn him out separately from his buddies for a while. If he’s been living in a paddock or pasture with herdmates, move him to a space of his own. Do not stop turning him out just to put him in a stall, though. That is like putting a person in solitary confinement. Intensive confinement is unnatural, especially for the horse accustomed to regular turnout, and likely to spawn other unwanted behaviors. Instead, put the horse in a paddock with safe fencing, by himself, until he realizes he doesn’t have to always be with another horse. This tactic works best if you can isolate him to some degree—he needs to be out of sight and sound of other horses.
During this time, spend a lot of quality time with him so he comes to trust you as his herdmate and comes to depend on you. Convince him to stop looking for his horse buddies because you are his buddy.
This excerpt from GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.