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Do you have a sensitive, reactive, or spooky horse? Many of us do and it can be frustrating trying to deal with their behavior. Helping a horse find more confidence takes an approach of time and patience, but I do feel that with these two elements most horses can improve.

Of course, we can only do so much to change a horse’s personality and some will always be more sensitive than others.

In today’s video, I address a question from one of my readers and we talk about how to think about and work with horses that are too sensitive, spooky, or reactive.

After watching the video, share your own thoughts and experiences working with these types of horses.


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56 Responses

  1. Hi Callie, this was very helpful. My horse is not only sensitive, but he’s also super playful. So he’ll get reactive when he sees another horse playing or acting out. I love his playfulness, except when I’m riding when it can be very scary. Keeping him focused helps. Would love any thoughts you have for maintaining focus in rider and horse. Thanks! Laurel

    1. Hi Laurel,
      I usually think of just asking for different things when I am riding. Examples of different things that I ask for are circles, leg yields, and bending. These help to both refocus the horse and maintain control of his body too.

  2. Thanks for this one Callie. I do have a somewhat reactive or spooky horse. He’s a young boy, so we’re working on this…all of your suggestions are really helpful. Over time, I have gotten less reactive to his spooking which has helped & also, I try to read his energy that day before hopping on for a ride..some days he’s relaxed & calm, head down and other days he’s head high very distracted by things in the environment..this helps me determine where & how I structure the ride for that day. Thanks, Wil

  3. I have a highly reactive horse who is unpredictable. One day something will bother him, like taking him away from his buddy. The next day it won’t. I’ve learned pretty much that slow and easy are better than trying to teach him quick. He doesn’t like to be stretched beyond his comfort zone for any reason. He’s more comfortable when I slowly teach him, reinforcing the good stuff and ignoring the bad. He loves treats too, so the clicker training is a really good way to start him learning. He’s eager to please, but gets emotional and uptight. I had him bucking in circles with me once, like we see in the video. Because I was so green at the time I just let him go. He ran home, and waited for me on the driveway. Then, he was fine. He needed to be closer to his buddy. That was 8 years ago. We haven’t had any issues with that since I’ve learned to go slow with him and give him rewards, like treats, that he understands. We’ve woven in scratches and love in place of treats at times. Great video Callie. Thank you.

    1. Hi Jewel,
      Keep up the great work, I think one of the most difficult thing for some people is the patience to work with these types of horses and just take each day one at a time. It sounds like you have done just that.

  4. I have a horse who is increasingly tense, worried and nervous at higher gates. Walk is fine, Trot is a little worse and canter really gets him upset. His pace quickens, head comes straight up and it is really hard to settle him so he will do a nice easy smooth canter. He can do it on the longe line but hasn’t had much expert carrying a rider at the canter. This makes me worried too, so you can see why we haven’t cantered much. Any advice would be most welcome.

    1. Brend,
      My Arabs used to get high headed at higher gaits until I learned they were being pinched by their saddles. I now use only wide gullet saddles well fitted to their backs. Changeable gullet plate saddles are great. Pretty surprising for these usually petite looking horses.

    2. Your horse may be showing signs of pain or discomfort under saddle. Might be a good idea to have his saddle and his back checked.

      1. Hi Polly, thanks for pointing this out too – it is always a good idea to start with checking for physical issues and saddle fit.

    3. Hi Brend,
      I think the faster gaits can be more difficult for anxious horses for two main reasons – either they lose balance going faster or the faster pace just increases the adrenaline from the pace of a walk. I would recommend working on the lunge line quite a bit to help your horse’s balance and make transitions easier. When you are riding, I would focus on teaching the response of head down and stretch the neck from rein pressure. Then use circles to help slow your horse instead of fighting or holding him back with the reins.

  5. my horse, a half Andalusian named Xena, recently got spooky when I rode her out in front of our house. There was a lot of stimuli going on, so when I realized she was spooky from all this I brought her back to her comfort zone. Then I did some ground work with her. My plan is to do more desensitization and sacking out with her. I hope this helps and were a work in progress…but my other plan is to keep her exposed to stimuli until she relaxes

  6. Hi Callie,
    I have been following your blog and watch I got your videos since I started riding 2 hrs ago. I too have a reactive sometimes spooky horse and would really like to see how to handle them in hand when they are learning to accept new things. I had an incident when she spooked at a neighbor (on other side of wire fence) who dropped a piece of equipment while I was lungeing her. She spooked and pulled me across arena and there was no way I could hold on, she then bolted and ran around the property before the adrenalin spike wore off. We were both fine, though I was unsettled and wondered how I could have prevented her from bolting. I would also like to do some desensitizing on the ground with a halter and 14ft lead. How do I handle her when she inevitably spooks at the stimulus I expose her to. What should my expectations be? I notice you often use treats to reward. I think that is a great training tool, but get negative feedback from trainer and more experienced riders who think treating causes other unwanted behaviors. Would love to see a full video clip of you working with a reactive horse. Thanks! Sarah

      1. I have to say, Sarah, I was REALLY impressed when you said you had been riding for 2 hours! But on a more serious note, I’ve been working with my OTTB for a year and a half, and have peppered Callie with questions on dealing with my reactive, spooky mare. (Oddly, she is very brave in some situations with some things I’d have a problem with) My mare is comfortable in the arena, however, so I’ve learned to start scary things in there and gradually expand. I do use clicker and reward training with her because she loves to eat, although that is not an approach my barn owner takes. But it works for my mare. After all this time in walk and trot, I am finally beginning to lunge her at a canter since initially she would go nuts and is stronger than I am. She’s actually easier to ride than to work on the ground. My point, very simply, is that we can learn and try different things, but in the end time and patience give us the best chance of getting where we want to be. Often when I am having problems, I realize I have asked for too much too soon, and if I then break it down into simpler steps, asking for a bit each time, things go more smoothly. Hope this helps.

