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Dealing with Flighty or Wary Horses

Updated on March 7, 2012

The idea

The idea for this post came after a comment on one of my other hubs, titles Natural Horsemanship Fact or Fiction. The person said that of all of the animals that we have domesticated, this is the one that baffles them because it is so wary and jumpy. (I hope I quoted that correctly) So, JKenny, this one is for you.

The Wary or Jumpy Horse.

There are many adjectives that can be placed in front of the word horse, especially to describe a horse that does not stand quietly for anything to take place, including the simplest of tasks. Let's name a few; wary, jumpy, nervous, untrained, head strong, hot blooded, the list could go on and on. For the sake of getting to my point, I will digress and move on. For the sake of this conversation, I'm going to use the adjective nervous.

We've all seen the horses, either at shows or at trail rides, some even at their own homes who are always looking for the proverbial monster that they are sure is going to jump out and eat them at any moment. I know that I've seen and dealt with my fair share of them. And through those experiences have come to the conclusion that this condition shall we call it, is usually the result of 1 of 3 things.

Want to know what those three things are? Read on.

Three Conditions that cause a Nervous Horse.

I'll start this list with the easiest to explain of the three:

Breeding: The temperment of breeding stock is very important. Bad tempered or unfavorable tempered horses should never be used as breeding stock. Now granted, some breeds are known for being hotter than others, like Thoroughbred and Arabians as a couple of examples. Does that mean that every horse of those breeds are nervous horses? Of course it doesn't, they are just more know for the nervous ones than the calm one.

Mishandling in the Horses Past: I am not strictly talking about a horse being physically abused, but that can result in a very nervous horse. I'm talking about a horse that has been around people, and had never been taught to follow them.

Lack of Knowledge: Here I'm talking about a horse that has never been handles period. Granted, you're not likely to see one of these at a horse show or on a trail ride, but we all know that they exist.

The biggest problem we face in trying to train them is figuring out which one of these fields they fit in.

Which Field is My Horse in?

Luckily, with experience and a watchful eye you can figure out which why your horse is nervous. A lot of nervous horses can learn to relax and trust their leader. Nervous horses can actually be good horses in the end, though it will take work. Sometimes, it's as obvious as the nose on their face.

So, I'll so through the fields one by one and give you some of what to look for.

Breeding: If you are buying the horse from the breeder, ask to see the horse's parents. If both of them act like complete nervous idiots, chances are it's breeding. If you get the horse later on from someone else, simply ask what the horse's temperment is. If the horse is registered, a little digging around can often uncover if breeding is the issue. Never write off a horse's nervousness as breeding strictly because of it's breed.

Mishandling in the Horse's Past: If it was a case of physical abuse the horse will bear physical scars from it. That is one dead give away, the horse will also not want anything to do with you, it just wants to be away from you. If it's just a case of not being taught any better the horse will usually be pushy, and if it spooks will often jump right on top of you, because it is less scared of you then whatever has spooked it. Teaching it to respect your space should be a major concern with the later case.

Lack of Knowledge: Usually if you get one of these, you knew it when you bought it. If not, you found out when you picked it up or it was delivered. It's the one that requires a loading shoot to get into the trailer, or is the one that is unloaded directly into whatever enclosure you want it kept in, which for your sake I hope was a small paddock or round pen. But, it's OK, these are usually the nervous horses that come around the quickest.

What equipment will I need?

This is a pretty simple question to answer. You'll need the following things; a good, quality halter, a lead rope(at least 12 foot long), a round pen or small pen(if you don't have one of these, you can do this with the halter and lead and that's fine), a whip, and various items to desensitize the horse with. I personally suggest plastic bags, as I have seen even the calmest horses come unglued at the sight and sound of a plastic bag blowing in the breeze.

Pretty simple list, huh?

OK, now what?

Ground work. Nervous horses are trained like any other horse, from the ground up. No, you can not run the nervousness out of a horse. You can however redirect his attention to you, which is where you want it to be.

Note: If you are not confident in you body language with horses, you may need to carry a whip to use as on extension of your arm.

At first, all that may be required to send him off around the round pen or small paddock; which ever you have access to, is simply your presence. His instincts tell him run first, think later.

