A hot horse is like an onion. There are so many layers that need to be uncovered before getting down to the heart of the problem, and if you’re not careful they can easily make you cry.
Having started numerous OTTBs in second careers I am no stranger to hot horses. Knowing how to handle them is the key to uncovering the talent that lies beneath that crazy ball of energy.
Hot horses come in all different shapes and sizes and they express their energy in several different ways. You may have a horse that takes off at the slightest bit of leg pressure, or one with tension that builds with every passing moment, ready to explode. Whichever category your horse falls into, they can be dangerous to themselves and others. Handling the problem quickly and effectively is essential to a happy, healthy relationship with your hot horse.
Without words to tell us how they feel our horses try to make their feelings known in any way they can—like taking off the second you step into the stirrups.
When attempting to understand what is causing the excess energy and tension in your horse’s life, the very first thing to look at is how they live. In the wild, horses roam in herds over hundreds or thousands of acres. They graze nearly 20 hours each day, sleep when others are awake to watch over the herd, and can run, buck and play whenever they need to. As riding horses, their lives are drastically changed. We control their eating habits, exercise, play time and every part of their daily lives. We put weird leather things on their backs and metal in their mouths. We ask them to carry us around in circles and over fences.
When we take on the responsibility of controlling our horses’ daily lives and ask them to do things they would not necessarily normally do in nature, it’s up to us to make sure they are healthy, happy and pain-free. Pain is the very first thing to look for if a horse is acting up. Without words to tell us how they feel our horses try to make their feelings known in any way they can—like taking off the second you step into the stirrups.
Have your horse’s teeth been floated? Are there any sharp points that may cause pain when bridled? Is your horse sore? Is there heat and swelling anywhere on their body or is there a reaction when you run your hands over their back, neck and legs? Ask yourself these essential questions and contact your vet, farrier or chiropractor if there is any significant change in your horse’s behavior.
Then, look at the general lifestyle of your horse. Horses that are stalled don’t have the room to play, burning off excess energy. This can manifest into a very forward, energetic horse when you tack up for a leisurely ride. Horses with excess energy may benefit from additional turnout time in a large pasture with room to run and play. Pairing them with a more low-key, laid back type of pasture mate will ensure that running and playing does not turn into stressful games of chasing each other around the pasture.
If your horse has been cleared by a vet, has access to a large pasture with time to just be a horse and is still extremely tense and energetic when handled, the next thing to look at is daily nutrition. While opinions vary over whether certain types of grains and hays actually cause behavior changes in horses, horses that tend to be extremely energetic, anxious or nervous might benefit from a change in their diet.
Excess calories and simple sugars are thought to contribute to horse’s energy levels. Grains high in non-structural carbohydrates (or NSCs) have higher amounts of simple sugars. Feeding a more hay-based diet and supplementing with smaller meals of grain that contain lower NSC percentages can certainly keep a horse’s blood sugar levels and, potentially, energy levels from spiking.
Supplementing with essential vitamins and minerals can also aid in balancing a horse’s diet and controlling excess energy and tension. Here in Kentucky, for example, the grass has high levels of calcium. This is great for bone and muscle health and development, but can also cause muscles to contract.
Magnesium balances out the levels of calcium and promotes muscle relaxation. For tense horses with high levels of calcium intake magnesium can assist in balancing the horse’s diet and encourage relaxation.
Horses, by nature, are animals of prey. Being at the bottom of the food chain from an evolutionary standpoint has caused horses to develop a hyper-sensitivity to their surroundings. This means that horses are aware of nearly anything and everything going on around them. When something makes them nervous, they react with a “fight-or-flight” instinct. Either they tense up and flee or they try to stand up to their aggressor with kicks, rears and other various methods of attack.
Lunge with the intention of engaging the horse’s mind and suppling their body.
In order to overcome the general nervousness and hyper-sensitivity that horses live with on a daily basis it’s important that there is a mutual respect between horse and rider. If your horse doesn’t respect or trust you, they believe it is up to them to react to anything they may encounter. A trusting horse is a relaxed horse, because they know there is nothing to fear when their human partner is around.
In order to build a relationship with your horse based on trust and respect, lots of groundwork is in order. Hot horses may benefit tremendously from groundwork which reinforces the bond they have with their rider and encourages trust and relaxation.
In my article “Why Do We Lunge“, I talked about how lunging should never be used with the intention of wearing a horse out. This is extremely crucial for hot horses. When you clip on the lunge line before your ride you might think running your horse around in circles will decrease their energy level and help calm them down when you get on. This is never the case. A horse with excess energy, tension and anxiety will need a leader who is calm and methodical in their training. A frazzled, energetic leader will only bring that out in the horse as they will feed off your body language and believe there is something to fear.
Instead, build a trusting relationship with your horse by encouraging relaxation. Show your horse that you are a calm and confident partner by asking them to move their feet, stand still, lower their heads and relax their body. Lunge with the intention of engaging the horse’s mind and suppling their body. Try things like spiraling in and out on the lunge, asking for transitions within gaits and transitions between gaits to ask your horse to listen to what you’re asking instead of focusing on all of the scary, horse-eating things that lie just beyond the arena gate.
Once you’ve addressed any potential pain, looked at your horse’s overall lifestyle and nutrition and used ground work to promote relaxation, it’s time to step into the stirrups! Just like with ground work, under saddle work should encourage your horse to trust and listen to you.
It is essential to take the time to listen to your horse in this layer of the onion. If you have all of the pieces put together and are still dealing with an anxious, nervous, energetic horse under saddle, it may be time to go back to the basics. Long hacks with a few well-trained buddies can take the stress out of riding for many horses. Allowing your hot horse to be in the company of friends and be asked to do nothing other than walk is extremely healthy for both their body and their mind. It allows horses to unwind and to relax.
In the arena, several exercises can be used to slow the forward horse and to calm the tense one. Having a routine is great for hot horses, as they can learn to expect what’s coming and not worry about the ride. A warm-up routine that gets your horse thinking and suppling is very helpful. Transitions, circles, figure 8s, and other exercises that engage the mind without over-stimulating the body are great.
I have learned that taking a few steps back to ensure your horse’s lifestyle and nutrition are not causing excess energy and stress, your relationship is built on a foundation of trust, and all of the groundwork and under saddle work you do with your horse focuses on relaxation, are all extremely beneficial to successfully managing a hot horse.
About the Author
Lindsay Yohn is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, KY. She specializes in repurposing OTTBs for careers in eventing, jumping and dressage. She also publishes a blog chronicling her road to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover.