Is That Horse Hot or Fearful? The Importance of Relaxation

WMclarabesteyeIt’s a question I’ve asked groups lately, “How can you tell the difference between a hot horse and a fearful one? There are a handful of answers but by far, most people say they see the difference in their eyes. Pressed a bit farther, it gets harder to explain. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I can tell the difference. Maybe hot gets labeled temperament, while fear is a behavior… or maybe one name is just an alternative for the other.

I certainly recognize the beauty of an energetic, forward horse, who is responsive to aids and yet soft in the poll, with quiet eyes and listening ears. But horses like that aren’t usually called hot.

I also know the look of fear in a horse. It shows in every inch of his back, from his clamped tail to  his tense jaw. His stride has lost its natural rhythm, replaced by stilted movements and a tense poll. In the worst case, white is visible around the eye, giving a sense of the horse’s real terror.

Most of us have been told to push our horses when they become afraid; to ride them through whatever behavior they are doing. Some horses submit and show passive resistance by shutting down, while other horses come apart and get in more trouble for that. Does it sound too dramatic to say that lots of horses live lives of quiet desperation? Not enough fear to be horribly dangerous, but certainly enough resistance and tension that they are visibly uncomfortable. For the record, chronic fear isn’t normal.

Too often the antidote for riding a nervous horse who’s prone to dancing around and running away is a harsher bit, draw reins, pulling a horse in tight circles, or most inane of all, tying the horse for hours so that he can think about what he did wrong. Just stop.

Fighting doesn’t bring out the best in a rider, but instead creates an adversarial situation where the rider questions the horse’s behavior as something that’s somehow a deceptive trick; that the horse is constantly trying to have his way or be lazy or dishonest. The rider has to protect his dominance because losing a fight will turn the tide of the war and all discipline will be lost. It’s riding with a closed heart and a defensive mind, and then at the end of the day, these riders give each other high-fives for surviving the ride. There’s worn-out adrenaline and bravado. It’s no surprise that the horse gets labeled hot and undependable. If they can’t trust you, then you certainly can’t trust them either.

It’s always easier to blame a horse rather than finding the patience to train confidence. Beyond that, I wonder if part of it is that the rider has no good standard of comparison. Meaning if every ride has always been a battle, they’ve never experienced something better, like sharing a ride with a relaxed and forward horse. Maybe the rider thinks feeling fearful is normal, too.

Here’s where I remind you that working a high stress job is really hard on your health, whether you are a horse or a human.

Rather than seeing riding as an ongoing war, I like to think of horses and riders as creating tendencies toward one result or another. They are always becoming more like the last ride; soft and light or fearful and tense. The best thing about a tendency is that it can change in a heartbeat; it can turn on a breath.

The foundation of dressage is that a horse should be relaxed and rhythmic in his gaits. It isn’t all that simple to balance those qualities. Yelling “Relax, dammit!” doesn’t work on horses any better than it does on riders, so where to begin?

“As long as he stiffens his poll, he also stiffens all of his other limbs. We may therefore not try to address them until he has yielded in his poll.” –E.F.Seidler, 1846

Take the time to warm-up, not because it’s fun but because your horse needs it. Too many times riders are impatient to pick up the reins and go to work before the horse is ready. Or we don’t ask politely, but if the ride starts with tension, the rhythm will be sticky, and we’ve given up an opportunity to let the horse feel good. Is this the point where a horse’s good intention gets traded for a life of quiet desperation? Breathe, go slow, and let the warm up unfold. (How to warm-up here.)

A relaxed horse is a lofty goal, but there are so many good reasons to focus on that peace and rhythm. It sets the horse up for soundness and confidence. When you evolve the conversation without becoming adversarial, then his fear retreats. Your horse still seems to read your mind, but what he finds there makes him feel safe and valued. In his opinion, you’re a wonderful leader –and that’s the place that art and oneness happens.

