grumpy whimsy

Are you a time bomb around your horse?

There’s something about horses that can bring out a fierce inner dragon in us. We can get extremely frustrated while interacting with our horses. Maybe it’s because they are big and intelligent. Perhaps it’s their spirit or expansive energy. Whatever it is, we can snap!

How can you tame yourself and prevent that Yosemite Sam outburst?

I can remember schooling my horse as a teenager. I remember an incident where I was schooling in the sand ring in the forest behind my house and I lost my temper to the point that I jerked repeatedly on my mare’s mouth and kicked her in the side. My entire body was rigid with anger. I remember hitting her with my dressage whip on her shoulder. I know that before this incident occurred she was bucking and I was trying to school basic dressage figures.

I’m ashamed of my reaction now, but the odd thing is that the behaviour that I demonstrated can be seen across the globe and often it’s even accepted.

However, my reaction wasn’t acceptable. I wasn’t “training” or “disciplining”. I was flat out losing it!

You might think to yourself, “I’ve never lost my temper like that!” But what about the more subtle simmer? I’ve seen a gigantic cloud brewing over people’s heads while their horse braces with tension. It’s clear from an onlookers vantage point that the horse is scared to make a wrong move because the handler is emanating angry thoughts and energy. This psychological threat can be just as emotionally damaging to your horse as a physical outburst.

There’s no point in beating yourself up about things you’ve done in the past, but you can improve your emotional control in the present.


Find the trigger

Something triggers your anger. It can be different for everyone. In my case it is fear of death and injury. Any time I think my life is on the line with a horse, the anger rises to the top. It’s a defence mechanism. I’m shift straight to FIGHT instead of flight.

Think back or write down the incidents where you started to lose it and ask yourself what was happening. In my example, my horse was bucking. I had experienced bruised ribs and concussion from coming off my horse during surprising bucks in the past. I was flat out terrified when my horse bucked after that.

This awareness helps me now. When I feel I’m in danger, I recognize the fear and it’s rare for me to zip to anger. I acknowledge to myself “I’m afraid and I need to get myself to safer ground.” Safer ground might be physically removing myself from the situation, asking something simple of the horse to get him to calm down or it might just be taking a deep breath and looking at the situation logically.

Pay attention to your state of being

How are you showing up to your horse time? Are you ticked off before you even get to the barn? Are you

unfolded / / CC BY-SA

looking after yourself or are you running on a short fuse? If you haven’t got the energy to deal with a horse then do something else or pick something simple like grooming or sitting together.

Do you even know how you are feeling?

I’ve taken a lot of classes on energy and emotional awareness. I’ve learned that a good portion of the time I didn’t have a clue how I really felt! Even now, sometimes I will be working on a deadline at my office job for a few hours and on hour three I finally notice that my muscles are tense, I’m perched on the edge of my chair, I’m speaking fast on the phone, my chest is tight and I’m feeling nauseous. Then I realize I’ve been feeling like that all morning and was so caught up in work that I was oblivious to the damage I was doing to myself.

You might be unaware of your emotions around your horse until they get too big to control. Check in regularly. How are you breathing? How do your muscles feel? Are there any tight or tense or sore parts on your body? If you feel great, then fabulous! Keep doing that! If you feel crappy, then sort yourself out. NOW.

Change your perception

Many times we get frustrated with horses because we take their behaviour personally and decide that they are purposely out to get us or being difficult and evasive. But horses have difficulty understanding us and it’s a miracle they cooperate as much as they do. Put some imaginary horse shoes on and think from your horse’s perspective. Did she really sign up for this? Are you making any sense? Does she understand why this circle is so important to you?

Your horse is a gift and your companion. It’s your job to try to help your horse to be as happy as possible. It’s not your horse’s job to make YOU happy.

How can you improve your horse’s well being? What can you do to make this lesson simpler, to stay more relaxed and to help your horse experience the joy that you do in your relationship?

