Teaching Your Horse to Relax

The rider said that her mare had an undeniable “rushiness” and was always tense. The mare is five years old and in their first months together, the mare has had good ground manners. She tied and picked up her feet but walking out of the barn, she was way ahead or the rider had to pull her. The mare didn’t know how to stand still and wanted to walk in circles. Sometimes she got pushy with her muzzle.

The rider got criticism from other people at the barn; the mare just needed to work more, she was bored, that all horses need a job, etc. But working in the traditional ways (lunging) made the mare even busier and soon frantic.  Finally, the rider settled on the goal of teaching her to do nothing. A great idea! And now supporters were talking about sitting in a chair in her pen.

Humans can be such extremists.

The rider has a good start; she’s listening. The mare is very young and moving a horse to a new barn is much more challenging for them than we understand. Settling in with a new owner and a new herd takes time. We can list her bad behaviors but focusing on correcting her mistakes and not dealing with the underlying problem will only have limited success. The mare sounds very anxious.

After such a huge life change, I’d expect this young mare might have a sour stomach, if not ulcers. First thing is always to make sure she is physically okay. Because change is hard and these calming signals may also be symptoms of pain.

Some folks would say that mares are just that way. They use names to describe mares that we women don’t like being called. Well, it’s true that mares are more like stallions than they are geldings… they have hormones. In my experience, mares don’t enjoy blind repetition of menial work like some geldings can. Mares are smart and want more engagement. I think it speaks well of them to require their riders to be more creative.

And kudos for stopping the frantic lunging. It sounds like this young mare knows all about it. People mistake the purpose of lunging and use it to wear a horse out. It wears out they bodies, too, and while exhaustion can pass for obedience, it doesn’t teach the horse a thing. Or most riders either, apparently, since it is still common advice.

Sitting with her is harmless enough. It’s fun in the pen with horses. Some people bring a book. The mare can tell she isn’t being asked to do anything so it’s probably peaceful. But be clear; this isn’t building relationship either. The stress comes with being handled and that’s where the healing will come, too.

Responding to horses doesn’t have to be fast and aggressive. Or dull and passive. We can do better than these extremes.

First, this mare gets quick from anxiety. Every time you see a hint of anxiety, slow down right away. Help her feel safe. Rather than punishing her behaviors, find ways to reward her. Affirming good behaviors builds confidence–the opposite of anxiety.

Less correction; more direction.

To get ahead of her behavior curve we must go from being reactive to her problems to proactive to help her past them.

If she is quick, I’d ask her for slow answers. Leading her, I’d ask for a few steps. Start at her speed and then slow your feet. If she gives a tiny hesitation, reward her generously and walk on. Ask for some long strides and then short strides. Eventually, when she is following your stride changes, ask for a halt. Ask with your exhale. Ask with your feet. Leave the lead rope hang. If she barely pauses, reward her and walk on. The next time she’ll give you more because it went well. Because she can listen to your feet better than your hands.

Be the change you want to see in your horse. If she is hot, you cool your body movements. If she is reluctant to walk, you lighten and lift your body movements. Correct yourself. Ignore what you don’t like. Reward her every try.

Do it all in slow motion. Affirm peace. Let your exhale be audible. Lead by example; keep your heart quiet, your breath deep, and your hands soft. Let there be hang time after your cues. If you don’t want her to escalate, then don’t you escalate. Be relentlessly focused and internally slow, even if you are walking quickly.

It won’t be perfect. In the beginning, it’ll be a hot mess and your only goal is to interrupt your mare’s free-fall to panic. If there is a hesitation in her anxiety, reward that.

Think of the words good girl as an affirmation of what will come, rather than a reward for a completed behavior. Eventually the two of you will fluidly shadow each other, but for now, lower your expectations. Nothing kills her try quicker than being told everything she does isn’t good enough. Humans understand that feeling, don’t we?

Reward anything that looks thoughtful. In the past, cues have escalated to punishment. She’s been trained to answer too quickly. Give her time to reason it out. Slow. Down.

Sometimes she’ll hesitate too long. She isn’t being disrespectful. I think they know when it’s been too long and sometimes do a deer-in-headlights response, frozen waiting for the inevitable punishment. On the surface, it looks like disobedience. Take a breath and change the subject. Save her from that dread; start over fresh.

Demonstrate the behavior you’d like your mare to emulate. The patience you show her today will be returned to you. At some future time, when other horses might quit or panic, she will hold strong. She’ll pay it back when it matters.