Note: If your horse is trying or thinking about jumping out of what ever you are using back off, because if they feel too much pressure, they will try it. I'm not saying leave the enclose, simply back out of the center to one side, where he has more room to get away from you. What ever slice of the pen you are in is your territory, keep him out of it, but honestly if he was thinking about jumping out, you simply being there should change his direction.

Let him make a trip or a trip and an half around the pen, then move to cut him off and change his direction. It does not matter if he turns into the pen or into the fence as long as he leaves going in the opposite direction. I don't even care how fast he leaves in the opposite direction as long as he leaves. The horse that you are watching is probably running around the pen with his head up in the air, his ears twitching every direction, you can probably see the whites of his eyes very clearly, his lips are pulled back tight. Some horses will even grind their teeth when stressed or afraid. As you continue to work him back and forth around the pen, you should start to see a change in his body language. His head will lower to a natural carriage, his inside ear should be directed at you, his eyes will relax, and his lips will relax.

This point is where you simply turn your back on the horse, and give it the opportunity to come to you, or at the very least catch it's breathe for a moment while facing you. If he takes a step in your direction, let him rest some more. If the horse stops and faces away from you, send it straight back to work. This may take five minutes for some horses, and an hour for others. Every horse is different.


I know that some popular clinicians say that there are four horses that you train in this stage, left side, right side, in front of (not directly, for you safety), and behind (Again, not directly, for your safety.). Personally I have found that there are six, the original four, plus below and above. Always keep your body language very relaxed when doing desensitizing exercises, and start with gentle movement then work your way gradually up to more abrupt movements.

By the time you get to this point of training, you should know which of the fields you horse truly belongs in. If he belongs in the lack of knowledge field, Desensitizing and Sensitizing should be carried out like you should with any normal horse. If he belongs to either of the other two fields, you need to spend more time on the desensitizing than you normally would. Always start with your equipment, halter, lead rope, whip, etc. Remember to start away from the horse and gradually work in closer to the horse, approach and retreat. If he wants to leave, that's OK, let him. Send him straight back to work. (The object is to back off before he gets to the point of leaving.) It should not take as long for him to ask to come back in and stand in the middle with you. When he asks, push his just a little longer, then tell him it's OK to come in.

If you know that you can get an object as close as 10 feet way from him before he tenses up and leaves, stop at 10 and an half feet. Don't try to force these exercises on him, let him kind of come to them. If you try to force the issue you can make him more nervous.

Desensitize him to your equipment very well before you even thing about doing any sensitizing exercises.


Nervous horses will usually require very little sensitizing, and too much time or energy expended in this stage, can actually make him more nervous. (I'm sticking with the male gender, let's assume it's a gelding, because I started it in the last area, and wish to avoid confusion. Of me, not necessarily you!) When working on this section, I agree that you are training four different direction, forward, backwards, left and right. Granted a horse can move forward and to the left at the same time, but he has to learn each maneuver individually first.

This is the area where your body language and posture will actually help drive him away from you. If you focus your energy behind his drive line (imagine a line running vertical to the ground right behind the horses withers.) it should drive the horse forward. There are a few decisions that you need to make before you start this work. The first is, what ques you want to use. Do you want to point in whatever direction you want him to go and have him go that way, or do you want to use words like left or right, or what ever as long as you are consistent. Understand that you will start with the que only, if that does not work you will left the whip as you repeat the que. For most nervous horses this is enough, but if it is not, you may have to touch him with the whip while you repeat the que yet again. He needs to associate the que with moving in what ever direction you are wanting.

If the horse starts to get nervous, go back to something that you know he can do, even if it is a desensitizing exercise that he excelled at.

What about the Nervous horse that isn't Nervous until you put a halter on it?

I know this sounds strange, but they do exist. I have seen horses that seem fine being around stuff and people, up until you put a halter and lead rope on them. You effectively take away their just leave if you get spooked option, and they feel trapped, so now they are a completely different horse.

This is no big deal, you just do the ground work, desensitizing and sensitizing with a halter and lead, instead of free lounging in a round pen. Make sure to wear gloves and if the horse spooks, do not try to stop the spook just go with it.