Look for the good things your horse is doing, rather than the bad or the things that he is missing. Praise him when you catch him doing good things. Re-direct or ignore him when he’s doing behaviours that you don’t like. His goal is not to ruin your day. If he seems to be having trouble then you need to ask what you are doing that might be confusing the situation. How can you help?

Do you have some suggestions for cooling down your emotions with your horse?

Photo credit: unfolded / / CC BY-SA

Comments 26

  1. Hi Heather!

    This is a great article and I really appreciate that you take the anger out of the closet! When I feel myself getting tense and/or angry, I take myself away from the horse if possible, even if it’s just long enough to take several slow breaths, letting the tension go with every exhale. Horses really pay attention to breathing and will relax if they see you do this. But you have to let it all go before you start back with your horse.

    1. Post

      Your suggestion about breathing is excellent. Horses feel our breath so much because it affects our energy, our body language and our state of being. I love how you point out that you have to let it go before you start back with your horse. Sometimes this has to happen in seconds because of the gravity of the moment! Each moment has to be new with your horse. thanks for your input.

  2. amen!

    In many various lessons my instructors had me sing while riding… row your boat or whatever you want to help encourage regular breathing and staying calm, especially when riding a nervous horse. I find I tend to get frustrated when a horse won’t do something it’s done a million times before, or if they are really spooky and not paying attention ( definitely a fear response there). I always feel so guilty for getting so angry, sometimes we get so caught up in the moment that we don’t see how ridiculous it is to be mad about it but it seems that anger and intimidation is the go to thing for many people…

    1. Post

      I’ve never thought of singing to release frustration so that’s a good idea. I do practice singing to help with consistent tempo when I ride and I did sing in my head during hack classes because it helped me with my nerves.

  3. I got mad at my two year old stallion because he wouldn’t walk on. I lost it I understand he is a baby but he is trained on the ground he knows these things. What can I do? How do I fix this with him and make this relationship better? I’m so upset that I’m crying that’s how bad I feel. I don’t like getting mad I hate getting mad

    1. Post

      Hello. Firstly it’s best to take a deep breath and realize that you are human and you will occasionally lose your temper. Your horse is a young horse and sometimes he is not going to do exactly what you want, no matter how well you have trained him. He has his opinions too. You will want to look at the particular situation and try to determine why it was that he didn’t respond to your request that day. Was he distracted? Was he shutting down for some reason? What kind of mood were you in before you lost your temper? Have your cues been consistent and fair? Do you escalate them in good time and then reward when he tries? He either did not walk on because he didn’t understand in that moment or because he didn’t respect your leadership enough in that moment. Either way if you work on your bond and also on giving extremely clear and consistent messages then the situation is going to get better.

  4. Hi Heather, I just found this post and was in a similar state to the lady above- bawling my eyes out because I’d lost my temper with my horse.
    I’d had a fight with my boyfriend and was in a horrible mood when I got to the yard. Horse wouldn’t come to me in the field, was bargy and kept running me over in the stable, rearing and spinning on a hack and spooky and nappy when I gave up and went in the school. I’m ashamed to say I was heavy handed and used my whip to punish. I threw him back into the field with no dinner or brush down.
    It’s only once I’d calmed down that I burst out crying as I realised his behaviour today was most likely because he’s a sensitive soul who didn’t want to be anywhere near me when I was close to breaking point!
    Thank you for your post- I know now to look for the warning signs and remember he’s a horse not a deamon sent to ruin my day!

    1. Post

      Thanks for sharing your story. It takes courage and self awareness to recognize that your horse is sensitive and your energy was likely the cause of the mess in the first place. Our horses teach us so much! They also forgive us so next time you see him give him a hug and thank him for being there.

