No Fear: Training a Horse Through Relaxation

Creating a true partnership with your horse doesn’t have to involve long sessions in the round pen or on the lunge line, argues Melanie O’Neill. She presents an alternative: working a horse to relaxation rather than exhaustion.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

“Don’t work a horse to exhaustion; work a horse to relaxation.” (Will Faerber)

I heard this quote in an Art2ride video and it resonated with me. This is something I do with all the horses I work with.Relaxation is the key to training a horse. This is also one of the principles of Equitation Science (learn more about Equitation Science here). “Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training (to ensure absence of conflict).” More plainly, don’t cause your horse undue stress. You can’t train a horse through fear. Sure, you can break a horse like they used to, creating a state of learned helplessness. But this is not how you create a partner; it is how you create an automaton. Create a partnership with your horse by training with relaxation.

“Get the bucks out”

My pet peeve is the use of lunging to wear down a horse or “get the bucks out” — which just creates a fitter horse that needs to be lunged harder every time until it’s tired. Tired muscles and tendons are more likely to injure. It is more stressful on tendons to go in a small circle. I have seen a trainer lunge a horse so long that she left ruts in the footing.

But mostly, it is the behavioral implications that bother me. Horses have learned to run and buck on the lunge or in a round pen. How did they learn that? Probably from being chased. Why anyone would want to chase a flight animal is beyond me. Running away from something is a fear response which includes physiological responses: increased heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline. Do you really want to do that to a horse before you get on him? Allowing a horse to buck on the lunge or when you work him in a round pen is teaching him to buck. Horses learn very well by association; the association here is fear or stress.

A relaxing alternative

Let me offer an alternative: if your horse can be reactive and you don’t want to get on if he is going to misbehave, there are some things you can do without exhausting him. (This is assuming you have ruled out physical causes for pain and saddle fit.) First, walk him in hand. Give him a tour of the show grounds, the spooky end of the ring or just up and down the driveway. Don’t just walk along casually — you are working. Keep his head next to your body and have him respect your space. I always carry a dressage whip. Halt, back up and walk on, change directions, circle, slow walk, fast walk… and a big test of mood is trotting quietly in hand. Teaching the horse to lower his head is helpful in releasing tension. As you work, reflect: is he listening, is he relaxed?

If you want to lunge, use a cavesson. Teach him to stretch down and lengthen his stride. Develop the swing that can only come with supple, tension-free muscles. If you want to use side reins, keep them long enough that he can put his head down. If you have tight side reins that restrict his movement, you are creating tension. Use the walk on the lunge; yes, it’s boring, but boring is relaxing to your horse. Make sure he knows what you are asking and he will confidently and calmly perform on the lunge. The stretching down is important and not just for the development of topline — when a horse’s head is down there is a physiological response that lowers blood pressure. A horse with his head down is more relaxed. Think about it: horses eat with their heads down; when they are scared, the head is up.

One incident for me when hand walking made a world of difference was when a student took her horse to his first show. He hadn’t been off the farm before. He was quite excited at the show grounds. I took him immediately off the trailer and walked him in hand. He was putting on quite the show, a lot of people stared. I walked and walked, for probably about half an hour. He finally started to settle. I schooled him lightly under saddle and then he was ready for his owner to do a beginner equitation class with him. The same horse returned to the same show grounds a month later but I couldn’t be there. The owner tried to walk him, but people kept trying to “help” her. Someone then told her to put him in a round pen to let him run it out. Well, he ran, but he never settled. She wasn’t able to ride him; another rider tried, but the horse was unruly.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Applications under saddle

All the groundwork applies directly to your riding. After your groundwork or lunging, mount calmly and ask him to stand for a moment. Scratch him at the base of the neck; this has the effect of lowering heart rate. If he doesn’t like to stand, offer him a treat while you are mounting or right after. Chewing also releases tension. Then walk on the longest rein his mood or the environment allows, but he has to stretch and reach for the contact. Walk a lot but keep him focused on your aids. Halt and walk on, change directions, circle, slow walk, fast walk – sound familiar? Forwardness does not have to be sacrificed for relaxation. Can you trot and keep the same light contact? Better still, can you canter long and relaxed? This is great warm-up. At the end of your workout, finish with a nice stretchy trot and lots of praise and treats. Start relaxed and finished relaxed: this how a horse learns to be relaxed.

Most of the horses that the average person buys or gets to ride are “used.” They have untold baggage from past owners and trainers. Sometimes the relaxation piece is what is missing. I work with an ex-reining mare that was filled with tension. Her gaits were short and choppy and her head was up and on alert. Her go-to response when scared was spin in a circle to the point of making her rider nauseous. She needed relaxation, but how? Her rider was kind and understanding, but through her gentleness gave mixed signals and caused conflict on top of past mishandling.

We worked on what I called “leadership training.” But I was lying – what we were really doing was clarifying cues and responses. One thing the mare did was stop during the ride and stare at some activity going on at the farm. Since she was known to explode, the rider patiently stopped and reassured her. To correct this, we worked on keeping her attention. If there was some distraction, we would work on something that was easy for her – in her case, walking quarter turns. We worked on a little flexion in the neck to the inside so she couldn’t be as distracted by what was going on outside the arena.

In the beginning we still allowed her to look at the distraction, but then had her move on after she saw it. The consistent aids came in at a very basic level to stay in gait until asked for something else. At the walk and then at the trot, we worked for a level topline (her neck in line with her back), always confirming relaxation before changing to a different gait. Even that was difficult to achieve. I couldn’t imagine asking for more.

Most recently I added another piece that I wasn’t sure if she was ready for: straightness. When I had first ridden this horse I could feel how crooked she was throughout her body. We had worked on the rider’s alignment and feeling for the mare’s popping shoulder or hind end swinging out. This day we were at the walk using the spiral in and out and somehow everything came together – the mare dropped her head to the ground. I almost cried. It was something so basic that was previously impossible for this horse. She had relaxation: she was happy in her work.

A happy, relaxed horse is something we all want. For pleasure we just want to have a trusting relationship. In the show ring hunters are judged on manners, dressage horses are judged on obedience and more throughout the disciplines, all of which start with relaxation. Horses are happy to perform if it is a positive experience without fear or confusion. A willing working partner will come with relaxation and clear aids.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Melanie and Viggo (Fly You Fools). Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Melanie O’Neill is an event and dressage rider from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She organizes dressage shows at Bucks County Horse Park and works at a veterinary clinic. She operates her own business for riding lessons and training as well as equine massage, fecal testing and nutrition consultations. She is married with three sons.

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