Next week I’ll write about lunging as a positive aid rather than a punishment. For now, I want to affirm the importance of positive early training.

I’m on the board of Colorado Horse Rescue Network and we had an open shelter day recently. The goal was to help people who needed to let go of their horses. Of the thirty-five horses that were relinquished, twenty-three were mares. Those numbers are common; mares outnumber geldings in rescue. It says more about humans than mares, I think.

Good training requires us to go beyond old methods and understand the value subtlety and finesse. Training is an art. Let it lift both of you.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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61 thoughts on “Teaching Your Horse to Relax

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I saved up every penny I could for ten years, to be able to purchase my first horse. The horse that I could afford was a young, nervous, untrained horse. I was a young, sometimes nervous, 20 year old horse crazy girl. I can relate to many of the things in this post! I’m very happy happy that I had that experience, even though it was heart wrenching at the time. It ended well after a wise older lady taught me to calm down, and breath. Thank you for a great blog!

  2. elizinvt

    I wish I had seen this advice several years ago. I’ve had to give up riding (bad left ankle, bad right knee) but back then I had bought an anxious 8 YO mare who, by all accounts, is not as anxious now but still deserves the name. (Some said she was lazy, and just was misbehaving. Phooey on that.) She still lives next door, and is a pasture ornament (along with 3 others). I should probably try spending a little walking time with her and see what happens. A little attention shouldn’t do her any harm if it’s engaging but peaceful.

    1. Well, like I say, it’s an art and when humans get confused… well, it gets complicated fast. Go say hi. No harm in a visit… Thanks for your honesty, Elizabeth.

  3. Susanne Conway

    I always enjoy your writing and wise perspective. And thanks for the shelter day too. A much needed alternative to auctions.

    s.conway

    Sent from my Verizon 4G LTE Droid

    1. It was a buy out, we paid $100, no questions asked. Most people donated the money back… we need to get on the good side of helping humans, as well as horses, in rescue. Thanks Susanne.

  4. Candi R

    Wow… you had me consciously exhaling, feeling my heart beats an ‘Oming’ out loud as I read this. So much to think about and try to implement ! Thx

  5. JKS

    Been there. Figuring out what made him anxious was the key to unraveling it. And for us, it was uncertainty. He’s taught me to reward the try even for a wrong answer, but even more, he’s taught me how to keep communicating. So, I talk to him while we ride. A LOT. I might sound silly doing it but the feedback keeps him calm. And often now, I can be quiet during the routine things, as long as I keep up with the silent communication. A wither scratch is our signal for “yes, this is the right thing”. He still gets a good boy and a pat at the end of the long wall for a maneuver well done, and constant calm feedback if he’s uncertain. Occasionally I ask him if I’m being too noisy- but he tells me with his calmness that he prefers to know if he’s doing the right thing.

    1. Sherry Walter

      This made me smile – I have a running commentary going with my horse. Funny thing is otherwise I’m a pretty quiet person.

  6. I am curious is it the mare with the blue eye? I have a paint mare with that exact eye and personality. Got her at age 8, she had been in training all her life. but just walk all over, constantly accelerating when you rode, very sweaty and tense. Dental was a mess of course. Lots of time being at the tie rail, bending lines and lateral work and she is a much more chill chica. Thanks for sharing.

    1. No, this photo isn’t her. This was a rescue here for a time but the eye tells the story. Thanks for the time you gave your mare… and this comment.

  7. Tracey Sands

    Another beautiful column. This one brings up a couple of thoughts for me. One is that those of us who board our horses can encounter a wide range of different emotional environments, and these make a huge difference. I feel enormously lucky to keep my horses at a barn where we all care deeply about our horses and have different ways of doing that. We’re all supportive of each other, but we don’t tell each other how to do it. It can be really hard to push back on peer pressure at the barn when things don’t look perfect to an observer — especially if a horse handler/owner is at all new to horses. Your mention of soft hands while leading is also important. I’ve never had rough hands while leading or riding, but after I read Mark Rashid’s book on softness, I starting thinking more about it, and realised that I need to make a conscious point of further softening my hand while leading. I also try to think about that when I do non-horsey things, like driving the car. I think we often use more pressure than we need just out of habit, and it’s really helpful to notice that in odd moments and see how much we can soften without losing anything by it. Another point I love: that mares get called names that women despise when they’re applied to us. I love opinionated horses. The conversations are so much more interesting that way. Maybe if people thought of horses as conversation partners, they’d have more appreciation of horses who see themselves as someONE.