Now, this is where if I was a big time clinician, I would try to sell you my handy dandy halter and lead rope set for $49.99, or what ever price I thought someone would pay for it. But I'm not, so I'll just say use what ever halter and lead rope you have around, just make sure that it is in good condition. I will suggest using a lead that is at least 12 feet long. That way you can allow rope to slide through your hand, if you can't keep up with the horse spooking. This is why you need to wear gloves, because even if you relax your hand (which you won't, it's human nature to try to stop it, and your hand will tense some) the rope being pulled through it will burn you hands.

Knowing when to Quit

I'm not talking about quitting on the horse, but quitting for the day. It can be difficult to stop, especially if the horse is doing really well, but eventually the horse is going to get bored or his attention span is going to go out. You need to quit before either of these happen. If the horse is starting to get bored or his attention seems to be wondering, go back to something that you know he can do really well. Have him do that, then stop for the day on a good note.

If at any time you feel your frustration growing, again go back to something that you know that he does really well, and end the day on a good note.

Losing your temper with any horse can undo all the work that you have just done. If you feel that you have to, and the horse is in a safe place just drop the rope and walk off for a while. Return, and end on a good note after you have had a few minutes to compose your self. It is far better to just walk off, then risk totally losing it on the horse. It's also better for you, it will eventually teach you more control of yourself.

So, what's next?

After the ground work, desensitizing, and sensitizing you will go on with the same ground work that you would do with any other horse. Always backing up to something the horse can go well when he gets nervous. Redirect his attention from what ever, and give him something to do that he can do.

Take his training slow and steady, and his trust in you will grow. Every horse in training needs to be worked daily, even if you can only squeeze in a few minutes. Always start with something that you know he can do and build off of that.

When nervous horses spook

As you work with your horse, you will begin to know when a spook is coming. You will need to learn to relax in these situations arise. Now I'll tell you why. Say you're out on the trail, and you feel your horse tense up, getting ready for a spook, in response to him tensing up, you tense up, collect your reins, even though you may not realize it, your seat tightens, your legs tighten, and you hold your breathe, all getting ready for the ride that you are fixing to have. Whether it's a jump to the side, a spin and run off in the opposite direction or a bolt, buck or rear, your body is getting ready for it, because you mind is saying, here we go again. Your horse interprets this as what he is thinking about spooking as is a real threat, because his leader is also getting ready to spook at it. Do you see how this is a chain reaction, getting ready to explode?

All the work that you have done with him, has been to teach him to trust you. If you stay relaxed, he should walk right by what ever it was that he was thinking about spooking at. The key to staying relaxed? Keep breathing, even if you have to tell yourself breathe in, breathe out, just keep breathing. Holding our breathe is usually our body's first physical response to a stressful situation, and it is often the reason why we can not recall all of the details of the situation, but that's another blog all by itself.

The horse looks to you for leadership, and if you remain relaxed and not spooked, so will he.

Will my horse ever be where he doesn't spook at everything?

Yes, he will get to where he will not spook at everything. But the chances of him ever getting where he will not spook at anything are not very good. There is no way that you can expose him to everything that could ever possibly spook him during training. The good news is that he will get to where he spooks more quietly, and less explosively than he does now. He will learn to rely on you for input, and trust your judgement. But only time and training can build this relationship.


Most of the big time clinicians, sell their information at a premium price, and they tell you that you have to use their equipment for it to work. When in fact, you can use a good condition halter and lead rope you already have and what ever whip you already have as well. If not, you can buy a few of them for what these clinicians charge.

Now, can I sell you a halter and lead rope set, you bet I can. For the price of $24.00 for the set, plus shipping and handling. But I can guarantee you that I'm not making a killing on them either. For each set, I would make a grand total of $6.60, all the rest is the cost of materials. It doesn't even figure in that it takes me five to six hours to braid the lead rope. I make them because I use them, not because I tell everyone else that they have to use, or this training won't work.

You'll never convince me that CA's halter is any better than mine, and mine only costs me a dollar and a few minutes of my time to make.


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    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      5 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you for adding insights to dealing with horses. I enjoy writing about horses in my historical fiction family saga pieces. Perhaps you would enjoy reading them. ;-)


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