How to Relieve Your Horse’s Anxiety


Growing up, only one person in our home was allowed to have a temper and the rest of us kept our heads down.

After I left home, I started therapy and tennis lessons. It was the beginning of the age of bad-boy Grand Slam winners. Some of the top players competed without visual emotion, while others blew up on the court. The crazy thing was that the bad-boys played better after their temper tantrum, and if my therapist was right, it had to do with getting the emotion out. Every time I saw a racket slam the ground, I felt a morbid attraction.

I envied their tempers. I knew it was wrong and rude. I’d been taught that the punishment wasn’t worth the tantrum. Instead, I was busy holding my stomach in, my feelings in, and silently tending wicked grudges.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that you don’t have fewer feelings; you just try harder to hide them.

So here in our adult horse world, lots of us don’t want to compete because we see that emotional hostility and unleashed desire to win. We want nothing to do with it. Horses frequently suffer from our human passion and so it’s better to claim the high moral ground and not compete. Because we love horses.

Yay, you. Now you’ll never throw a temper tantrum at a show. And all your training challenges dissipate like fog in the sun because you’re calm and kind.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Our perfect horses have issues. We are quick to blame past owners. It might even be true, but the other thing that’s true is that we care about how things go with our horses. We are totally capable of having “show nerves” during an emergency vet call. Sometimes just standing next to our horse in the pasture is enough.

Here is a list of things you are perfectly justified in feeling anxiety about in the horse you love: Spooking unexpectedly. Going too fast. Won’t stand still. Has separation anxiety. Doesn’t go forward or appreciate your feet telling him to. Won’t canter. Doesn’t like arenas. Or trailering. Or being nagged to a stupor.

Let’s say he’s flawless under-saddle. You might resent his chronic vet issues. His constant need for a farrier. Costly supplements. His persistent habit of continuing to get older every year. His eventual need to retire and the unfairness of loving horses in the first place.

(For the sake of brevity, I won’t add the non-horse angst humans feel about their human relationships, financial dramas, and inevitable mortality. This list is infinitely longer.)

Here is a list of who knows about your anxiety no matter how politely you try to hide it: Your horse.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that you can only pretend as long as you can pretend.

Apparently, the challenges of daily life can rival the stress of competing in the Olympics. But go ahead, make lists and hurry about. Try to tell yourself that you aren’t being judged every second, by everyone you see. Then try to tell yourself that you aren’t the harshest judge of all.

Maybe now is when you acknowledge that your horse is your therapy. Let me kill that baby, too, while I’m being such a spoil-sport. Therapy horses have the hardest job in the horse world. Period. Being a show horse owned by a neurotic overachiever is easier than the being a therapy horse. They are saints. Until they aren’t.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that anxiety will win in the end, unless we call it out.

So, here are my tips for competing in huge important shows or in your ordinary life:

First, get lots of sleep. If you can’t sleep, lay there deep breathing. When your thoughts turn to the destruction of the world as you know it, kindly go back to deep breathing.

When you get up finally, look in the mirror and smile. Sure, you look like the dog’s breakfast, but if you truly can’t smile, call a real therapist. Life is too short for excuses. It’s time to stop floundering in confusion and acid grudges and good intentions. Set an appointment and do your horse a favor.

Want to know my personal secret weapon? I keep low expectations. Not because of self-doubt; I consider it balance. We all run just a bit hot when it comes to horses. Our dreams scream in a silent dog whistle pitch that we can’t hear. Our love burns like a flame thrower next to a stack of last year’s hay. We’re not fooling anyone with our obsessive-compulsive passion. It’s better to bring it out in broad daylight and do some groundwork with our emotions.

Try the hardest thing and ask for less from yourself. Ignore the problems and celebrate the easy work. Reward the calming signals you give yourself. Just say yes. Sing with the radio, let your belly relax, and leave the dishes for later. Have ridiculously low expectations so you can constantly surprise yourself with your own goodness. Then look in the mirror again. Notice the wrinkles and the stained teeth as you smile and truly mean it when you say thank you.

Now you’re ready to go to the barn. Does your horse still have anxiety? Congratulations. You’re ready to become part of the solution.

 

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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68 thoughts on “How to Relieve Your Horse’s Anxiety

  1. Karen

    Oh, my….this brought a smile to my face and a chuckle in my heart! Breathe…………..Sigh.
    Thank you. 😉

  2. LBartfield

    His one is timely and speaking to me. I don’t know that I will set lower expectations for myself though. That is not my nature and I think that setting lofty – but realistic – goals can be healthy, provided you can accept it if you don’t reach those goals.

