We’ve seen it in sales ads time and again: “Same horse at home and at shows!” The need for that line of reassurance comes from the experience of having a horse who just seemed to go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde as soon as he set a hoof off the trailer away from home. Not knowing which version of your horse you’ll have on a given day is frustrating at the very least.
A variety of factors can influence a horse’s reaction to being in unfamiliar environments. Some horses are simply more sensitive than others, some may be young and not accustomed to going places, some may simply enjoy being away from home and have a burst of energy. And some horses are simply spooky or “looky” at home, too.
Regardless, it can be challenging when a horse is more “up” or otherwise acts differently at a show. We asked some top trainers to walk us through dealing with this multiple personality syndrome — and whether or not we’re, inadvertent as it may be, causing some of this change ourselves.
Eventer Laine Ashker Wants You to Think for Yourself
It’s my belief that horses are not ever purposely “bad.” The question you should always be asking is, “Am I explaining myself clearly?” So if you have a horse who likes to act out, think of creating an overall good experience, not a fight or a punishment.
One problem I think we see a lot of is over-coaching and too much reliance on our coaches to tell us what to do in a difficult situation. If you’re having trouble with a horse who’s spooky or “up,” go to your own toolbox. We forget how to solve problems in the moment when things are going wrong.
For these horses, I can’t emphasize transitions enough. Their attention must be on you, the rider, at all times. Not on the other horses. Not on the spooky flower box. On you. And if you’re clammed up with nerves, that communication is going to be very difficult.
So here’s where independent thinking comes in. Be confident enough to handle these situations on your own. Put your horse to work, practice transitions, and don’t give them too much space to look around and be distracted. Transitions — off the seat and leg, not off the hand — are great to keep the focus on you.
I’m not a fan of lunging to take away energy. A lot of people don’t know how to lunge properly, so really all they are doing is un-training the horse. When the horse’s head is straight in the air, he’s cross-firing — all this is doing is creating a sore back and overexerting their tendons and muscles.
Show Jumping Trainer Missy Clark Advises Practicing the Spooky Stuff
If I have a horse that’s a bit sharp or spooky about something, say a liverpool, we try to practice it a lot. At shows we have a roll up liverpool that we can jump a bit in the schooling area before entering the show ring. (If it’s an FEI competition, they supply a liverpool for the schooling area). Many people also use tarps or coolers to lay over a warm-up jump prior to entering the ring (not all disciplines allow this, so check your rulebook). All methods are useful tools to help desensitize a horse who might be a bit spooky at the fences. It’s important for both horse and rider to have confidence. Practice makes perfect, so don’t avoid what spooks the horse.
Some horses also need more time to get acclimated to new environments. I find it’s often helpful to spend some extra time with these types of horses so they can get used to different rings, different settings, and other horses in a new environment. Many times you may need to take them for a productive lunge when you arrive at a show.
Don't avoid what spooks your horse.
Sometimes I cringe when see people lunging their horses at warp speed. When we lunge our horses it’s always in a very controlled setting and we try not to let them go completely crazy. We’ll often use a loosely adjusted bitting rig to keep everything under control at the start of a lunge, then remove it at the end once the horse is relaxed enough. In my opinion, lunging should be an extension of flatwork.
A lot of times, spookiness or having a horse who’s more “up” away from home is just due to pent up energy. To help your horse to relax you may need to add in an extra flat ride on show days or work in a constructive lunging session. I find a lot of horses are nervous because they’re a bit too fresh so we always try to tailor our routine to help our horses settle in.
Grand Prix Dressage Rider Lauren Spreiser Wants Your Horse to Accept Being ‘Uncomfortable’
At the end of the day, training is teaching the horse to accept being slightly uncomfortable. I don’t mean having their faces pulled on or beating them up, but it’s a similar concept to going to school. You learn how to talk to people even if you’re shy, you learn how to interact with others. The reality of life is that you have to have a fairly expansive comfort zone, and it’s our job as riders to make our horses’ comfort zones a bit bigger.
Some horses may get overstimulated at shows, but I think this comes mostly from inexperience or being young. So when I meet a rider who says their horse is a monster at shows, I ask them to push outside of their comfort zone a bit more and ask their horse to accept it. It’s important to show the horse different environments and to ask them to work in these environments, even if they’re nervous. Every time you do this, their comfort zone expands.
Horses are pretty linear thinkers. This means they can’t keep a ton of tasks at the forefront of their minds. If one of these “tasks” is spooking or acting out, I give them a bit more to think about, whether that’s frequent changes of direction or transitions. That way, they don’t have so much brain space to spook at the leaf or the tractor or what have you.
What are your tried and true methods for helping a horse stay settled away from home?
Read this next: How to Think Like an Anchor Rider, Even if You Aren't One
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.