    1. Yes, thank you Sarah! I’ve had similar bolting experience on the longe line with my boy. Would love more on this.

      1. Laurel;
        First, if you are longeing with a nylon web halter (with a wide nose band), The wider nose band encourages (or rather doesn’t prevent) the horse from leaning or pushing against it. I’d recommend a rope halter which gives you much better control, Because of the narrower nose band, the horse finds it uncomfortable to lean or push against it which discourages “pulling” on the lead rope or longe line. And, as Callie mentioned, it’s important to keep the horse’s head/nose tipped a little bit TOWARD you. The horse whose nose is directed AWAY from you on the longeing circle, now has the advantage over the handler. He can use his powerful hindquarters to his advantage and easily “push off” in the direction that his nose is pointed …away from you. If the horse gets away from a handler more than 3 times it will have become a habit. Now the handler must be extra vigilant to not allow the horse to position himself this way. The handler needs to “bump” the horse’s nose toward her immediately if his nose gets even the slightest bit toward the outside of the longeing circle. I think it was Julie Goodnight (another one of my favorite clinicians) who said “Once the horse learns this habit, he will always remember it.” This is a fairly common behavior that horses pick up sometimes with beginners. Some horses, however, never pick up on running off like this even with beginners longeing them and allowing them to look outside the circle. It just depends upon the horse. Most horses, once taught to longe WELL, can be longed in any halter, or cavesson, or nothing at all (at liberty)…except the “puller” who probably should always have a rope halter. People have also used a chain over the horse’s nose or under it’s jaw to control horses, but I would never recommend nor use either of these methods. Good luck and much success with your horse!

    2. Wil, Sarah and Callie…In my 45+ years working with and helping horses and their people I’ve learned so much from many many horsemen. One of my most eyeopening experiences happened when I followed John Lyons (back in the 80’s). The best piece of advice (lots of other helpful tips as well, but this one is absolutely the BEST) is to “Don’t spend your time telling your horse what NOT TO DO, but show him WHAT TO DO! Instead of trying to get your over reactive or anxious horse to keep his feet still and calm down (by the way J. Lyons teaches all horses this cue which is lowering their head), give the horse something” to do” that you know he can do:an exercise that you’ve already taught him and that he does well and without objection. If you and your horse have not been able to do at least the exercise of respecting your “bubble”/space and giving you his attention (two eyes), then round penning is a great starting point…as some of you know I really like Clinton Anderson’s program. Also, your horse needs to be able to yield his hindquarters (giving you control of his engine!) and yield the forequarters (prevents invading your space…necessary for your safety). By giving the horse something TO DO you get his attention back on YOU and the other benefit is that you’re not trying to make your horse stand still! When the horse has fear, anxiety or just plain pent up energy you need a way to “control” him. Allowing the horse to move his feet is , I believe, the best way to get him focusing on you without asking something of him that is next to impossible for him to do at that moment. So when he’s having trouble standing still, allow him to move BUT you direct that movement in an exercise of your choice! I used to spend months getting a young horse (or older untrained horse) to the point in its education where he would be safe, reliable and trustworthy for almost any rider. Now I have the knowledge and a program that is 100% effective (if followed precisely) that accomplishes the same thing in less than one month. But, at age 69 now, I no longer train the young ones under saddle. I believe (and know through my personal experiences) that groundwork solves most all horse problems: from picking up feet or trailer loading calmly, to not bucking or bolting under saddle, riding in a collected frame, to willingly go over, under, through and on any safe object. If, in 4 weeks or less (for an experienced horseman working one hour per day 5 days a week; and maybe double or more for someone just learning or spending less time consistently with a horse…then, for me, getting the same job done, with perhaps better and I think, more consistent results, in considerably less time, Clinton Anderson’s program is my choice. I encourage all horse owners to really learn all they can about horses, training techniques, and riding to be able to have success and enjoyment with their partner, the horse! Keep and use the techniques that work well for you and just “file” in your “tool box of horse knowledge” the other stuff…you’ll be surprised how someone’s advice or technique may just work for that one particular horse! To everyone I wish a successful journey with your horse/s.

    3. Hi Sarah,
      Good to hear from you! There are lots of questions here, so I will try to help with the big ones – first, handling a big spook when it happens is hard to describe, basically you need to react quickly and keep control of the horses head, keeping their head towards you. Once they get the head away you can’t physically hold them , especially in a halter.
      For the treats topic, yes – they can cause unwanted behaviors if they are fed without awareness. Food is a powerful training tool and I love to use food, but it is important to be aware of how the horse is acting when they take the treat in order to avoid accidentally reinforcing incorrect behaviors.

  7. Callie, thanks for the video. I would like to share some of my experience with my horse who used to be pretty reactive. I have had my Morgan mare Ronnie for 3 years, since she was 7. She was green broke, very forward and reactive when I first got her. We have been riding the trails in Hiawatha national forest and also along the country roads here in Upper Michigan for 2.5 years now, 3 to 5 days a week, most seasons. Our rides susally last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, on different terrain. We have lots of wild life, including tons of deer, traffic includes logging trucks and construction equipment and its often very windy. Ronnie is now often a lead horse when we go on trails and only spooks when there is a real cause, like a deer jumps right in front of us from the dense woods. We have been working on some dressage and jumping in the arrna, but mostly we love trails. Here are the things that helped her and I to be a solid trail team.
    1. Have a very calm lead horse to go with or to follow in the beginning.
    2. Pay close attention to your environment and anticipate spooks.
    3. Work on your position to make it very secure so you don’t get all rallied by a scoot or a small spook.
    4. Condition your horse to focus on you, and have a cue that helps relax the horse, like low and down. I often sing a waltz tempo to my mare if she is getting high strung, always the same, she now pays attention and relaxes.
    5. If the horse did spook, don’t punish her, stay relaxed yourself and pretend nothing major happened. The horse picks up on your attitude.
    Hope it might be helpful to aspiring trail riders.
    Thanks again for excellent videos,

  8. Five years ago, my mare, who was 6 at the time, was like the horse in this video. When I moved her from the breeder/”trainer” she had had very little socialization or experiences outside of the picadero. She had not been taught ground manners and spooked at everything.