    Laureen Bartfield, DVM CVSMT

    >

  3. LBartfield

    Sorry – last email meant for MY therapist(!) not you guys! But love your work!!!!

    Laureen Bartfield, DVM CVSMT

    >

  4. Lisa

    Anna, dear. Thank you for such clear, humorous and poignant writing. Spot on! So fun to find you in my newsfeed coming from another friend in the horsey world. Many memories of you on the Circle 2.

  5. SA

    Anna, your writing is sometimes like the preacher who, in a church full of people, was surely talking about me if not speaking directly to me. I have never competed with a horse in my life but your insights have had a huge positive influence on the relationships I have with my horses, my humans and especially myself. Thank you!

  6. Sharon Bowen

    Wow~this one hit me hard. I’m not that competitive and never really was but the rest of it, the stoicism, the anxiety and my horse acting it out! I had to stop showing because of the anxiety. But I got a handle on it and now I love my bombproof trail horse. He was young and well started when I got him and at 15 he is still bombproof and the envy of our big boarding barn. Even when an inexperienced friend scared him into reacting, I slowly but surely (and with some expert help) convinced him he was safe with me! I considered that a major win for both of us. I got my share of blues and reds on my first two horses despite the anxiety, but our wins on trail have proven more satisfying.

  7. Leslyn

    Thank you so much for your wisdom. My OTTB arrives tomorrow and I’m on a year-long sabbatical. I had a list of goals but I just ripped it up. Together, we are going to hang out. My expectations are to be with him most days and see what the day brings (and to be safe). I may spend a year on horse games or reading in his pasture. Your words arrived at just the right time.

  8. Celeste

    Thank you! Once again you’ve made me laugh and have leaky eyes at the same time and I know my horse will be grateful for it later. Asking for less from myself and paying attention to the calming signals sounds like it should be easy, but I kinda think it might be where the real struggle lies. I will work on it! Thanks.

  9. Beth McTaggart

    I don’t even know what to say except, thank you. Thank you for being able to put this all into words, thank you for the calming signals that are your posts, thank you for your superb understanding of both our wonderful horses and the deeply flawed, but hopelessly well-intentioned, humans who love them. Thank you for the excited anticipation of seeing a new post. I never fail to learn or to reflect after reading them.

  10. Cindy

    Wow you hit it spot on. I’m carrying anxiety baggage and it’s weighing down on my horse. Especially our relationship and in human relationships that I have. Very good advice to take a look at what is going on inside us before we take it out on our horses and friends. Thank you tough subject to write on.

    1. Yahooo!!!! I listen to podcasts and recently subscribed to Levar Burton Reads. He starts each story he reads by inviting the listener to the most glorious breath. I might listen just for that. Thanks, Lorie. and yay.

  11. Patti Embry-Tautenhan

    Okay, this is a little scary that your piece is SO CLOSE TO HOME! I am grappling with a 16-year-old QH gelding I have had for 13 years. We are long-time friends and he knows I am his person. I LOVE this guy, though it has not been an easy marriage. He was a pretty fancy dressage horse in his day, far more talented than I. And proud. Still is. He is also quiet, until he isn’t. I have less psychic tolerance for his outbursts at this stage of my life. After successive soft tissue injuries and arthritis, his dressage days are over. I am trying to decide to either ride him as a trail horse, which is mostly lovely, but the last two times have been downright scary (nearby mare in season and something he wasn’t prepared for!), or retire him. YIKES! And, I hate to admit it, but I have lost my trust in him. I am so conflicted… All I know for sure is that life is messy. Please keep writing. I need your perspective, humor and humanity. Thank you, Patti

    1. Patti, sometimes it doesn’t feel fair to be in this gray area that you and your horse share… it’s hard to know what’s right. It’s also precious for all you’ve shared in the past. Take care. Thanks for your heartfelt comment.

  12. GREAT first sentence, and then it got better from there.

    But can I just say…HORSES!

    First cold morning arrives today and I’m awakened at 5:30 to my horse chasing my mini around the paddock 40 feet from me and 2 other neighbors…bucking, kicking and carrying on in a gravelly-loud, ground-shaking way. The mini goes into a first-ever coughing fit so I fear he’s been kicked ion the head or neck, so I run out to see two wide-eyed equines ready for a rodeo.

    So what do I do to keep the peace with the neighbors? I feed them half their breakfast.