  8. Austindba

    Thank you for this message. It is very timely for me. I am in the middle of this experience and just starting to learn this lesson with my horse

  9. joepote01

    As always, you do a great job helping us better see things from the horse’s perspective.

    Thank you, Anna! 🙂

  10. Donna

    Thank you for your loving approach and teaching… it is truly calming just to read your wise words. I am a new horse owner, and was truly blessed by a gentle, sweet mare a year ago (almost 10 now), and a wonderful , caring barn where I board her. I just love my horse, and she is teaching me so much! Always, I talked to her in loving, encouraging coos and cuddles. She is responding more and more with affection , appreciation and obedience. What a blessing and gift from God, this new journey in my life – at age 61!
    I look forward to learning more…. ❤️

    1. Wonderful… and I will challenge you that she can hear you just as clearly if you say it on the inside. Thrilled with your situation, too! Thanks, Donna.

  11. Lauren

    Loving your Blog posts Anna!! The second horse that came into my life is a mare. I adore her and she is teaching me sooo much! I have had to become what you describe in your post – she is much more sensitive than my gelding so I go slower, softer and our conversations have become fun! I see her starting to enjoy our time together and letting go of her old patterns from coping with previous humans. Makes me love horses even more and celebrate teachers such as yourself !

  12. Karen

    Yes, I have two mares. They have been trying at times for me, but, hey , I do like challenges and patience is one of my better qualities. To assist me and my mares, I sought out trainers, and did some research on my own. During the process, I learned a whole lot about myself!!! Made me a more effective horse person/leader/companion for my mares!

  13. Dahte Kerekes

    So nice to see info like this. Most folks in my barn just get on and ride, clean up then leave. I don’t see much real interaction with the horse just lets get this done my way, take the jump now, have a quick rinse off, then leave. I speak to my horse all the time, softly rub his eyes and face and get him to drop his head and relax. My guy is going on 24 and I have had him 10.5 years, off the track TB, also used as a jumper for some time and with me I started him over just for pleasure riding. He was not tuned into anyone but now comes when called, etc. I don’t ride him a lot but I try to be at the barn 5 out if 7 days or more. I have been told by barn workers, he is the easiest horse to work with, leading out, etc. I have noticed most folks just do not care to come to the barn and not ride. If they cant ride, it was a wasted trip. I have had a few ask me how to get their horse to be like mine. My response is always, one day at a time and as long as it takes. Most are not interested in the time part. Horses speak to us in many ways and often times we never pick up on what they are trying to say. I believe you have to try and read your horse and be ready to change your expectations each and every day as each horse is much like a snowflake, different and beautiful and one of a kind! Loved your article!!

  14. Nancy

    I love your wisdom, Anna. It rings so true for both me and my very smart mare. It’s good to hear confirmation of what I do with her. I am constantly telling her “good girl: for every little effort she gives me. I try to treat her the way i want to be treated (as you so eloquently stated here). One day a couple of years back, I was trotting her and she decided to stop and back up (my bad.. I wasn’t listening to her body language of “your not giving me enough direction for forward so I’m going to call you on it,”. My friend was there trying to encourage me to get her going forward. I admit I was a bit intimidated (my mare is is reining bred and can spin and back up on a dime, while her mom is a low level dressage rider). Well, my girl gave me a few steps of small forward and I immediately said “Good Girl!” My friend said :Why did you praise her, she;’s not really trotting forward.” I said, because she gave me the right answer and it was enough.

  15. Lisa

    This advice works with other critters, too, even the human kind. Needed this reminder in my life right now. I have an almost adult showing me these same signs of panic. I need to slow down and breathe and encourage rather than criticize her “try”. Thank you!

  16. MaryAnn McKenzie

    What a great and thoughtful post, Anna. Slowing down internally and recognizing the “try” are the best skills ever. I’m very much excited about your upcoming (specifics TBD) weekend at Beomor Farm and learning from you in person.