    Your video emphasizing time, patience ,positive experiences , and the reminder that learning is not consistently linear really boosted my spirits and commitment to my goal of helping my horse become cooperative, focused and more relaxed.

    One approach that has really helped is the T-Touch, both the Somatic like techniques it uses but also the ground work using poles and cavalletis to help engage her left mind more.

    Looking forward to more of your fabulous videos Wish you were on the West Coast!

  9. Thanks Callie : ). The back of the arena is a spooky area for my 5 year old. One of the things we are doing to help her find comfort in that area is asking her to do a bit more work in the front of the arena (cantering), working our way back & asking for a little less physically (trot) but maybe a bit more mentally (sideways along the rail) & then we stop when we reach the “spooky” spot. It’s okay if she needs to move but we will ask her to go back to that spot & again release any pressure. Once she relaxes & chooses to stand still (& isn’t quivering!) we give her a nice pat, maybe a treat & we move on, often times working in the back but always trying to make it a little more comfortable then in the front of the arena. She has started to want to go towards the back sooner & her spooks are at a much lower level.

    1. Robyn;
      Can you maybe get another person to be in the arena with you (riding if you’re riding and in hand if you’re in hand)? Horses gain confidence from each other. Also, be aware of your movements and make sure you’re not anticipating a spook/bolt, etc. BREATHE, and try to stay confident and not be tentative about anything.
      If I were working with you in person, I would suggest that you do groundwork (later riding) up front and rest her in the back part of the arena, which sounds like what you’re somewhat doing now. Make the hard part (work) happen where she’s already wanting to be, and give her rest/reward in the back where she will learn to appreciate the rest ..thereby wanting to go there. Once she’s comfortable everywhere in the area you can successfully use any spot you choose. Best of luck with your mare.

  10. Good video! As a rider of Arabian horses I’m very familiar with spooky horses. lol. I think dealing with a spooky or sensitive horse is a complex and involved undertaking. Patience is paramount. But feed is also important as well as turnout time, room to run. The rider must remain calm, in particular if the riding is done in wooded trails, where who knows what is going to jump out of a bush. I talk to my horses a lot. A year ago last October I bought a gelding who was trained using the so called “natural horse” method. This horse was so nervous he was dangerous to ride. It took me months to get him to settle down. Small steps. Micro lessons, sometimes lasting a couple of minutes. Today, he’s my favorite mount. I’m very proud of him. I do about half of my riding by myself.

  11. My horse isn’t really spooky with new things. He just startles easily around the barn…. Like, when I’m leading him and someone walks out of the garage, hee will whirl or scoot. He’ll do this as I’m leading him and he’s concerned something is in the hay storage barn as we are walking by it. I don’t do anything. I just keep walking. So I don’t think I’m causing it. The other horses at the barn aren’t like this.

    Another thing is that when something is in a different place, he is Leary. Like if the horse trailer is parked in a different place. But typically out on the trail, he is not spooky, and he is fine going out alone on the trail and is fine with traffic, dogs, and bicycles. So, I don’t know how to help him with being reactive around the barn.

    1. Louisa; This is just your horse being a horse! My suggestion would be to do more desensitizing. It’s amazing how horses will eventually get to where they enjoy the desensitizing routine if you’ve consistently used it after a “sensitizing” exercise, because they get to stand still and rest! It is like a game for them (if presented correctly) where you can almost hear them say “Go ahead, BRING IT ON!” They can, and will (If done frequently and consistently) get to a point where you cannot scare them with anything because they know you’ve never hurt them and things you’ve desensitized them to have never “eaten” them up!…they then really trust you and have confidence in you as their competent leader. This is an achievable goal for anyone using “Natural Horsemanship” which involves bringing a horse along by using a language with which he’s familiar: Horse/Body Language. At this point you should have a horse that very rarely shies or spooks at unfamiliar objects. But be aware that no one can ever expect a horse to NEVER spook! It’s in their nature…they will always be a flight or fight animal …they’re a PREY animal ALWAYS concerned about their safety!

  12. I have a very broke but not bombproof horse who spooks on trails. Just today I purchased and completed the Parellie Horsenality/Human Personality surveys with a matching profile. It was eye opening. My horse is a right brained introvert and I am a right brained extrovert. I now completely understand why he does what he does and have gained some strategies for how to deal with it. Each report is approx. 48 pages in length. I highly recommend this purchase, and I don’t usually spend gobs of money on the latest horse fad but this purchase describes my Jake to a T!!

  13. I’ve been knocked down 3 times by my horse after he spooked at nothing. He’s always a little on edge, but it had gotten much worse this fall. An endoscopy showed an ulcer. I treated him with ulcergard and he is now on a supplement for gut health. It made a huge difference. The anxiety is gone. We also do a lot of desensitizing exercises and at liberty work to build his confidence and keep his attention on me.

  14. My girl spooks at the strangest things, but in my favor, it’s usually only a side step.
    I like to introduce new things far away and in a familiar environment. Then like Callie says, gradually bring it closer. Sometimes I can leave the scary thing there and act interested in it which peaks her interest and she will come over to see what’s up and explore it herself.
    I use treats. But I use lots of praise and mix up the treats so she is hoping for but not expectant and therefore pushy about the treats. Sometimes I let the treat be a few nibbles of grass, but only when I tell her it’s ok. And she knows “head up” means it’s time to get back to work.
    And thanks again, Callie, for reminding us to end on a positive note.

