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How Do You Calm an Anxious Horse? Essential Tips

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My niece has a horse that gets anxious every time she travels in a trailer. By the time we get to a show, her horse is washed out from the stress, definitely not in the best condition to compete. She asked me if I knew of anything she can do to calm her horse.

Recognizing stress indicators, letting your horse out regularly, or even talking to them soothingly are some ways to help calm an anxious horse. Some horses are naturally nervous while others become nervous from triggers. Sometimes, introducing them to their fears or using calming supplements may work best.

Horses are prey animals, so they can become easily spooked or anxious. If you’re new to horses, or even just horseback riding, it’s important to know how to calm an anxious horse. Check out these tips from the pros on how to reassure your horse and keep things calm during your ride.

Picture of an anxious horse with its ears pinned.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Horses

Knowing what to do when your horse is anxious or stressed out can prevent injury and long-term damage, so it’s crucial to recognize the symptoms. Horse anxiety is a condition characterized by a horse’s fear or apprehension in response to certain stimuli.

Symptoms of horse anxiety include sweating, increased heart rate, and increased respiration. In severe cases, horse anxiety can lead to panic attacks and destructive behaviors such as cribbing or weaving.

I’ve seen many of these symptoms in horses we’ve owned, for instance, we had a young racehorse that worked well in the mornings and was always comfortable. However, when she got in front of a crowd on race day she would wash out (sweat profusely) and not compete.

Another horse in our barn was an amazing athlete and won some nice races, however, he kicked his stall walls when he became nervous. He eventually kicked the wall so hard that he severely injured his fetlock joint and never raced again.

Much like with humans, signs of anxiety in horses can manifest in different ways. No two horses are alike, but the movements and things they do can be observed as signs of anxiety.

While there is no cure for horse anxiety, there are several management strategies that can help to reduce its severity. These include desensitization training, removing the stimuli, bonding, and establishing a consistent routine.

The following chart lists many common signs of anxiety in horses. 

Pacing in the stallKickingExcessive sweating
Grinding teethLoss of appetiteFlared Nostrils
SpookingShaking headRolling eyes
WeavingCribbingTrembling

Implement changes to help calm anxious horses

While horse anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors, the most common trigger is a change in routine or environment. If you notice that your horse is showing signs that they are stressed out and anxious all the time, it probably is time to make some changes.

From making sure your horse’s tack is on correctly, to turning your horse out regularly, and everything in between, there are many ways to address this issue and help your horse out. 

Turn your horse out regularly

Horses need to get out and about every day or their stress levels will rise. Staying cooped up in a stable all morning can make even the most laid-back horse feel anxious. For our young horse that wasn’t coping well on race day, we turned her out in a pasture and hope to try her again when she gets older.

A chance at stretching its legs along with some grazing will surely reduce a horse’s stress level. Having other animals and horses out with them is good for them to learn how to act around other animals and play. 

Keep your horse occupied

There are many toys and objects you can purchase that are made to occupy a horse when they are sitting in a stall or even when they are out in the pastures.

Whether you are out of town or the vet advised you to keep the horses in the stall, there may come a time your horse doesn’t get out of its stall for a day. When this happens it is important to keep them occupied by having toys or even salt blocks.  

We often keep music playing in our barn and of course, we have barn cats that roam around and visit our horses.

Good health checkups from the vet

It’s very important to get your horse checked by a vet if it is showing chronic signs of discomfort. It is especially important to get your horse checked by the vet if you have a high-performance horse such as a racing thoroughbred and also a rodeo quarter horse.   

Picture of a two year old thoroughbred in training

How to calm your horse on the ground

If you are walking a nervous horse, it is important to make sure you are ready for them to make sudden moves and unpredictable movements. Let the horse smell you or lightly touch them to introduce yourself to them prior to walking them. 

It is also very important to keep calm while dealing with a nervous horse. If you are bringing in nervous energy you could make a bad decision and hurt yourself or let the horse hurt itself.

One common thing you will notice from experienced horse experts or cowboys in the south is that they usually stay calm in tough situations.  For example, my friend was leading a young stallion out of its stall when it suddenly reared up and tried to paw him.

He calmly moved to the side and continued working with the horse like nothing was out of the ordinary. Staying calm is crucial and it’s important to have control over the horse to reduce the risk of injury.

