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by Downunder Horsemanship

Training Tip: Work Through Your Horse’s Anxiety When You Haul Away From Home

It’s important to remember that horses notice every little change in their environment, and when you take them to new locations, they often have more energy and are spookier as they encounter new objects and unfamiliar territory. While your horse is calm and relaxed at home or on trails he’s familiar with, when you haul him to a new location, he’ll be more reactive and easily distracted. This is especially true of young and inexperienced horses. While a seasoned horse might get excited when you unload him from the trailer, it won’t take much work at all to get him back to his calm, relaxed self.

I have plenty of experience dealing with a young horse being nervous in a new environment. It happens to me all the time with my up-and-coming performance horses. I routinely take them to local and regional shows to expose them to the show environment before I haul them to a big show to compete. I want to get all that anxiety about being away from home and silly behavior that comes with it out of them before there’s a lot of money on the line. When I take them off the trailer, I always joke and say, “Half of the horse is the horse I trained at home and the other half is some idiot I wish I’d never met.”

When you take your horse away from home, expect him not to behave well at first. It’s unfair to take your horse to a new location with a lot of distractions and expect him to behave as he does at home. Arrive early to be sure you have plenty of time to work your horse on the ground before the competition starts or other riders are ready to hit the trail.

When you arrive on location, unload your horse from the trailer and immediately practice groundwork with him. Do the Sending Exercise next to the trailer, practice Lunging for Respect Stage Two, etc. Get his feet moving and changing directions so that he starts to use the thinking side of his brain and has to focus on you, not the 30 other horses or the unfamiliar environment. Set him up for success by allowing him to blow off some energy and reminding him that you’re the leader.

How long you work your horse depends on how nervous he is, how long it takes for him to tune in to you, etc. If you routinely haul your horse to new locations, you may only need to spend 10 minutes practicing groundwork to tune him up. But if your horse is young or inexperienced, you may spend a good 40 minutes working with him on the ground.

When your horse is using the thinking side of his brain—he’s calm, relaxed and focused on you—then you can get on his back. But when you get in the saddle, don’t just ride into your first class of the day or head off down the trail. Spend a few minutes flexing his head from side to side to double-check that he’s soft and responding to you. Bend him around in a few circles to supple his body and ensure you have control of his five body parts. When he passes all of those tests, then you’re ready to get in the arena or ride off down the trail.

Have a horsemanship question or looking for more training tips? Check out the No Worries Club.