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Assess your horse - the Scared Horse

Is your horse tense and scared? Or is he confident and playful?

Answering these simple questions will give you a lot of information on how to successfully train them. If you’ve owned your horse for any amount of time, there’s a good chance that you’ve found some techniques that work for you either because you’ve used them in the past and they’ve worked, because someone else has helped or because you’ve tried something!

If you have area’s where you’re still struggling then it’s probably helpful in the first instance to break down what’s going on and what emotions your horse is feeling about the whole thing. Horses are one big bag of emotions, they are programmed to be sensitive to the emotions of other horses and anything else around them including us. Most of us know that when we get angry or frustrated is usually when our horse becomes the least compliant!

So let’s start with a scared horse, this horse is on alert for danger and may well see that whatever is happening is anything from a bit worrying to outright dangerous to their existence!! They are often labelled anywhere from a bit tense and a worrier to crazy or psycho!

Some typical characteristics to recognise these horses are:-

  • head high

  • not blinking

  • not breathing

  • stiff/tense through the middle (often referred to as stiff through the rib cage)

  • tense mouth

  • tense tail

  • can’t keep still, wants to run off

  • feel like they might explode

  • freeze then explode (comes out of nowhere)

  • claustrophobic

These are all signs that your horse is scared and your best path to success is to help them learn to be confident. This horse thrives on consistency and repetition, they will be more than happy to practise something to perfection but only as long as they are able to find relaxation in it.

Change and new things are a big deal for them. When teaching them something new repeat the exercise until they relax and start to show signs of confidence. If they are still overwhelmed break it down into smaller pieces and building confidence in each piece until the whole thing can be done with confidence.

Signs of a scared horse becoming more relaxed are:-

  • lowering the head (in particular below the withers)

  • Blinking

  • Sighing, blowing out through their nose

  • Relaxing through the middle so becoming easier to bend/turn

  • Licking and chewing or yawning

  • Swinging or relaxed tail

  • Less inclined to run off, can stand still

A real life example...

My beautiful warmblood mare Desi is a great example of a scared horse. In her case she tends to be very tense, tight mouth, stiff through the middle of her body, finds it hard to stand still, would get faster and faster, she can also be very claustrophobic.

Training her is all about repetition, repetition, repetition, she has to do things over and over without adding anything new until she is really confident in doing it. If something upsets her before she’s really sure about it then you have to start again although it usually takes less time to get her back to where she was.

Riding her I will start by doing lots of circles in walk until she starts to relax and bend off my inside leg, she will usually blow out and start to breathe at this point as well. Then we are ready to go large. I repeat the process in trot and canter before I do anything else.

The other thing she has struggled with is being closed into the lorry. She’s easy to load and travels beautifully once we’re on but worries when the lorry is being closed up. We have spent a lot of time getting comfortable inside the lorry with it open, until she is happy to stand while I open and close the partition and eventually the ramp. Again, it’s just repeat, repeat, repeat many times until it’s good and she’s happy.


Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.

If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on


Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 10 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.

Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.

See or email for more details.

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