Does your horse friend feel threatened by other horses in warm-up arenas at competitions? Does he jump sideways when a horse gets too close, or does he threaten to mount – and even succeed, as mine did? Maybe he’s new to showing, or feels overwhelmed by the busy crowds because he’s used to working alone? Maybe he’s just claustrophobic. Whatever is causing the horse’s fear, begin to overcome it with patience.
Step One: Work with another horse
Start the rehabilitation 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 allows, ride next to the other in gait and in the same direction. Do this on both reins.
2. Switch sides occasionally. Some horses feel “squeezed” against the outside fence and need reassurance that they are safe when they are between a horse and the arena boundary.
3. Then let the other rider go behind you.
4, When your horse is comfortable with it, the other animal should walk towards yours – only as close as your horse is comfortable with. Don’t take him too far out of his comfort zone at this point.
5. Gradually reduce the distance between both animals until yours is relaxed as you pass on either side of the oncoming horse with very little space.
This may be all your horse friend can take for the first few sessions. Be patient and try not to get frustrated. Your goal is for your horse to trust you. Push him one a little beyond his comfort zone is necessary to make progress and for him to realize that he is not going to get hurt. But if you overdo it, you will 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 to 5, perform the same exercises at the trot, followed by the canter. Don’t even go up until he is completely relaxed with your current level.
Step Two: Introduce another horse
You are now ready to ride with two others. The second horse should also be a reliable animal, to increase the horse’s growing confidence.
1. Drive between both, in the same direction.
2. Allow enough space between animals so yours don’t feel claustrophobic.
3. If he’s uncomfortable at first, walk him on either side of the duo, then introduce him to the middle.
4. When he is OK with this, go in the opposite direction.
5. The other two horses should now go towards yours, with one wide gap between them for your to pass through. If your horse becomes anxious, let 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 on your confidence: ride him firmly between the oncoming animals so that he learns that he will not be hurt if he obeys you.
Once he’s focused on you, start working at a trot followed by a 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 the 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 have crossed a big hurdle. Continue training with the same horses, then add others or change riding buddies. Your horse may even begin to enjoy being ridden in company.
Step three: Change riding location
Before jumping into a show environment, test your horse’s confidence by riding it in an unfamiliar, non-show location with other horses. By putting him in a less stressful situation than he will encounter at a show, you will also be calmer, giving your horse the best chance of passing the confidence test with flying colours. Drive him in indoor and outdoor arenas. (My horse was more anxious in an outdoor arena, so that’s where I concentrated his rehabilitation.) Doing this will ensure your horse is comfortable at both indoor and outdoor shows.
Step Four: Be a non-competitor
Unless you’re the super cool type whose nerves don’t want to eat away at your horse’s confidence, consider taking him as a non-competitor to his first post-rehab show. Choose a low-key location for his re-introduction to competitive conditions. This will allow you to spend as long as you want in the warm-up arena without competing. You will be more relaxed and give your horse a good experience around strange horses. Then take him to the real thing – when he’s proven he’s ready.
Every horse is different. Yours may be the type to quickly get over the fear, or he may be like mine, and needs a lot of time and persuasion! Do not have a strict schedule for his rehabilitation. Acting like you have forever to fix the problem will get it resolved much faster than trying to force it before a certain deadline. You can miss a show season – but you would have missed it anyway while your horse was scared of the warm-up. Keep your goal firmly in mind, but be flexible with your time frame. Patience is the key.