Does your equine buddy feel threatened by other horses in warm-up arenas at competitions? Does he leap sideways when a horse gets too close, or threaten to rear – and even succeed, like mine did? Perhaps he’s new to showing, or feeling overwhelmed by the busy crowds because he’s used to working alone? Maybe he’s just claustrophobic. Regardless of what causes your horse’s fear, overcoming it begins with patience.
Step One: Work With One Other Horse
Start his rehab by introducing him to others in a familiar environment where he feels safe. Ask a friend with a calm horse to ride in the arena with you.
1. As close as your horse will allow, ride next to the other in walk and in the same direction. Do this on both reins.
2. Every so often, switch sides. Some horses feel ‘pinned’ against the outside fence and need reassurance that they’re safe when between a horse and the arena boundary.
3. Then have the other rider walk up behind you.
4, When your horse is comfortable with that, the other animal should walk towards yours – only as close as your horse is comfortable with. Don’t take him too far outside his comfort zone at this point.
5. Gradually decrease the gap between both animals, until yours is relaxed about passing on either side of the oncoming horse with very little space between them.
This may be all your equine pal can take for the first few sessions. Be patient and try not to get frustrated. Your goal is for your horse to trust you. Pushing him a little beyond his comfort zone is necessary to make progress and for him to realize that he’s not going to get hurt. But if you overdo it, you’ll break his already fragile trust and be in a worse position than before.
Slow and easy is the key. Once your horse is relaxed and happy with steps 1 through 5, perform the same exercises in trot, followed by canter. Don’t move up a gait until he is completely relaxed with your current level.
Step Two: Introduce a Second Horse
You’re now ready to ride with two others. The second horse should also be a trustworthy animal, to boost your horse’s increasing confidence.
1. Ride in walk between both, in the same direction.
2. Allow enough space between animals for yours not to feel claustrophobic.
3. If he’s uncomfortable at first, walk him on either side of the duo, then reintroduce him to the middle.
4. When he’s O.K. with this, walk in the opposite direction.
5. The other two horses should now walk towards yours, with a wide gap between them for yours to pass through. If your horse becomes anxious, have the other two peel away from him. Then repeat the process until he is no longer afraid and can calmly walk between them.
6. Your horse will feed off your confidence: ride him firmly between the oncoming animals so he learns that he won’t get hurt if he obeys you.
When he is focused on you, begin working in trot followed by canter, passing between the other two horses as they come towards you again. Only move up a gait when your horse is 100% comfortable with your current one. It is crucial to take this slowly! Your horse will probably take longer to get used to working with two horses than he did with one.
Congratulations! You’ve crossed a huge hurdle. Keep practicing with the same horses, then add others or switch up riding buddies. Your horse may even begin to enjoy being ridden in company.
Step Three: Change Riding Venues
Before you leap into a show environment, test your horse’s confidence by riding him at an unfamiliar, non-show location with other horses. By putting him in a less stressful situation than he’ll encounter at a show, you’ll be calmer, too, and give your horse the best chance of passing his confidence test with flying colors. Ride him in indoor and outdoor arenas. (My horse was more anxious in an outdoor arena, so that is where I concentrated his rehab.) Doing this will ensure your horse is comfortable at both indoor and outdoor shows.
Step Four: Be a Non-Competitor
Unless you are the super cool type whose nerves won’t erode your horse’s confidence, you might consider taking him as a non-competitor to his first post-rehab show. Choose a low-key venue for his re-introduction to competition conditions. This will allow you to spend as long as you like in the warm-up arena without the pressure of competing. You’ll be more relaxed and give your horse a good experience around strange horses. Then take him to the real thing – when he’s proved he’s ready.
Every horse is different. Yours may be the type to get over his fears quickly, or he may be like mine, and need a great deal of time and persuasion! Don’t have a strict timetable for rehabilitating him. If you act as if you have forever to sort out the problem, it will be resolved much faster than by trying to force it before a specific deadline. You may miss a show season – but you’d have missed it anyway while your horse was scared of the warm-up. Keep your goal firmly in sight, but be flexible with your time frame. Patience is the key.