    Mary Ann McKenzie
    Owner, Beomor Farm

    Sent from my iPhone

  17. It’s interesting how almost every post you write gets me to thinking about my relationship with my mare even though the topic might not be immediately relevant. What got me started as I read this post was the part about frantic lungeing. The only time I lunge my horse is if I’m looking to develop a particular part of her musculature or way of going. The only “gadgets” I use when doing this are the lunge line and the lunge whip, and occasionally some cavaletti. But once a week or so I do “free lunge” her because we have both decided that it’s a great game and it relaxes her rather than wears her down. She knows voice cues and I use the free lunge (no lunge line, no whip) to warm her up through walk, trot and canter letting her make whatever diameter circle around me that she feels like at that particular moment. Then the fun begins. She knows as soon as she’s warmed up I will stomp and snort at her, and she will stomp and snort back, fly her tail up in the air and prance around like an excited stallion. Then I will chase her down to one end of the ring and we will play cutting horse, with me as the horse and her as the cow. She always wins. But in the meantime she gets stronger by sitting on her haunches and bolting away from me. If she’s feeling really spirited she will gallop around the ring with no encouragement from me whatsoever. When she’s had enough she’ll just stop, look at me and “tell” me. Then we’ll walk around a bit together until we’ve both cooled down. I think she enjoys these opportunities to act like a “wild horse”, which is something she never bothers to do out in the pasture because she’s always too busy grazing.

  18. I am a lifelong teacher and have always preferred mares. I like to see them think and predict how are thinking – always anticipating. When the two of us get the timing right, it is beautiful. My old dressage mare lost a filly foal one morning and endured the traumatic experience of having the filly cut out. She was understandably anxious after the horrific event and pulled out her IV that had been sewn in. So, I brought her out of the stall, pulled my lawn chair out where she decided to stand and spent the day with her and a book. She visibly enjoyed the company and a few baths with the hose. In her earlier life, she had been a mare that would run over her handler when brought to a new facility. She needed that calm, just be there presence.

    It has been interesting to me to see horses (and more graphic with mares) that change hands with people. I like the jittery horse sold to a calm person calming out scenario best! It can go the other way;(

    I am enjoying your “Stable Relationship” book. You have come a long way!

    1. I value blunt communication and mares seem to have that skill… and health issues are interesting times for horses. I always thing they like extra company then. I’ve worked with rescues who get hurt at some point and what it does for the trust level is always a surprise to me. As for moving/changing owners… Huge.

      Thanks for commenting, Kathy, and thanks for giving my book a chance.

  19. Lorie

    Whoa! Judging from the comments you got people thinking. I LOVE mares! Always have. They think more. Require more fairness and respect you only when you respect them. They are so brave and willing, and will always give you more than you ask for, IF you are kind. If we could only be as patient with teaching our horses, as we expect from someone teaching us something new. Slow down and reward every single try. Thanks again Anna. Great stuff!

  20. Sherry Walter

    I can so relate. I jokingly claim my mare is ADD. I do lunge her before we ride but only until I have her attention, when she stops gawking all over the place. She has forced me to become quieter, more still. She notices EVERYTHING! I’ve found if I ignore the prevailing – ‘don’t give in, make her keep moving’ advice and give her a chance to stop and look that’s all she needs. Since doing that it seems she’ll take my word for it that whatever ‘it’ is is no big deal and she’ll proceed, trust is being built a little at a time.

  21. Lauren

    Sooo enjoyed your post Anna and am enjoying all the comments too! Wish there were ‘like’ buttons cause I’d be liking a bunch of them!!!

    Here’s to all the mare owners and to what the mates are teaching / requiring of us!!

  22. Jane Greenwood

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought provoking post. I have a mare that to me is golden. Having suffered years of abuse she “fakes” aggression on the ground, but inside is sweet as a marshmallow. She was so nervous when I first got her when she saw a saddle she would bite herself on the leg and twist her lips around frantically. We have gone slowly for many years now and she no longer displays this behavior. She will still pin her ears and shake her head at people, but that’s a long ways from snapping at the air about your head like she used to do. She has never attempted to harm me really, but she lets a person know she was not used well by her former owners. She comes when she sees me approach and I am blessed to be able to live with my horses, so we see each other daily. She’s a good girl and I am happy I never listened to “advice” from well meaning neighsayers. I am also just so thankful she didn’t end up in a kill pen, as so many honest horses do

  23. June

    Absolutly love your blog. Every one I learn something from. Thank you so much. I read above that you may be coming to the UK? When and where? If you want to visit Wales there is a bed here for you.

  24. Pingback: Teaching Your Horse to Relax — Relaxed – MobsterTiger

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