    1. On a side note, I wish there was all this knowledge about ground trading and desensitization when I was a kid. I had the spookiest horse who also loved to bolt. I was frequently dumped off and left to walk home. Being that I rode in the Arizona desert, I thought it was a good day if I didn’t get dumped in a cactus! But as a typical kid I loved my horse anyway.

  15. My horse is a little spooky but not terrible in most situations. I’ve been told if something bothers him, keep doing it so he becomes accustom to whatever it is that bothers him. He spooks when he sees me carrying his blanket and when I unwrap it and try to swing it on his back. I have taken to folding it so I can lay in across his back and unfold it to the front and back. He’s slowly accepting the blanket. I can’t figure out why he doesn’t react to the saddle the same way. Now that it’s getting warmer and he won’t have a blanket I expect we’ll start over next Fall. I’ve also been told to build a zone with fabric and rope hanging so he gets used to have things blowing around him and when a branch comes out of nowhere he won’t react. I’ve been using the lounge line to throw over and around him to also desensitize him. Everything works, albeit slowly.

    1. Bob; You can put stuff in his paddock or hang things on the fence and that will get him used to whatever is in his “living quarters”….But the bad news is that he still will spook and react to objects (anything that moves and/or makes a noise) outside this zone! I suggest that YOU do some desensitizing with the horse “in hand”. And, if you tend to get a little tentative ( with a somewhat cautious demeanor) in presenting his blanket or any other objects, you should have help from an experienced horseman or trainer until your horse becomes better at accepting scary things that will be introduced. Since a person cannot introduce a horse to ALL objects, our goal is to build trust and confidence (become the leader) in the horse so that he looks to you for his safety. If you desensitize after every sensitizing exercise (or after a bit of longeing before riding…then desensitize…ride or train…desensitize….etc.) your horse (if you’re consistent and take away the scary object you are using to desensitize IMMEDIATELY and give him a “rub” when the horse stands still and SHOWS A SIGN OF RELAXATION )or stands still for 15 seconds) after several repetitions and a few days of consistency with the same object, will become quieter. And as you move on to different (progressively scarier) objects he will get to a point when he looks forward to this rest from “working/being ridden or exercised”, and in his mind will be thinking “Oh Boy! the easy part where I get to rest while this crazy man tries to scare me!” At least that’s what it seems like he’s thinking, once your horse gets this kind of confidence in you. It’s “APPROACH AND RETREAT, and reward with your voice or a rub or treat, then REPEAT” to teach confidence. Remember, if you act “tentative or sneaky” during the desensitizing process the horse will get worse. This is because he thinks that you think there is something really scary about to happen. You, as the bold, brave, leader cannot let this happen. Sneaking around horses makes them MORE jumpy whereas, just being confident with normal movements makes the horse MORE confident. When you desensitize, act unconcerned and deliberate. Find a starting place where the horse will allow you to move the object without sheer panic. Move a bit closer each time you repeat the approach and retreat. Keep the horse facing you and when he moves let him!…but follow him to stay with him and Do NOT take the pressure (object) away (you can, however, make smaller movements with it) until his feet stop and he’s showing a sign of relaxing (or 15 seconds of not moving his feet). You should notice that after desensitizing to just a few different objects ( estimate about 3 days per object) your horse progressively gets quicker at accepting them. Allow from 5 minutes to 10 min. per desensitizing session and: Always quit on a good note. When your horse trusts you and you remain confident (which tells the horse not to worry) then you’ll have a less reactive horse. Remember that you can NEVER expect any horse to NEVER spook…because they are prey animals that are instinctively programmed to run from anything they perceive as danger! When they cannot run (because they are tied or held) they will fight (pull away, rear, kick, etc.) That’s why we allow them to “move their feet” and not try to “hold them”. If their “leader” (that’s you) doesn’t run (in this case doesn’t show fear) then the horse should be accepting of almost any object. We don’t have to desensitize him to literally everything. Our goal is to gain the horse’s trust and become a good (confident) leader for him to respect and follow. Good luck with your training.
      P.S. side note: sometimes horses that are fed a legume (such as alfalfa or clover hay) will get a bit “high” spirited. Also, I just read an article in “Horse Digest” magazine (it’s free online) that had an article written by a Ph D. in nutrition, Dr. Getty, who says that adding fat in the form of Canola oil or rice bran (there were others, too but I’m choosing the most common and easily available) to horses that were “anxious” or “high”, they became much more calm. You might want to check into this. I’ve also read that adding magnesium to their daily food ration can aid in calming a nervous or anxious horse.