  5. I have been riding for the last 30 years.. scary to realize it’s been so long.

    When I was younger, I used to anticipate bad behaviour by getting really nervous and full of tension, this of course is the worse thing to do. The horse responded in kind. I would get so worried at times about what could happen that I would be defensive or at some points would literally throw myself off of the horse rather than ride through a lot of the behaviours if i felt like I couldn’t win. As I got older, I stopped throwing myself off and learned to ride through a lot of the horse’s bucks, rearing, crow hopping etc.
    Later on I bought a stallion. A very sensitive stallion. You cant opt to creatively dismount a stallion when you are riding because quite frankly, he has other things that he would rather be doing at that point in time.
    He taught me many things: my emotions are his emotions, we are united, if we are to be successful, I needed to stay in the moment and ride through anything he threw at me.
    I learned how to laugh instead of grasping the reins. If he did something unexpected, I laughed.
    It worked.
    Laughter, as it turns out, relaxes your body and your mind. It makes it possible to let go of that tension.
    I have taught this technique to others who tend to get too involved in riding through retribution or fear and it has worked wonders.
    It tricks your brain and your body and ultimately it does the same for the horse. WIN-WIN!

    1. Post

      Oooh I love this! Thanks for sharing. Laughter to lighten up and allow flow. Your comment about laughing instead of grasping the reins reminds me of something I’ve been focusing on as well with myself and my students lately. We are practicing giving with the reins in the tense moments, no matter how scary. It’s the opposite of what we instinctively want to do do, but when we give, relax, put the gas peddle on and go with the flow the horse has nothing to resist against and evens out.

  6. This article has been a God send for me today. I got so incredibly frustrated with my horse and have been ashamed of myself all night. I have a 4 year old green gelding who I’ve owned for about 7 months now. This past month I was out of town and nobody was able to work with my horse while I was gone. Today was my first day back and instead of being excited to just see my horse I was already anticipating all the retraining I would have to do.
    I lunged him for about an hour and he was fine so I decided I would hop on him for a quick bareback ride. I could not get him to stand still at the mounting block. I tried for almost 30 minutes. I was on the verge of tears I was so frustrated. I yanked his mouth and yelled at him before finally being able to jump on. He was stiff the whole ride due to the fact that I was still shaking with anger. Needless to say it was not a pleasant ride.
    Once I dismounted and looked into his kind eyes I felt like a monster. I just walked him around and apologized for like 15 minutes. He didn’t seem to have any annimosity towards me at all but I still feel really bad.

  7. This is helping me a lot because I have a mare and she drives me insane to were I feel like I’m abusing her! I’ve been trying to stop my anger and this is the only thing I find helpful! So thank you

    1. Post

      I’m glad I can be of help. Remember that she isn’t “trying” to drive you insane and that will help.

  8. This article I hope will help me in the future. I have a 20 year old ex Grand Prix pony that I struggle to jump as he gets very fast and has bucked and reared on some occasions. This has made me quite nervous jumping and I hold him tight after the fence to try slow him down but it only makes the situation worse. I just need to remember to breathe and understand that he has been told to jump big and fast most of his life and maybe it hurts him to jump now also. I was being selfish getting angry at him for not jumping how I wanted him to.. It doesn’t help that I’m a perfectionist also… Thank you

  9. I feel really bad for it but I’ve got a new horse and she’s been in the field for the past year and has hardly done any work at all dering her life. I get so frustrated sometimes because she spooks a lot and makes me nervous which is what makes me frustrated it’s also frustrating because I really want to bond with her but she always walks away from me in the stable especially when I put her bridal or head collar on, do you have any tips for me.

    1. Post

      Horses usually spook because the rider/handler is nervous first. You have some reason to be because it’s been scary for you in the past but if you build your confidence she is much less likely to spook. Practice breathing and also practice lots of ground work exercises so that you get accustomed to her body language and getting her attentiveness. She’s probably walking away when you put the bridle or head collar on because she hasn’t had the most pleasant experiences in the past and wants to avoid more in the future. Take it one step at a time and watch my video on youtube about catching horses.

