Handling a Horse that is Nervous at Shows
By Charles Wilhelm
I received a question about a really nice thoroughbred off the track that does very well at home but shies at everything when he is taken to a show. He is quiet at home but very nervous when he goes to a show. This is a very common problem in every discipline but I have probably seen it more in the English world. We see the quiet performance of the horse at home and think it is going to transfer to the show arena but we are often surprised. A new environment with new objects, noises, even additional horses, can be scary if the horse is not accustomed to change.
We have had some horses here at the barn that we have worked with on this issue and they have done quite well in shows. Our practice is to take the horse out and around in different environments. We go to a show without showing. Lead the horse around, lunge him, and ride him around the area. We try to find a warm up arena and work the horse there. We look for something that bothers the horse and lunge him past it. This gets the attention on the trainer.
If a horse looks at something our instinct is to walk or ride the horse over to the object and let it get a good look. I fine this to be detrimental because it shows the horse we have some concern and this will usually increase the concern of the horse. Instead, I simply send the horse forward with my leg, ignoring the object but coming back around to it. I find the safety zone where the horse feels comfortable and do a simple exercise.
For example, during the warm up period you find the horse is not comfortable passing the announcer’s stand. If the horse is not comfortable at ten feet, I would start by going past it at twenty feet. Then, I would stop and practice a turn on the forehand. Go back past at twenty feet and do another turn on the forehand. I would start with about thirty feet between the turns. As the horse gets more comfortable, I will decrease the space in five-foot increments. I will continue to do this until the horse is doing the turn on the forehand just below the announcer’s stand. Sometimes horses do not like the speaker and you can work with the horse in the same way for this issue.
This is a drill exercise and you should work with the horse awhile and then take a break. I find that sometimes horses need time to process something new. A break from the exercise lets the horse relax and process.
If you have this problem, I hope this process helps you out. It has worked very well for me. It is a great way to build your horse’s trust and improve your relationship.