  16. Here is a wee excerpt from the book I am presently writing:

    Super-charged Horse (Training Plan 2)
    The ‘Half-Circle’ Technique
    If the horse …..
    • Is young,
    • Does not understand ropes and halters,
    • Has no idea what you want,
    • Is supercharged or
    • Has a tendency to strike with his front legs
    ….. you may need to begin with a different strategy to make leading the horse a safe and relaxing pastime.
    We can’t always be in an ideal place when our horse gets high on adrenalin caused by a fright or high excitement. Even if our horse is not often supercharged, it pays to have this exercise already taught and in our mind, ready for when the unexpected happens.
    This ‘half circle’ technique is better than having the horse run random mindless circles at the end of a rope or lunge line.
    With the ‘half circle’, each time the horse reaches the fence and needs to turn, his thinking mind is momentarily activated. Gradually he will begin to wonder why he is running back and forth, and will calm himself down.
    • To teach ourselves and the horse the ‘half-circle’ method that allows the horse to safely run off his adrenalin until he is ready to change from reactive mode to thinking and responsive mode.
    Background Skills Needed:
    • If the horse has a tendency to burst into reactive mode, we need him on a rope long enough to allow him to be active a safe distance away from us.
    • To go with the long rope, we need the skills of gathering the rope up and letting it out. Lots of short practice sessions without the horse will help us become fluid with the process. We can practice by throwing the rope out and gathering it up. Letting a dog wander on a 20 foot long draped lead, letting it out and gathering it up so it doesn’t interfere with the dog’s legs is another way to build this skill.
    • If you can find a willing helper to stand in for the horse, having him move away from you and toward you will help you get adept with keeping the rope with a drape or ‘smile’, but not in the horse’s way.
    • We need to be able to use a stick&string combination or a lunging whip as well as manage the rope. See the Additional Resources section for more information about developing these skills.
    • The horse on a 12 foot line or longer.
    • A safe fence-line or hedge: We stand with our back against this.
    • Good footing for the horse.
    • Stick&string or lunging whip in neutral unless we are using it to clarify our intent to the horse.
    • As well as all of the above, we need to be able to stay emotionally neutral. If we buy into the horse’s fear or excitement, we will make the situation worse. The horse is simply being a horse in a state of anxiety. It is our job, as the horse’s handler or human companion, to remain safe, calm, confident and assertive. The horse can then look to us as a safe port in the storm. If we remain emotionally neutral, the horse will be able to overcome his own anxiety more easily.
    You will stand with your back to a fence. You will direct the horse’s energy so he moves half-circles around you toward the fence on either side of you. When he gets to the fence, allow him to stop if he can. Use a rope directional signal and your body extension to turn him into a half-circle moving in the opposite direction. Repeat until the horse regains calmness.
    As he regains calmness, his head will come down, his movement will slow, he will be able to stop at the fence and he’ll be able to walk the half-circle rather than trot or canter.
    Important: If possible, teach and practice this exercise when the horse is calm and responsive. It is a skill, not a punishment. If the horse becomes super-charged, we use this technique as an inhibitor. It is more useful than letting the horse run away into the next county or do endless circles.
    Relax when the horse reaches the fence on either side of you.
    If the horse is clicker savvy and able to stand at the fence when he reaches it, click and walk to him to deliver his treat. Then walk back to resume your initial position and send him the other way: relax as he halts (click&treat).
    If you are using release reinforcement only, relax as the horse reaches the fence in the hope that he will also relax and eventually be able to stand there, rather than rush back in the opposite direction.
    The idea is to make this another gymnastic exercise in our repertoire.
    One day you may have a plunging horse in reactive mode at the end of your long line and you will know just what to do.
    When walking out with my horse I always use a long line and carry a body extension. Most often I use my fiberglass body extension as a walking stick, but it is there in the rare event I need it. Carrying the stick horizontally at its balance point makes it almost weightless (see figure 8).
    1. Stand with your back against a safe fence-line with space to the right and left at least as far as the horse’s rope allows the horse to travel.
    2. Let the horse move to the end of the rope (or ask him to do so).
    3. When he is at the end of the rope, use your stick&string or lunging whip to direct him in a half-circle toward the fence well away from you. The fence will stop his forward movement.
    4. If at any point the horse can halt and stand at the fence (and you do clicker training) click as he halts and walk over to him to deliver the treat, then walk back to your former position. If you don’t use clicker training, relax your body language and let the horse stand at the fence to a count of three, five, ten or fifteen seconds before sending him into a half-circle in the other direction.
    5. If he can’t halt and wait, direct his energy into the half-circle around you in the opposite direction right away. He will pass you and end up at the fence on your other side.
    6. Direct his energy to move in a half-circle around you again in the opposite direction.
    7. Every time he comes to the fence, check to see if he is able to halt or if he needs to move his feet around you again in the opposite direction.
    8. Each time he reaches the fence and has to change direction, his thinking mind briefly switches in. Eventually he will wonder why he is racing back and forth in a half-circle and be able to calm himself down.
    9. When he is calm and able to stop, release (click&treat) and give ample dwell time.
    10. After the dwell time, ask him to do something easy that he knows well.
    11. Ideally, practice it for fun when the horse is calm and connected.
    12. Be ready to use this half-circle exercise any time a situation arises where you need to keep yourself safe with a highly energized horse.
    If we use clicker training, we can set up a destination target, at the fence on either side of us, to make it easier for the horse to understand what we want. In figure 42 I am using a familiar nose target for one of the destination points.
    The next section of the book looks at Destination Training in more detail.
    Once the horse has learned this technique at home in a relaxed environment, find safe fences or hedges away from home where you can do it as an exercise.
    If, one day, you are away from home and he slips into reactive mode and needs a way to run off his adrenalin rush, the technique will be familiar to him.

    1. Hertha; I’ve used this exercise (It’s great, by the way) to get the horse to be more relaxed and “tuned in to you” as well as not be so claustrophobic when asked to work (or be) right up to a fence or barrier. Have you ever carried this a bit further (after the horse has become comfortably by being right up to the fence on both sides of you) by asking the horse to move laterally (sidepass)? If, when your horse arrives right up to the fence but still has “forward” in his mind, you start moving toward him (you stay right next to the fence with your shoulder close to it) with your rope hand held straight forward pointing toward the horse’s head and your stick motivating the hindquarters (with pressure toward the rear of the horse) as you continue walking toward your horse with energy and with your mind saying “move sideways” to the horse. I’ve never had this fail me, yet, and even my 4-H kids have all done this successfully. It’s just a “cool” way to teach the horse to sidepass along the fence! Be sure to do it in both directions. The secret is to not pause or hesitate when the horse is arriving at the barrier….just turn his forwardness into sideways immediately! Fun for both you and the horse! I first learned this great exercise from Pat Parelli who was teaching a young girl with MS how to get better control of her horse’s feet. It happened smoothly for her and her horse the first try! Amazing to see so I immediately had to try it with my critters…worked for me 100%. That’s been about 20 years ago and I still use it a lot. Thanks for sharing the “half-circle” with all! P.S. Have you tried Clinton Anderson’s “C- Pattern” exercise? I use this to get energized horses from the barn to the arena! You can probably see it on YouTube. It’s just one more way to add variety and get the horse thinking and engaged in his mind (using their thinking side!) Horses, like people, get bored doing the “same old, same old” stuff every day. Kudos and much success with your book!

