Barn sour or herd bound -whichever term you want to use – having a horse that is reluctant to leave the paddock, calls constantly from the show ring or trail, or jigs, bucks, rears or bolts not only makes riding frustrating, but dangerous. For the horse, the cause of these behaviours is much more than just a temper tantrum or sheer stubbornness. There is a deep-seated, innate psychology at work that creates this anxiety about leaving his herd, a particular buddy or a physical location. The equine brain is hardwired to know that there is safety in numbers. Hundreds of years of domestication have not erased the fear and stress of separation from the herd that is ingrained into the amygdale (a prehistoric part of the brain) and, there is nothing you can do to eliminate your horse’s need for that sense of security.
It is possible, however, to have your horse feel as safe with you as he does when he is with his herd mates.
Whether the problem starts the moment you take him out of the paddock or not until you are in the tack, you can help change how your horse feels from the ground as well as from the saddle. If he trusts and respects you as a benevolent leader, and feels good physically and mentally whenever he is with you, then he will also feel safe with you.
A stressed horse has a specific body shape – scissored legs, high head, inverted and braced back, stiff tail, tight mouth, staring eyes. This frame has him in high alert as adrenaline flows through his blood stream and keeps him ready for flight. A calm horse has a level to low head, a relaxed back, a softly curled tail, a relaxed mouth, soft, blinking eyes. By helping to change your horse’s frame of body, you will also change his frame of mind.
Before beginning to work with your horse, keep these three tips in mind and remember to apply them whether you are on the ground or in the saddle.
1. Be proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait for your horse to lose his cool before taking action. Pay close attention to his body language so you can address his anxiety at the first sign of stress.
A feeling of calmness comes from straightness nose to tail, a level to low neck and a relaxed back. Your job is to keep bringing him into this shape until he feels that calmness and can keep it on his own. (For more information about understanding your horse’s body language refer to the article ‘Creating True Partnerships – Part 1’ in the March/April 2010 issue.)
2. Work with him in a safe place. That means emotionally as well as physically safe. If his stress begins the moment you bring him out of the paddock, work with him in-hand as close to the paddock as possible. Continue working with him as long as is necessary and do not move him out of that area until he is calm.
3. Remain calm and be patient with your horse. Keep your breathing slow, your voice soft and your movements supple. Yelling, moving quickly, yanking on the lead rope or hitting your horse only adds to the stress he is feeling. If he is to be calm, he must feel safe and secure in your leadership.
To help build your horse’s sense of security when he is with you and away from his herd mates, begin working with him in an area where he feels comfortable (i.e. just outside of his paddock or in an arena where he can see other horses).
Your first step is to ensure he is respectful of your personal space, your boundaries and your pushes. The only equipment you need is a well-fitting halter, a long lead rope, or a bridle with a plain snaffle bit (I prefer a D-Ring or full cheek as they provide a good block on either side of the mouth and are stable), and a short crop (to extend your arm’s reach and protect your personal space).
Horses need consistency, boundaries and clear, trustworthy leadership in order to feel secure. Whether you are working with your horse from the ground or from the saddle, the quality of your contact is an important part of setting boundaries. If you are stiff and tense, your horse will feel too constricted and resist the connection. If there are gaps in your contact, your horse will have no clear boundaries and will be able bend himself out of shape which will feed his stress.
When your horse is stressed, leading in-hand with contact creates the boundaries needed to re-frame him. Position yourself at his shoulder with your navel and his spine following parallel tracks. Make sure you are not in front of his shoulder or you run the risk of being stepped on. If necessary, use your crop to extend your reach so you can tap your horse’s flank (forward button), push his hips out (turn him in), tap his girth (bend button) or use the tip of the handle to block a pushy shoulder.
Once you are both comfortable with leading this way, walk your horse a bit beyond his comfort zone. At the first sign of stress, use the contact on the rope or reins to keep his nose in line with his spine, encourage him to keep his head low or level by flexing.
With “flexing,” you encourage your horse to bring his head down and his neck to level by gently moving his head laterally (side to side) with slight downward pressure.
Remember that you are not forcing your horse into this posture, but are encouraging him to stay there long enough to realize how good it feels. Forcing a posture creates more resistance and stress. Think of this movement as a rhythmic massage that works with the natural swing of the horse’s head to loosen and relax his poll. When the horse is moving, his head swings over the front feet as they step forward. So, as the left fore comes forward, gently rock the horse’s head to the left; as the right fore comes forward, gently rock it to the right. You must have contact on the lead rope or reins with a soft, supple arm for this to be effective.
If your horse starts to rush or pull, remember that his flight instinct has been triggered by his anxiety and his need to move is real. Asking him to stand still will only increase his stress level. In the horse’s world, leadership is gained by creating movement in the other horses. It is predator behaviour to stop movement.
As long as your horse needs to move, push him forward into a small, gymnastic circle. Maintain contact on the lead rope or reins and pivot in place staying beside the shoulder while you push his hips out, keep his nose in the centre of his chest, flex his head down and ask him to stay bent around you. Look around the circle to the left so that your spine and your horse’s spine stay aligned in parallel tracks. You do not want your core to aim into your horse’s head, nor do you want to be standing in front of the shoulder where you can get stepped on.
Working Under Saddle
While the work of establishing trust and respect and a sense of security with you begins on the ground, the same principles are also applied under saddle.
Have supple, consistent contact on your reins to create boundaries for the horse’s head so that his nose stays centred in line with the spine. Keep your navel aligned with your horse’s spine by aiming it between his ears. Work with your horse’s need to move, but also be aware of your horse’s bend. Working against the horse’s bend creates stress in the spine, which will only add to his mental stress. Remember to breathe and release any tension in your own body as your horse will react to your emotional and physical state as well.
Riding your horse forward into his bend helps alleviate some of his physical/mental stress. Keep him on a small, gymnastic circle until you feel him start to relax. Gradually leg yield out onto a larger circle making sure you do not allow him to straighten out of the bend. At the first sign of stress, use your outside leg aid to bring him back into the smaller circle. As he relaxes again, keep his body, and, therefore, his mind, busy with lateral work and transitions. You can also ride changes of direction as long as he does not invert his back through the changes as inverting will again add more stress through his body.
Eliminating separation anxiety takes time. Behavioural change is achieved only through consistent and patient demonstration of leadership that earns your horse’s trust and respect. When you have achieved this, he will develop confidence and a sense of security even when he is away from his herd and familiar surroundings.