FAQ Riding

My horse makes me nervous. What should I do?

nervous horse rider
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Written by Channing M.

If horses don’t make you at least a bit cautious, you’re not paying attention.

Horses are some of the most beautiful animals out there, says the latest informal poll among my barn mates. But, they’re also big creatures with hard hooves, long legs, swishing tails, lots of teeth, and they can really move quickly. As a prey animal, horses are quick to spook from fast or unexpected movements. Though we aren’t saying you should be fearful of horses, you should be mindful. 

Nerves are your brain’s way of warning you about potentially dangerous situations. That doesn’t mean bad things will happen, though. The more you understand how horses communicate, how to read their body language, and how to move around them safely, the less nervous you’ll feel. 

You can break the “Horse Code” more easily than you might think. We can help!

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Thanks to Sarah Harris for our feature photo!

Watch those ears

Keeping an eye on your horse’s ears will give you a lot of valuable information. They tell you where a horse is looking, what they’re listening too, and are a pretty reliable indicator of mood.

The next time you get a chance to watch your horse around his pals in the pasture or barn, pay attention to what his ears are doing.

If they’re pricked forward, they’re looking ahead, with their focus on something in front of them. (If he sees you with a carrot, those ears will be pointing straight at you!)

Ears move around as the horse shifts his attention — kind of like little antennae. They may flick towards another horse that’s approaching, for example. If a different horse is walking behind him, the ears may flip backward.

horse-ears

Watch the ears to know what your horse is paying attention to.

To avoid spooking a horse, make sure his ears are pointing at you before getting too close or touching him. An anxious horse can make sudden moves – and make you nervous.

While you’re watching horses observe their body language, see if you can spot the way that they’ll lay their ears back to show that they are unhappy or angry with another horse. This expression is another sign that they’re about to make a sudden movement.

If you see your horse pinning their ears back, be alert and look for what’s bothering them.

Now that you know where your horse is looking, and what they’re paying attention to, you have a lot more information about what they might do next, which should help make you a more confident rider.

Plus, head over to our Riding Mindset FAQs for more information:

Want to read a detailed account of how we manage our nerves? Check out our blog about 32 things you can do today to calm your riding nerves forever.

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Watch for signs that your horse is nervous

As discussed, part of your fear likely stems from not understanding your horse well enough to predict his behavior.

If your horse is relaxed, he’s not likely to be reactive, fidgety, or do anything to make you unsure around him. If your horse has soft eyes, a nose that is smooth and wrinkle-free, and relaxed lips, he’s not tense or anxious. His ears may be flicking slowly around, and his head is held down low and close to you.

If your horse looks relaxed, then you can relax too!

This video shows a Quarter Horse displaying a lot of the body language:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2p8pwIWZAM]

Once you get better at “reading” your horse, you’ll understand that he’s usually calmly watching the world go by and not looking to cause you any problems. You’ll also be able to get advance notice of when he might make a sudden move.

Remember, if you’re unsure of your safety around a horse — or have had a bad experience before, always consult a trainer, riding instructor, and/or veterinarian to help troubleshoot bad behaviors.

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About the author

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Channing M.

When I'm not using my equine anatomy, physiology, veterinary care background to educate other equestrians, you'll find me volunteering with retired racehorses or vacationing in the Gulf of Mexico with my hubby and beach-loving lab.