      1. Hi Judy,
        Yes, I do expand this exercise into teaching the horse to step sideways. It is often easier for them to learn to move sideways when they are already in motion, as opposed to teaching alternate yield of front end, then hind end from a standstill.
        For a horse new to learning how to side-step, it takes a bit of mental and physical effort for them to learn to organize their four legs in the correct sequence.

        1. Hertha;
          Yes, I agree with you…I prefer Pat Parelli’s “yielding a horse laterally” down the fence over Clinton Anderson’s. This is just one example of “the more knowledge you gain, the more choices you’ll have in your “tool box” for teaching horses!” The “C- Pattern, though, (I’ve ysed it quite a bit) is great to check out your horse’s attentiveness and responsiveness to you before you get on to ride. Some people might not want to spend time doing groundwork per se’ before riding. And groundwork can be as easy as just “checking out” your horse when you lead him to the tacking up area. Ask for a couple of requests of your horse and if he’s willing, listening to you, and obedient then would probably be ready to ride!
          The C-Pattern is just a series of “sending” the horse back and forth in front of you (as you keep walking forward in a straight line). You get multiple test results with this exercise: coming lightly off of halter pressure, staying out of your “bubble”…not crowding you (which also involves bending his rib cage away from you when he goes past, yielding the hindquarters when you look at his rear end and keeping up with you (not lagging) as you walk forward to your destination! There’s your “groundwork” check right here!

    2. Hertha; This looks like a GREAT BOOK. Let me know when you get it finished and published! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  17. Thanks for this topic. I can see it is a popular one! I have a sensitive, reactive mare that I have trained mostly by myself. I had an Ah, Ha! moment while leading her in from the field one day when she saw something that worried her. She quickly looked at me to see if I was concerned about it. It only took a split second for this to occur and I made sure I did not look at the direction of the object and kept us busy headed toward where we were going. While this didn’t happen under saddle, it does have a bearing on how much we are telling our horses without even knowing it. The most important concept to understand is what your body language tells the horse, and it is the hardest thing for humans to understand that they are often reinforcing the negative behavior, so you have to practice being in control of your own body language first before you can convince the horse that they wont be eaten alive or that what they are perceiving is a threat. I often get horses in that are reactive and spooky and I don’t know the particular reason, so I always handle them when they first come by reaffirmig that I am the leader and that in no way are they allowed to invade my personal space unless i have invited them in. Often these horses have not learned to yield to pressure and drag their owners around so I work with them on yielding to the halter and lead rope and directing their feet where I want them so that I have control. Once that is done I can work safely exposing them to new things, or turning what were negative experiences for them into positive ones and i won’t get trampled or dragged in the process. The biggest mistake I see people make is putting on too much pressure when a horse is fearful and releasing the pressure or rewarding them with a treat at the wrong time. Yelling at them or punishing them for being fearful also reinforces their fear. As others have posted here, when exposing them to things while on the ground or in the saddle, keeping their mind occupied on you as the leader by suppling excercises and making them move their feet where you tell them is very helpful in teaching them to ignore things that they are fearful of or distracting them because you cannot possibly expose them to every situation or object that you will come across. I also follow Clinton Anderson, Parelli, Lyons etc but these concepts are generally just behavior modification techniques as you so wonderfully describe in some of your introductory videos. It all comes down to patience, consistency, and emotional self-control on the part of the human especially when working with the sensitive horse.

    1. Kerie; My compliments to you on your comments to everyone! Learning all you can, along with experiences you get when working with horses (the more different horses you can work with, the better horseman you become through varied experiences) is also key to becoming an educated horseman. Callie’s inspirational, helpful, easy to understand videos really adds to knowledge….and as I’ve said before: KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. I hope these blogs will help all those who are reading them!

    2. Here’s an additional note to my comment above. Clinton Anderson has just done a one hour show on “desensitization” that I think is one of his best. I want to invite everyone (especially those of you with “spooking” issues with their horse/s) to please, please, watch this show. It was on the air March 1 and you can see it for the next couple of weeks on his FREE online recent RFD-TV programs. Go to his website: to watch it. His last 3 shows are on this menu each week so click on the March 1 show. It steps you through how to successfully desensitize a horse. He starts with the required “basic” exercise and works up to scarier objects as the program continues….even using a chainsaw (with the chain removed for safety)! Once you show your confidence and leadership to your horse and receive the horse’s trust and respect, you are on you way to success in having a safe, calm and trusting partner. Ideally, you contribute 51% of the responsibility and the horse contributes 49% of the responsibility in the partnership. Your extra percentage point makes YOU the leader. Take what you will from this online TV show (and I think you’ll get a great deal of wisdom from it to help you with desensitization) and learn some things you may not have even thought about, but, are very important to being successful.

  18. This was really helpful. I have a horse who came to me very nervous of virtually everything. He has come on leaps and bounds with my trainer and we have him hacking out and seeing new things 5 days a week. I am just starting back on him following an injury but I know that I can get very nervous which he will no doubt pick up on so trying to focus, relax and breathe does help. Someone suggested to me about supplements such as magnesium which they found had a very calming effect on a nervous horse. I wondered if you had never heard the same and if so, did you have any experience of success with anything?