If you know your horse is nervous, work with him in a controlled environment like a round pen, arena, or paddock. Working an anxious horse on a lunge line in a round pen is a great way to calm a horse.

The small enclosure will increase his confidence and comfort level, in addition, if he breaks away from you he has nowhere to run. If you don’t have a round pen you can still lunge your horse in an open pasture, however, if he gets loose it will be challenging to catch him.

How to calm a horse while riding

Every situation is different but it is important to know what kind of horse you intend to ride before getting on its back. Observe its movements and make a decision on whether you think the horse is too high-strung for you.

However, even though you start out on a calm horse sometimes situations arise that make them nervous. Recently we were riding young horses on a back road and a pack of vicious dogs came charging us from the woods.

I sat calmly, although I expected a bronc ride, and then started moving slowly towards our intended destination. He handled the situation like a pro and the dogs eventually went away.

You want to move your horse away from the source of the stress. Whether it’s a snake or a coyote, you should notice the threat and put distance between you and it. Even if you are not scared of it, there’s a good chance your horses may be and that’s not safe for you.

Talking to your horse with a nice soothing tone may even calm your horse down. This especially works if you have already built a relationship with your horse and it can recognize your voice. Horses are often trained to respond to sounds. 

Picture of a calm horse in a stall.

How to calm a horse down in a stall

Some horse trainers have their own special ways of training a nervous horse in a stall so today I will not be doing a tutorial but I will be talking about ways you should approach the horse in the stall and things you should avoid.

Some horses have had troubled pasts and some are simply not trained well, either way, you may be in a situation where you are facing a nervous horse in a stall. Approaching slowly is a common trend with most techniques when approaching a nervous horse.

You will never catch a full-grown horse by charging them quickly, they are just way too strong and fast for that. Talking to them with a soothing voice may calm them down. Loud noises and screaming will just scare them making them even more nervous and dangerous. 

Remaining calm is important when dealing with a timid horse. I know it may be difficult but if you are truly wanting to make progress and have the tools and knowledge to train a horse, you should have the confidence to keep yourself and the horse safe.

If you bring more nervous energy into the situation it will only make things worse. I noticed when our farrier meets one of our horses for the first time, he stands still and lets the horse smell him for a while, then he stands next to the horse and talks to us.

After watching him a few times I asked him about his routine, and he explained that if a horse gets a good smell of you he’ll never forget you, and he wants the horse to associate his scent with someone who is calm and not in a rush, this makes his job easier in the long run.

Picture of horses in a pasture

Do calming supplements work for horses?

The answer to this question seems to unanimously be: yes. We’ve used them on a few horses and it seemed to take the edge off without making them drowsy.

The scientific research isn’t clear on commercially sold supplements but there are a couple of ingredients that do show promise: Alpha-casozepine and Magnesium. Alpha-casozepine seems to be the overall choice as an oral supplement and magnesium is more effective when given intravenously.

One supplement that is frequently used is Formula 707 Calming Equine Supplement, which includes magnesium.

A drug often used by horse owners is Ace (Acepromazine). This is typically given to nervous horses before riders mount and it works well, however, it’s not a long-term solution for fixing an anxious horse.

Does your horse need calming supplements?

If your horse is displaying behavior where it does not seem possible to handle the horse without some sort of aid, calming supplements are an option. Every situation is different and I am not a vet so it is on you if you think your horse needs the supplements. 

It is important to know your horse and to know how odd it’s acting. When you are buying a horse that you’re unfamiliar with, it is important to get information from the seller on the horse’s normal behavior.

There’s a livestock auction near us that sells all types of farm animals including horses. Many times people leave the auction with a calm horse only to find out later it was sedated.

I recommend trying a horse at your house for a couple of days before making a decision to buy it. The more information you have on the horse, the better.

Don’t use calming supplements as your first choice. Always use them as a last resort because, in the end, you want your horse to be calm without needing supplements. Working with your horse to address the anxiety in the best interest of your horse.

Conclusion

Horses are prey animals and as such, they have a number of defense mechanisms to help them feel safe. When we work with horses, it’s important to understand these defenses and how to counter them.

Remember it’s important to remain consistent with your approach and be patient. Keep working with your horse until it feels comfortable and confident in its surroundings.

If you’re having trouble calming your horse on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a professional. With a little bit of patience and practice, you should be able to get your anxious horse back on track in no time.

Below is a YouTube video showing how to calm a horse.