    Quiet. But what price I just pay yup have it? What did I just train them to do for insty feedings at oh dark 30?

    Guess I’ll find out tomorrow.

    Anxiety…the gift that keeps on giving.

  13. Tracey Sands

    Anna, I can’t begin to tell you how much I love your columns. The humanity. So much wisdom. And compassion. I think your central point about self-compassion is profoundly important, and for some of us, one of the hardest things to achieve. Thanks for the reminder of how much we need to keep trying.

  14. Kia

    Haha .. get a therapist !
    I started out in the other end of the stick, many years i therapy before I truly trarted to listen to my horses.
    Just watched European championship and show jumping … shortly, asking myself when will people open their eyes to what is being done to horses all n the “good name” ? Shame on the human race 😔

  15. I show dogs and this is so true! I struggle with letting my anxiety travel down the lead to the dog. Sleep, deep breaths, confident thoughts and above all let my love for that little dog travel down the lead! I try to always think like the dog, putting myself into his/her mind. Thank you for sharing.

  16. I’ve been doing something similar with the spouse and after 25 years of occasionally stormy confrontations, it’s beginning to make an impact. Dogs don’t take as long to come around and I suspect horses don’t either, humans evidently just don’t get it, at least my other half doesn’t. I am simplifying I know, but it does help. It would be nice to have some calming signals given back to me more often, the dog does, the spouse not so much.
    Enough sleep – absolutely imperative for doing anything and everything. Deep breathing – also absolutely imperative for getting through the day’s ups and downs. Low expectations – for self, priceless, for spouse, keeps the peace more often. Accomplishing goals – best done in bits if possible regardless of size.
    If I was ever blessed enough to have a horse, I think it would be just wonderful to sit in the pasture and watch him graze, see the muscles ripple under his hide and have him come over for scratches once in awhile and if I rode, we’d be kind to each other. I have a feeling a horse would be easier than a spouse, the dog is.
    Anna, you always have something important to say that resonates with me.

    1. Thanks, Aquila. It usually takes at least ten years to train a good dressage horse. I have no idea how long it takes with a spouse. I’ll let you know if I figure it out. (Thanks for reading.)

  17. Dawn

    Dear Anna,

    I read this just before embarking on my “I’ve got to get my horses to do this, this, this and that and ASAP” training program this morning (I actually couldn’t sleep over it, and got up at 4am to get started). You left me in tears. I know the mare can feel my agenda, as she spooked during feeding! I guess I will just go hang out with them and let them show me how to be calm. Good plan.

    I love your writing, so glad I found your blog! I always have to be at home to read them, though, because 9 times out of 10 it makes me a blithering idiot!

    1. Great comment, Dawn and I think the hardest thing to know with horses is when it too much and when is too little. It did sound like you planned a full out attack… but your mare can do more than hang out, too. That middle place is hard to find because it moves every day… which is why consistency in us matters so much. You’ll figure it out, keep breathing.

      And I swear, I never have any plan to make people blithering idiots. Sorry.

  18. “When your thoughts turn to the destruction of the world as you know it, kindly go back to deep breathing.”

    Ugh – so true Anna.

    I’ve struggled with anxiety for a while – definitely more intensely in the last 9 months or so. Barn time and tending to my horse is always soothing and helps me to focus, but I can’t spend all day there lol. The situation has improved since I started using a <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app"guided meditation app called Headspace. (I highly recommend it) Technology for the win!

    Your posts are always so timely. Thank you.

  19. Thank you. Jeez. I have a request … could you do a blog on the part about “therapy horses” even though that means so many different things to different people. And, you went deep with your thoughts and feelings here for sure. But, it seemed you had something further to say on the subject. From someone who is curious and trying to figure out what this might mean for me professionally, and not sure I’m getting all that my horses are trying to tell me. Thank you. So much. For sharing your deeply honest and funny and insightful wisdom.

    1. Deb, I could write a book on it. I work with therapeutic programs and therapy horses in clinic situations frequently. If you doubt that you are getting all they are telling you, then it’s probably true. It gets complicated because they see things through a different lens than we do and we need to understand it from their side, by listening to their calming signals. It’s important that the horses benefit from the process, as well. Good wishes for your horses in their hard work, and thanks for thinking about them. Thanks for reading along.