    1. Yes, Louise, I have used magnesium oxide as a calming agent on a horse. In my case, I can’t say it made a big difference. I have a horse that when I got him was afraid of everything. And I mean everything, including his own shadow. No joke. He was abused and didn’t trust anybody or anything. Now, my granddaughter rides him. It took work, time and patience; not forcing anything on him, just working with what he gave me on a particular day. Baby steps, one at a time. And I know that most people will think this is crazy, but riding alone on the trails is a tremendous way to build that bond. If you do try the magnesium oxide, make sure it is food grade. It should say so on the bag.

      1. Thank you so much Robert. Thats really helpful regarding the magnesium. Its interesting to get people’s views. I will keep working with Simba patiently and I will try riding him on my own quietly to build up my bond, remembering to relax and breathe!

  19. If you have a horse who is nervous when being ridden on trail, I might suggest taking a buddy who is not nervous trail riding with you. That way the spooky horse sees that his friend is not nervous, which will hopefully help to ease the spooky horse’s fears.

    1. Thank you for your advice. It’s very true and definitely works!!! My instructor suggested that also and we’ve been hacking out in company and he’s so much happier and calmer with another reassuring horse. Much appreciated.

  20. Great conversations! I have recently purchased my first horse who is an extremely relaxed boy in most situations . My best friend has also purchased a horse but one that is very spooky and hypersensitive. they will be paddocked (is that even a word ??!!) together at my property. We have attempted some short rides up the driveway etc and I feel that my horse is beginning to react to the skittishness of the other horse. Both are 15 years old with mine a stock horse and the other a warmblood/thoroughbred . I hope that my horse will be a calming influence but any ideas if the opposite occurs???

  21. Start going on longer rides ( 3+ miles). It isn’t unusual for a horse to be a little nervous at the beginning of a ride, particularly a horse who’s in new surroundings with new rider, or one who hasn’t been ridden in a while. Actually, I have Arabians that when I first got them, they didn’t relax until 2 hours into the ride. lol! Also, the rider needs to relax and enjoy the ride. Hope this helps.

  22. I was searching for tips for my uber reactive ex racehorse. Great ideas here. My horse to the untrained, used to look like he was going to kill me. In fact, I was advised to put him down multiple times. It happens in a flash, head up nostrils flaring, challenge snorting tail up like an Arab and then the buck, rear, hoof strike begins. Attempts to stop it ( halt, head down) only make him rear and buck higher. After two long years and a lot of tears he finally started to hold it together more often. However if anyone who really understands horses watched they would see my horses was very careful to not run me over and any hoof strike was away from me. If his hooves got too close in a rear, he would freakishly pull his legs into his chest to avoid me. So he always was aware of me. I had him in a rope halter and a 15 foot lead rope. With the long rope I always had a chance to get a hold of him with two hands and or get him lunging in a small circle until he calmed down. Because when he spooked-he got assigned work. And we kept working until he gained his focus back. We had our fits and stops but eventually made a lot of progress. I even started leading him with a short rope and a leather halter a few months ago. He seemed “fixed”. I now know and want to warn people, these horses NEVER lose the propensity to over react. This ain’t a Clint Anderson video where this kind of horse is fixed in a few sessions. Sure, my horse made a lot of progress to the point I thought, hey he is like a normal horse now, he has seen it all . But yesterday a horse who was very challenging, escape out of his stall just as I was leading my horse outside to the wash stall. Biggest freak out session ever! And since I had switched to a short rope and leather halter it was all I could do to hang on. It was a close call and I did almost lose him. I had no way to protect myself with a short rope and felt like this was the one time he could really injure me. After an immense struggle I finally got him in the round pen. After a few rounds he reverted back to his calm version. He had a look on his face like what’s the big deal. Like he totally forgot it even happened. For the rest of my life while I own this horse he will ONLY BE LED WITH A 15 FOOT ROPE. No matter how many years these type of horses behave, you need to have the right tools for that one time when they do react. My horse in reality is not for amateurs, he is the kind of horse a professional should be riding. Because this horse needs to be ridden with the rider constantly changing things up, keeping the horse focused. He is not a horse to take a leisurely walk with. But with his old track injuries, he won’t hold up for high competition, and trainers would just have him PTS. So I have had to step up my game to ride this guy and give him the best life I can.

  23. Hi there, just ran across this blog when googling reactive horse – I have one. Callie you are bang on with everything you said on the video. My horse is pretty predictable but inconsistent. I’ve have him for almost a year now – he was sold because he had developed a bronco buck when riding out on trails. The past owner had him for 3 three years and he progressively worsened until he became dangerous – so, crazy me bought him!
    He is extremely beautiful – Friesian Sport Horse – 18.2 hh. 2,000Lbs. – very scary animal when he becomes reactive!!
    My saving grace has been the one reign stop – or when he’s in a reactive state he just wildly spins for a while before he stops. I’m thinking at some point he may fall doing this but he hasn’t so far.
    I guess my biggest thing to share on the subject of reactive behavior is – if you pull back on both reigns, it will just make the horse feel claustrophobic and panicky and will cause them to brace and take off doing whatever they want to in their crazy state – very dangerous!
    One reign stops pull their head around, disengage their back end and make it impossible for them to take off, buck etc.
    I really might have been seriously injured or killed by now if I didn’t learn to be ready and very quick at pulling him around to avoid disaster.
    I’m taking him to a Clinton Anderson 10 day clinic in Texas next month and hope to solve a couple of his bigger issues – aggression with lunging/round pen and sustained canter without nagging him (constant squeeze with the legs) and working harder than he is and of course without the bronco bucking!!
    As far as his improvement in the last year, I can say he’s come a long way. He is very good out on trails solo and is actually better alone than with other horses. But he’s one of those horses that had bad experiences with the last owner and it is hard for him to trust me 100%. His reactive behavior is less than it was but still a very dangerous situation especially with his size. It takes a lot of courage to continue to saddle up when I think about some of the dangerous situations I’ve been in with him when he does react. It’s not enough fear to stop me from saddling up but I would like to get him to a point that I don’t have fear rise up in me whenever I start thinking about some of the situations I’ve been in with him. I know he needs lots of time and lots of good experiences – I can say we have this 95% of the time and if he wasn’t so BIG I wouldn’t be concerned at all.
    Patience and time….. and lots of good experiences.
    This kind of horse will definitely stretch you to the max to be the best that you can be as a horse person and as a person in general. I commend all of you that have chosen to take on this great challenge.