And a second quote from that same classical dressage master, but this one describes something special:

“To the degree that the horse perfects his flexibility, his obedience increases and opposition decreases. As soon as the horse is completely flexible and through, his unconditional obedience is secured as well.” —E.F.Seidler, 1846

He’s saying that once the peaceful/supple warm-up happens, and the horse is not resistant, his temperament follows suit. In other words, the horse demonstrates a tendency of positive partnership. Isn’t that particular kind of unconditional obedience–the kind that a rider has requested with politeness and not anger–the absolute ideal?

Riders always have a choice in tendency; we can train either war or peace. Fear should never be accepted as normal, but even if you aren’t entirely altruistic about training peacefully, there’s still a benefit for the rider: A relaxed back is much easier to ride than a tense one. From there, mutual respect might start to feel like a surrender in that old-fashioned war. Think of it as negotiating a lasting truce.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

23 thoughts on “Is That Horse Hot or Fearful? The Importance of Relaxation

  1. Another well observed indeed! and lovely and observant piece of writing, particularly liked the quotes and those sources, now I need to look those up – that as well as researching for my ‘social justice’ novel written from the competitive discipline horses’ point of view – puff! So well described, Anna, a pleasure to read and think upon, thank you.

    1. Thank you. I enjoy the research part, too. Even if it makes it feel like we haven’t progressed much… Let me know when your book comes out! Thanks, again, Pam.

  2. GREAT post. It’s making me think about what “hot” means. I enjoy horses who are “forward”. (Read: “GO is FUN!”) I don’t equate that with “hot”. Same horses can often be ridden relaxed and bareback in a halter, and love it.

    The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s a derogatory label disguised as a description.

    I don’t mind riding fearful horses. I enjoy helping anxious horses begin to feel safe and build confidence. I’m not good enough to ride horses so damaged they don’t feel they can tell you they’re afraid until they hit an internal critical mass, and seem to explode/implode for no reason. (Of course there’s a reason, right? But they are too scared/shutdown to communicate anything but “I’m fine” until they can’t cope, and can’t hear you over the roaring fear. Or anger. Same thing, maybe?)

    1. I think it is a derogatory label… when it is possibly not their temperament at all. And I’m not sure it matters by the point of explosion how the whole thing started. I think horses take it until they can’t and they are all different. Us humans underestimate that for too many horses. I’m glad to think you are out there helping the ones you can. Thanks, Jane.

  3. And then there are the horses whose lives are forever altered by too much pushing on equine emotion too fragile. Rest in peace Fancy, the brilliant-copper colored “hot” quarter horse mare from my childhood. I have always wondered (as an adult with a brain) what caused your anxiety under saddle. You were a peaceful, gentle, loving soul until the saddle and bridle were on. And then, you became the frothy, panicked “hot” horse that “only a man could ride.” I am sorry I could never help you, and your owners never learned. Thank you for the blog, Anna. ❤

    1. Hindsight guilt for horses that “only a man could ride.” Sigh. I’ve known a few of those too, and we will apologize forever. Fancy has a fine legacy in you. That has to count for something. Thanks for the heartfelt comment.

  4. JKS

    I think we should differentiate between fear and anxiety, as well. My horse gets prancy when he’s frustrated or if he’s not sure he’s doing what I want. Would some people call him hot? Maybe. He’s definitely not fearful, though- just being honest about his anxiety. Once I realized what he was actually telling me, things changed for us. It’s my job to help him find calm, and the more our relationship grows the fewer issues he has because he’s looking to me for reassurance. Anxiety can become fear when addressed the wrong way, but they’re not automatically the same thing.

    1. While I was writing, I thought about anticipation as well, as something that gets misread. But I agree, it’s always our job to help them find calm. Great perception, thank you.