  20. Laurie

    I woke yesterday morning, feeling as though someone had thrown me off a building during the night. But, I had made plans for a long overdue trail ride and dragged my sorry carcass out to pasture to get Raz. Raz refused to load in the trailer, which he hasn’t done in the 9 years since I strarted him. I patiently tried different tactics, but ended up calling my wonderfully kind and flexible trail buddy to tell her we weren’t coming. She and her horse trailered to my place and we played around loading and unloading both horses in both trailers. Then we saddled up and road around the neighborhood with me expecting Raz to explode at any moment……he didn’t, he was flawless. And in spite of my decrepit body, I totally enjoyed the time together. Thank goodness for the wisdom of horses.
    And thank goodness for the wisdom in your poetry and pros Anna, because you are able to illuminate and explain what we all experience and help us to evolve in our journey with horses.

  21. Jill Brown

    Dear Anna,
    I’ve just come in from the day from hell! I’ve spent hours bogged in a paddock – couldn’t get out & had to beg for help from a kind man with a tractor, the man putting up a new shed pulled down the wires that make my electric fences go & then Matilda (two year old filly) got colic (of course she did – it’s Sunday & it costs a million dollars to get the vet!). I’ve now got a large glass of wine & have just read your latest so – I did get out of the bog, Matilda is now just fine & a nice neighbour is going to fix my fences BUT I wish I had skills which were more relevant to what I’m currently trying to do.
    Thank you – it does really help reading your work.
    Jill

    1. Not sure how comforting this is, but yes, your day sucked. Glad it all worked out eventually. Glad your filly is better now. When you talk about “relevant skills” I have to shake my head… more for me than you. After all this time, I’m still never sure I have the skills for what I’m currently trying to do. I think life is more of an art than a science. It takes creativity. Sounds like that’s what got you through your mess of a day, too. Thanks, Jill. We all live to flounder through another day. (A great toast, now that I think of it. )

      1. Love the insight about relevant skills. So true. I’m learning that if I waited to have them all or consider all possible ramifications, I’d never fulfill any of my dreams. It’s only after making dreams reality, forcing me to grow, that I learn what I want to do next. There now, in fact.

  22. Dear Anna,

    This post! Yes. I love how you have set up something for the ready to try and find, “Tell me why my horse is a spazz bucket!?” The truth lies in the mirror.

    I adopted my horse back in April of this year, he’s my first, really. I also use him as my escape from the real world, meaning he must really take on a lot. That said, the reason I believe we work so well is that he honestly doesn’t care diddly about what happened to me, “out there.” I know our best days are the days when I can unload everything at the barn gate, and as guru/yogi as it sounds, “just be”.

    Over the weekend his anxiety really came to a head and he did something he’s never done before – bucking while working in the round pen. That said, he’s extremely herd-bound. Up until this point, we worked in places that I knew he could see his horsey friends, and while under some stress, I so long as he could see them he would usually stay calm.

    This weekend our work out did not accommodate for his need to see the rest of his herd, and I believe that is what lead to the stress he just needed to let out. To be honest (and I’m relatively new in the horse world) it was a bit intimidating. But, like a parent working through any child who throws a temper tantrum, I let it happen and then carried on with the rest of our work. To the best of my ability, I kindly pushed him through paying little mind to his outbursts other than keeping him forward.

    I’m not entirely sure I handled it as well as I could have, but I also went into the area with only one expectation, “Pay more attention to me than where your horse-buddies are.” I truly believe that while the day started a little rocky, the only reason it ended well was that I kept a cool head despite the tantrum. Throwing a fit back would have ended in disaster, for sure.

    Anyway, I’m a long time reader, first-time commenter. This post simply hit home for sure, and I’m glad it’s out there.

    Cheers

    1. Good job, Chelsey. Being herdbound is your horse’s instinct and nature, not a disobedience. How you’ll know your partnership is strong is when he volunteers to be with you. It takes time; that’s the best part. Thanks, great comment.

  23. Nancy Buck

    One of your best blogs ever Anna! Anxiety about riding has been a major issue..for me. Worrying about the ‘what if’s’, is the saddle on correctly, tight enough, etc, which I finally realized was effecting how my guy Moe was reacting to ‘sudden’ noises, movements, people, etc when we ride. Deep breaths and consciously relaxing my shoulders have made riding fun again for both of us. Spooks are so far and few now and we have learned to trust each other when ‘surprizes’ do happen. As my riding instructor says, 9 out of 10 times, it’s never the horse 😉 And the 10th time is even questionable LOL Everything is connected, from the smallest to the biggest. Love your humor while delivering the reality of being a rider ^_^
    Nancy Buck

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