  24. Hello,
    I’m not sure if anyone is still replying to this thread, but worth a shot. I’m currently working with a 5yo QH gelding who has very good ground manners and is generally good when worked by himself either on the line or under saddle. He can be a little spooky in new environments but generally calms down when he’s seen whats new around the ring. Overall he’s a good boy, just young and hasn’t had a lot of hours put into him. I’m riding him as mental break time for me from my residency and as a favor to his owner, who is a very green rider.

    We are currently working in a large indoor ring and often are in the space with other horses. On about our 10th ride we were in the ring during a busy time and there were about 8 other horses there. As we were coming around a corner at the trot another horse was coming down the center line toward us. Not at all close but my horse just lost it. Spun, bucked, tried to take off to get away from the horse. He calmed down after a few minutes of walking but was still pretty tense.

    Now any time we are in the ring with more then 1 horse he is pretty tense/nervous. Any horse coming toward him at anything over a very sedate walk is a no go. He balls up and spins/bucks/bolts. I can typically see and feel it about to happen and try to divert his attention, make him try to concentrate on something else, but it doesn’t always work. I’m at the point that I avoid riding if there is more then one or two others in the ring and try to stay as far away from them as possible. I’ve tried letting him stand and watch the other horses go around and that seems to help a little. I’ve also lunged him while other horses were going around and that also helps a bit.

    I want to work on this problem but am in a position where I don’t have another horse and rider who I can work with and don’t know what I can do with him by myself to help this problem. I don’t really mind the spin/buck/bolt as I can deal with it and get him back under control quickly, but I have an old back injury and every time he does this, I’m in pain for a few days. I also feel that it’s not fair to the other riders in the ring if he has one of these explosions and spooks another horse.

    The other problem I have with him is that he gets very forward at the lope/canter and will buck or throw his head when I try to slow him with my body and hands. I switched him from the heavy bit he was in back to a simple snaffle but he acts the same. He stops readily when asked to, but he is just VERY forward and pushy at the canter and circles just seem to frustrate him and make him more pushy.

    Currently my only solution is to simply not ride when there’s anyone else in the ring and stay to a walk and trot. I’d love any advice and I’m more then happy to go completely back to basics with him if needed and scrap any riding for a while. I just really want this horse to be safe for his owner.

    Thanks for any advice!

    1. In my experience when you have an insecure horse you have to take baby steps if you ever want him/her to be confident. This of course means more work from you… for example, I have a just turned 7 paint mare that was very green broke and more like a young four year old in experience. She is very reactive to certain things. I just had my ACL replaced in Dec 2018 and couldn’t ride for 8 weeks so I had no choice but to do lots of ground work, desensitizing and bonding work. So she didn’t like tarps, she didn’t like loading, she didn’t like me flapping the saddle blanket, she didn’t like me swinging the lead rope by her, she didn’t like the tractor… everything she didn’t like I did consistently with her and let her learn to accept them. I never owned a horse that wouldn’t smell or touch something they were “worried” about before. This horse wouldn’t until I started allowing her to smell the “scary” items. Now if I come to a new obstacle that she is worried about… for instance a water/sewer cap on the sidewalk, she will actually now go to smell it and once she does that I will ask her to step on it. If she refuses after a couple of minutes with me asking then I get off and ask on the ground and she most times will do it with little issue. Then I ask her three times on the ground and get back in the saddle and ask her three times. This approach seems to work very well for her. She relaxes, accepts and seems to remember for the next time. I can now flap the saddle pad totally around her all the way over my head and she stands with her leg cocked, before she was super worried, very tense and would pull back. I still do this EVERY time I saddle her, I will continue to do all these things that bother her until I feel she has come to trust me and is not reactive. I found out that she totally freaks out if I leave something on her, like my jacket and it falls off. She totally freaked out and when she freaks out like that she totally loses her brain and has no idea where you are so can be dangerous if I can’t get her to start learning/thinking. So she pulled the trailer off it’s stand (that’s how bad she pulled back) once she settled I untied her and let her stand until I could see she was ok. Then I started throwing the jacket around her, on her and letting it fall. The more I did it the better more relaxed she got. This will become an every time I do something with her thing, along with flapping the saddle blankets. So what I’m saying is some horses due to their personality will require more “babying” meaning if you know he’s freaky with horses coming at him in an arena it’s going to require you hand walking him and letting him learn that it’s ok. If you could ask people to ride towards you at a trot while hand walking him to let him learn it’s ok then that’s what he needs. It takes A LOT of time and a lot of “babying” to get a horse over these types of things. I’m not sure my girl will ever be totally 100% over her reactiveness but I do expect it will be more controlled and less intense. I know this is long but wanted to share with you. Hope it helps 🙂

      1. Really encouraging to hear your journey Mari……my rescue gelding sounds a bit like that and I hear voices saying, “he is badly trained” “I am too soft”….”he needs, a stricter person”….and maybe he does, but maybe, if he didn’t come to me, he would have been dog meat

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