  10. This article really helped me out. I am a 15 yr old rider (riding for about 7 years) and I lease a very sweet mare that I ride twice a week, once in a lesson and once by myself. During lessons, she’s a dream to ride and we’ve been coming along very nicely. But when I ride her on my own it feels as if I was a beginner again. She has these habits that don’t come up during lessons that I try to fix but it doesn’t work. I get so frustrated in the end and I kick her hard with my spurs and feel so awful about if for long after. I am a big animal lover (a vegetarian and all) but some how this ticks me off so much to the point that I feel like im not myself anymore. I even tell my mom off for yelling at the dog! I hate myself for punishing her in such a manner and I am well aware that this is nowhere near being constructive. Often I find myself crying and apologizing on her back and giving her many treats. I then get off right after which I know is the worst idea but I can’t handle trying to fix the problems after the fact. I know she is a very talented horse (she moves amazingly with her owners) and that it is me enabling these problems. Do you have any suggestions about getting back into a good program when I am riding her on my own? I’d also like to mention that I ride her in a different ring when I am riding by myself, and only in this ring do the problems come out. Thank you!

    1. Post

      Thanks for writing. The important thing is to be compassionate with yourself and your mare. Set tiny goals for yourself in the different arena so that you CAN be successful and have a reason to reward her. It doesn’t matter how tiny the goal is. Just try something you know that you both are good at and build on things from there. If you set tiny goals that you can both do well at then it will build both of your confidence and make you feel better about your situation. Once saying “yes!” and rewarding each other start to become habits then your mindsets will change.

  11. Thank you Heather for the great article. My horse has a cut on her hind leg and I need to change the dressing on it twice a day. She kicked out at me the other day while changing it and I got scared and I lost it on her. It all happens so fast. I guess it takes practice to actually learn to STOP and pay attention to your emotions instead of letting things escalate so fast. Thank goodness horses are forgiving, they give us the time to help us improve ourselves.

    1. Post

      You are welcome and thanks for writing in. Yes, sometimes we react very quickly and it is a life long practice but as you practice you get much better at it and will start to respond instead of react. It’s your fear coming up since it surprised you.

  12. Thank you for posting this article! I find myself getting very frustrated with my Gelding. I’ve have owned a very smart and sensitive mare for a few years now. We have a lot of bad days but we are working through them. I’m more careful around her and pay more attention because she is sensitive and can become very dangerous out of no where. But with my gelding he seems to be just dumb. I relax with him more which I don’t think is always a good thing. I slack off as a rider and I get very frustrated when he dosnt pick up on things. He’s a slow learner and it can be very frustrating when your asking him for things but he just doesn’t get it. I’m used to my very smart mare. I’m ashamed to say that I lose my temper on him and I can jab at the reins or hit him with my lead. How can I stop myself from getting to this point? I always feel so bad afterwards.

    1. Post

      It’s very important to have compassion with your gelding and also with yourself so that you are less likely to become frustrated. remember that you are both learning a language that you can speak together and he’s not out to be difficult. He’s just trying to understand. He may have different methods of learning than your mare and you can think of it as an experiment to find out how best to teach him rather than a chore.

  13. Hi. My mare sometimes refuses to take the lead when we are out hacking. She point blank refuses. I can get her in front but i have to be really firm with my voice before she grinds to a complete halt. Sometimes though, I get far too angry and kick /shout alot. I Rarely hit her. But My voice gets angry and i totally lose the plot kicking. She will then go in front, but its not the way i want it to happen at all. Then i feel bad for scaring her and worry ive ruined our relationship

    1. Post

      She’s probably not feeling very confident about being in the lead and needs lots of practice so that she can build her confidence in herself. The important thing is to feel compassionate with yourself and with her and to practice in small amounts in areas that are not very scary for her.

  14. Hi,
    I have a young horse who is a very good boy and we work a lot on groundwork but today he was just pushing me around and getting all up in my space and I gave him a little slap on the nose and a tug on the lead rope. And I feel horrible for lashing out on him.

    1. Post

      Hello Julie! The thing you can do now upon your reflection is to give yourself compassion for your reaction and then ask, “Why was he pushing into your space?” Every behaviour has a function and if we can find out the reason we have the ability to change it. For example he could have been feeling out of physical balance during an exercise or been feeling anxious about one of his horse friends leaving the area. What was happening?

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