  5. Another interesting post. Working around thoroughbreds on the track, I have been around what I consider some truly “hot” horses. These horses will react strongly to any stimuli, will remain agitated longer than average, and have little tolerance for change. They’re very tricky to deal with, because while you have to set boundaries, you have to be very protective of them as well. Fighting with them is a losing proposition, because even when you win, you lose. While they can be rewarding, they require a lot of time, vigilance, and dedication and are probably not what most people want in a horse. A truly hot horse can be quiet and relaxed, but it only takes a little something to completely flip the switch. To me, a fearful horse is one who is concerned about his actual surroundings. This is generally caused by lack of experience and lack of confidence- and to me is the easiest to deal with. An anxious horse is generally focused inward. They’re either so afraid of what might happen or what has happened, that they really aren’t aware of what is actually happening now. I pony a LOT of these type horses. Getting them to focus outward is the big trick. When they finally see that we’re just going to have an easy session they begin to relax. Once they begin to relax, I show them they can actually have fun. That’ s my favorite part of ponying. When I take something that’s a nervous wreck and get him or her to enjoy themselves and have fun- it’s truly rewarding. I have two like that now that I pony on a regular basis. They both will start neighing for me and my pony as soon as we get close to the barn- looking forward to going to the track.

    1. Sandy, I always appreciate your comments; your experience on the track is valuable. You describe track horses so well and it’s a challenging lifestyle for them (and you.) Thanks for your input, and I love to imagine you and your pony being called to!

  6. Tiffany Martha

    I enjoy reading all you write. Can you tell me if you have written anything with regards to teaching a horse good ground manners. I have learned from your readings to really pay attention to a horses actions and behaviors…looking to teach a mare better ground manners. She is being boarded at my farm. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, knowledge and experiences!
    Tiffany

    1. Thanks, Tiffany… for the suggestion. I’ve written some in the past but it might to be time for something specific to ground work. In the meantime, you might scroll down the right column to the search box and enter “groundwork” ( https://annablakeblog.com/?s=groundwork&submit=Search ) and read some older posts. Thanks for reading, Tiffany. And I hear you, boarded horses, as well as my own, need to be on my side. 😉

  7. Hi Anna. I loved this message. Very helpful. Do u have writings that address mounting up and riding in a “hot” environment? Where you are clearly in a situation of some crazyness with other horses or weather, etc. What does that look like? With breathing and quieting of our own energy, can we confidently and consistently expect to help the excited and fearful horse to settle??? And would warm up look differently?

    Thanks much Tess Jones

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. I’m a big fan of more groundwork when the environment is “hot.” People have a tendency to speed up when stressed, and you are right, it’s slowing ourselves with breath that is the best cue. The warm-up might have a few trot breaks, to release energy, in the walking parts, but again, how we get a horse’s attention is doing small transitions that create a positive conversation. After letting the horse have a good look around. Thanks, Tess, for asking the question. You are on the right path.

  8. A former trainer often reminded her students – if you treat your horse as an adversary, then your relationship will be adversarial.

    Also ran across this –

    Thinking of your horse as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment.

    Thinking of your horse as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.

  9. I’m always disturbed by how little understanding there truly is out there, for these large prey animals. Everyone speaks of them as being prey animals, and having flight responses – while turning around and triggering the worst behaviors and instincts possible. Their reactions are always honest, and generally a reflection of our actions … yet people choose to ignore their role in it.

    I once trained a hot mare to the GP level movements, and she taught me possibly the most important lesson ever – if tension starts, just stop and breathe. A few moments of just standing and breathing together gave her a chance to relax, and me a chance to think of another approach to whatever I was trying to accomplish that led to the tension. If the direct approach was too much for her, I learned there was always another route through the “back door”. It made me a smarter and more creative rider – and in the end we both won by having an amazing partnership that did truly feel like dancing.

    Thanks for another great post!

  10. Daisy

    Hi anna, love this great reminder for all of us!! Do you see any place for flipping the nuchal ligament in a warm up ? thank you , daisy

    1. Not early in, and differently depending on the horse… but eventually, yes. The thing about stiffness is that it’s real so I’d be conservative about asking with lots of horses.

  11. Pingback: Is That Horse Hot or Fearful? The Importance of Relaxation | #OurHorsesHelpHeal

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