Our connection to horses can be a respite from many of the concerns in our human lives. But when that connection seems to fail due to our horse jigging around, snatching at the bit, calling frantically for other horses, and generally acting like a hot mess, it can create just one more form of frustration and the feeling of loss of control in our lives.
So here is what can cause anxiety in horses, and what you can (and can’t) do about it.
First, horses don’t choose to be anxious. They aren’t carrying on to be disrespectful, uncaring, or ungrateful for all the feed bills we pay.
Being anxious is no more a pleasant state for a horse than it is for a person. Our anxious horses want to feel better. Sometimes we can help them.
In this article, I am going to discuss five main causes of anxiety in horses.
Lack of Certainty and Predictability in Their Environment (hint… we are part of the horse’s environment)
Lack of Connection to Others (horses are a social species)
Personality (this is a mix of genetics, experiences, and other aspects of personality we may not understand yet)
All of these essentially come back to one factor – perceived safety.
If the horse feels safe, they will feel better. If they feel unsafe, the nervous system kicks in with heightened awareness and survival responses – i.e. spooking, rushing forward, frantic movements, even kicking, biting, or bucking.
By understanding each of these causes, we can also find the solutions, to help our horses and ourselves.
- Physical Discomfort
Pain can make anyone irritable. Our horses can’t describe their pain, so conditions like gastric ulcers may cause pain, irritability, and anxiety without obvious symptoms.
Other physical conditions such as lymes disease can also cause increased anxiety along with other symptoms.
The equipment we use also plays a huge role in the horse’s comfort while we are riding. A poor fitting saddle, pinching too-small bit, or literal burr in the saddle pad can cause a big behavior change, even from the most stoic of horses.
It is always a good idea to check your equipment, as even changing body shapes as horses gain or lose weight or muscle mass can make previously well-fitted equipment no longer fit.
If your normally calm horse suddenly becomes worried and nervous without other changes in their management, get your veterinarian involved to see if there is an underlying problem.
2. Poor Balance
This may be the most underestimated source of anxiety for horses. If a horse does not feel stable on their feet, they will become nervous, perhaps rushing forward in an attempt to catch their balance, not wanting to stand still, or being easily startled and spooky from hypervigilance.
Balance, or lack thereof, can be recognized by looking at a horse’s posture and movement. Horses who have their neck high and back hollow, with the appearance they are leaning over their front feet, are displaying poor balance.
This may be accompanied by “ewe-neck” muscling patterns, where the bottom of the horse’s neck is more heavily muscled than the top.
Exercises that strengthen and supple the horse’s body, teaching them how to carry the weight of a rider, and how to better organize their own bodies can improve balance and lessen anxiety.
3. Lack of Certainty and Predictability in their Environment
If a horse does not know what to expect, either because of a new situation, such as being at a horse show, or from the way they are managed, perhaps living at a busy barn where new horses are always coming and going.
When we are working with our horses, we are also part of their environment, and our actions as well as our internal state has a big impact on their mood and behavior.
If we are not consistent in how we handle them, or we are not internally regulated, meaning we try to present a calm front, but inside our thoughts are racing, this will also lower the feeling of safety for our horses and make them more anxious.
4. Lack of Connection to Others
For any social species, connection to others creates safety. A lone horse is more vulnerable to predators but togetherness is more than just being in the same pen as other horses. Only when the horse feels connected to others can they feel truly safe. In a natural herd environment, the horse would have rich social interactions, perhaps having a few “friends” that they spend more time with, but also having the security of the herd.
With our domestic horses we see more pair-bonding, as horses are kept in smaller groups and are more likely to form intense connections to one or two other horses, creating anxiety when they are separated.
Two horses may have had the same training, gone to the same number of horse shows, even be the same breed, and yet behave very differently.
Personality is created by a number of factors, it is part genetics, part life experience.
Some horses are more sensitive than others. No matter how much great training they have, they will likely always more sensitive and more easily slip into anxiety when any of the previous four factors is present.
Many times, part of working with an anxious horse is accepting them for who they are. That may mean accepting them day by day, working with the horse in front of you instead of the horse you wish they could be.
An anxious horse can be frustrating. Whether we have to give up our plans for the day, or adapt our bigger expectations for the horse, working through anxiety can be a reminder of what is really important.
In the end, the moments we remember and cherish the most are not about performance. They are about connection – seeing your horse run up to meet you at the gate, turning around to see them still watching you as you walk away after a training session, the feeling of partnership as you sail over a jump together, or explore a new trail.
Creating these moments is the process of good horsemanship. When we can pause to consider the horse’s point of view and know that our relationship with them is what matters more than achieving the leg yield or lead change, we discover the real reason that we love to ride.
If you are interested in knowing your horse better and creating the kind of relationship where your horse also looks forward to your time together, Join In on the Free Pure Liberty Workshop with Andrea Wady. Click Here to Register