Complicated Horses

 how do i deal with a difficult horse? will clinging advice on training, my horse is spooky, my horse overreacts, how do horses learn?

By Will Clinging

I have worked with thousands of horses and riders over the years, including some fairly complicated horses. Although more difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible to train, the complicated ones teach us the most and challenge us to work the horse as an individual.

Complicated horses do not respond the way most “normal” horses do. They sometimes look for things to react to, making them flighty, over-reactive, distracted, scared, and confused. They are either very withdrawn or explosive. There will be moments when we think they have it figured out and they are back to normal, but then something will happen that sets them off again. It doesn’t seem to matter that we are taking things slowly and giving them lots of time to learn; they just aren’t consistent in how they deal with their lessons from day to day. If you have one of these horses you know how difficult they can be.

It is generally not the technique that isn’t working. There are more factors at play than we may be aware of. To reach these horses you must be prepared to dig deep, put your ego aside, seek help when you are stuck, open your mind to other possible methods, have empathy for your horse, work one day at a time, and not give up.

I will list a few of the possible issues that a complicated horse may be trying to deal with. Some of these things are very intangible, and too easily discounted. Do not overlook anything as being unimportant. Because there are many factors, we do not know which one is critical. Think of your horse’s training as an onion with many layers; the outer layer is there to protect the layer beneath it. The coarse outer layer is easy to peel away but the softer layers underneath are tighter and more connected.

Related: Do Equestrians Know How Their Horses Learn?

Each plays a supportive role to the layer both below and above it. If one layer is damaged it could have consequences on many levels; this can cripple the horse’s ability to learn. Because these layers are connected, when we address them as a whole they will all improve. If we overlook them, they all work against us and, more importantly, against our horse.

Some issues a complicated horse might be dealing with are described below:

  • Maturity. This is not based on your horse’s age but on emotional development;
  • Confidence is based partly on personality and partly on past experience; the inability to be successful will quickly shatter confidence;
  • Self-esteem is the ability of the horse to believe in himself; if a horse is told he is stupid enough times, he will start to believe it;
  • Attention. Many horses spend more time distracting themselves from the task at hand than trying to stay attentive to what we are asking. When they are ignoring us on purpose there can be authority and security issues;
  • Authority is necessary for your horse to have a frame of mind where he is not trying to protect himself; a scared horse will not learn well. We must offer him passive leadership, not dominance. If we dominate him, he will not understand the tasks we are asking him to perform. We must allow him the opportunity to correct his own mistakes so he can learn that he did it for himself. He will not forget things he has learned, but he won’t remember things he did not understand; 
  • Responsibility is important so your horse can feel involved in the training process; if you do everything for him in order to be “successful” you are not letting your horse learn for himself. You can’t always give him the answer;
  • Discipline is crucial to effective teaching. In the words of Buck Brannaman, “discipline will keep you from becoming an abuser and it will keep your horse from being abused.” In other words if your horse knows you are disciplined enough to correct him (not punish him) when he makes a bad decision, he will become responsible for his own actions and start to make better decisions. The key is to allow him to be wrong before you correct him, and correct him fairly every time he makes a mistake;
  • Past experience is a large factor, especially if you did not raise the horse. Past emotional or physical trauma can be a very big hurdle for a horse to get over; 
  • Anticipation is often a result of punishment for being wrong. When your horse anticipates, he is not paying proper attention and is guessing at what you are about to ask him. He responds without waiting for the whole cue;
  • Hypersensitivity can make a horse so reactive that he can’t think. If the horse is very sensitive and we are careful about how we work him, he will become more sensitive. In order to tone him down we sometimes need to be more cautiously careless;
  • Work ethic is something that should develop throughout the training process; if it does not, do you have a “princess” on your hands? If you do, remember that a princess is created; you must make the horse responsible for his own behaviour.

When training begins to work, your horse will feel protected because he has an authority figure he can depend on. This will help remove fear, which will increase his ability to be attentive to the task at hand. When he is aware of what’s going on, he can think and respond in the way he thinks we want him to. This effort should be encouraged so he can start to believe in himself and his own judgment, which will build self-esteem and confidence. He will anticipate less because he has accepted the responsibility to pay attention, and will try to be right because he knows he can be successful. We can remove confusion and fear by allowing him make mistakes and then correcting rather than punishing him. This success will help him let go of past issues or fear through association with past events because he is proud of what he has accomplished and encouraged to learn, rather than devastated by uncertainty, fear, and confusion.

I could ramble on for a long time about some of the intangible issues involved in horse training. As mentioned earlier, it is not about technique. It is an approach. It is about trying to be open-minded enough to put yourself in your horse’s shoes and think about what else could be going on. Training is a hugely stressful experience for horses and many of them barely survive it on an emotional level. If you allow your horse to be emotional, if you allow him the intelligence I know he has, if you allow him to be who he is and don’t try to put him in a box, he will be much more successful. Don’t give up on him just because he is complicated.

Related: 7 Qualities of the Mentally Tough Rider

Related: Slow Down and Start A Horse Right

More by Will Clinging

Main Photo: Horses have many layers that depend on one another. Only by addressing all the layers will a confident, thinking horse emerge. Credit: Shutterstock/Rolf Dannenberg


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