Advice and tips on working with my very nervous first horse? (Update #3)

Hi all! So 2 months ago after years of riding I got my first horse. Though she was sold to me as a grade QH I’m now more or less certain she’s full TB and it shows; for shits and giggles I’m currently waiting on a phylogenetic analysis to come back on her but my trainer and farrier and I all know damn well what it’s going to say, lol.

She’s a good girl, very sweet and willing, but has intense anxiety. Interestingly, she’s not spooky and is good about weird or loud noises, new things, etc, but she gets in a generally nervous state - Ginger has a lot of trouble staying still on the cross ties, on a lead rope, at the mounting block, when I’m letting down her stirrups, etc etc. She often has an extremely forward walk bordering on a trot and it’s difficult to get her to breathe and slow down a little bit. She’s a little herdbound and if I take her in the barn and tack her up midday, she works herself into such a frenzy that I have to spend the next 30 minutes working with her on the lunge line to soothe her enough for her to be able to pay attention or stay still at the mounting block. She paws so badly that I had to buy a stall mat for the crossties because she wore down her toe to such an extent that the farrier took off about a cm of wall from the sides of her front hooves and nothing at all from the toes when he was last here. As one might imagine from the combination of words “TB” and “nervous”, yes, I did spend my first month of horse ownership treating ulcers. :skull:

As of the past few weeks Ginger has developed the new habit of balking when I try to lead her out of the barn, into the barn, into the arena, or toward the arena. How do I get her to move forward? I try to grab the side of her halter and move her while standing abreast to her as my BO recommended but I’m still really struggling and have never dealt with a horse that balks before.

In terms of finding ways to soothe her, I know that moving and being talked to definitely helps her. After getting worked up she’s clearly very eager to get onto the lunge line and starts trotting at the first kissy noise before I even use the voice command ‘trot’. On the whole I’m very inexperienced with horses that need that kind of reassurance though, as I’ve never ridden a horse with her general personality type. I’ve found that I prefer a sensitive horse to the sides-of-steel hard-mouthed lessonhorses I’m used to, as she’s super responsive to my cues and I don’t have to repeat myself over and over, but I have a lot to learn still.

Does anyone with experience on this have thoughts? On getting her to slow down at the walk (or stop pulling/trying to walk in circles around me on the lead when I walk her in new areas), dealing with the balking/pawing, etc etc? Even just thoughts on preventing the ulcers from coming back would be very helpful. Thank you all in advance.

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2 months is an eyeblink to any horse put in a new situation.
Add in a “nervous” (I’d say hyperalert instead) animal + Newb owner & you have the makings of a scenario where horse feeds off your lack of calm in handling & the both of you escalate.

You say your prior experience was solely with school horses.
These are solid citizens, forgiving of mishandling/mixed signals from inexperienced riders handling them, both on the ground & U/S.

Longeing a horse should have the goal of relaxing the horse, lengthening the topline & warming up muscles. NOT, as I see too often, “getting the bucks out”.

Agree partly with your BO’s advice on leading.
You should be at the head of your horse, not in front & there s/b slack in the leadrope.
Horse barging ahead means not listening to you, hanging back is same.

Please don’t ascribe her behavior to TB breeding.
A Grade QH could have some TB, making her Appendix.
I’d not put a ton of faith in the DNA analysis either.
Unless you have papers or registration, breed info is unimportant to behavior.

Do you have a trainer you can work with on ground manners?
A horse who listens & understands what you ask on the ground translates to a horse who will do same U/S.

Good luck with your mare.
Hope you can work things out in time.


First get a good vet workup and look at ulcers, back pain legs etc. I’m sure she already has ulcers. What kind of PPE did you do? How shady were the sellers? What else did they lie to you about besides breed?

Do you have any evidence this horse is actually broke to ride? Does she have a show record? Did she come off the track last week? Do you know if she has ever been longed before? put in crossties before?How much turnout is she getting?

I think you need to go back to square one with developmental groundwork to develop a communication and trust. You have been ignoring her issues and her call for help that she is not feeling ok with you or the situation and it is escalating.

I think Warwick Schiller has good online instruction.

Do you have intelligent adult help in your barn that understands groundwork? If not you can likely find a trainer in your area. You do not want the kick him forward kind of basic h/j trainer.

The DNA tests are worthless, they are very inaccurate. Does she have a lip tattoo?

Anyhow you have gotten off to a rough start with this horse and since you haven’t addressed her emotions she is now telling you more strongly that she can’t handle what’s happening by baiking. You can’t “make her go forward” without addressing her total self.

Most newbie horse owners go through s rough patch. You will need to make the leap from just a rider of dead broke lesson horses to an actual horse person with skills on the ground to sort out issues.

Right now you are driving the mare crazy and she is trying to communicate this.


Yeah, that’s definitely my goal, not getting the bucks out (figuratively or literally - she doesn’t buck). It just definitely seems to soothe her to be able to move around as opposed to staying still while she’s nervous, especially if she’s just had to stay still to be tacked

My trainer and I are currently working on a lot of stuff on the ground and I do daily groundwork in the arena, but I figured the more opinions, the better. I know that breeding doesn’t automatically make behavior and have known some very quiet TBs, but am referring to it mostly re: things like genetic predisposition to ulcers (while all breeds CAN get them, IME they tend to be more easily developed in TBs). Speaking as a career scientist I’m not looking for a “Your horse is X breed” or even “your horse is most likely to be X, Y, or Z breed” because that’s not possible with horses given how closely most breeds are related, but by comparing the base pair length of specific points in the genome to markers on a reference panel, you can see how closely related to different breeds your horse may be - phylogenetically speaking - and while QHs and TBs share a lot and she may well be appendix, the results for a QH or TB/majority-appendix TB will not be the same based on the phylogeny Tex A&M’s genomic analysis generated. By using that tool it’s possible to at least get more than no clue at all as to her genetic bg. But like I said, mostly just for funsies/to compare with the opinion of her vet/farrier/trainer.

Thank you <3


So read up on the threads on DNA analysis. There is no QH gene or TB gene. Each company uses their own proprietary set of markers. A TB might show Barb and Ahkal Teke markers going back to 1750 when those breeds were imported to England. A QH might show Iberian markers from mustang heritage which might come up as Paso Fino. Or they might show draft markers depending on the line (foundation QH go back to a Percheron. Other lines go back to Morgan’s).

Good that you are doing groundwork. I like to work at liberty until I can basically “lead” the horse in the arena walk trot halt with no halter on, her head at my shoulder. Doesn’t take long. Doesnt solve all blowups outside the arena in halter and lead rope but helps a lot.

I also like to work on whoa stand come on cue at liberty. Horse is to halt and stand on whoa and stay still while I walk away and around her then come when I whistle. Gradually increasing length of stand time. Clicker training is great for this and can really change the horses attitude if done right

Do you know if this horse is actually broke,? If so how long under saddle? Or any big pasture vacation breaks? What’s her history ? That’s more important than the breed. If you have a basically unbroken or track broke horse (whether she’s TB or racing QH) that means starting from scratch.


She’s already had a vet workup which is how we decided to treat for ulcers. I shelled out for a really thorough PPE including a full panel of bloodwork (all negative) to be sure she wasn’t on NSAIDs or drugged, and discussed the possibility of radiography with the vet but given that there was nothing to cause suspicion that anything would be awry and her overall purchase price the vet and my trainer did not recommend radiography. The sellers were a sale barn but on the whole a lot less shady than most. I know multiple people who got good show horses from them and they’re a go-to for lower level HJ prospects in my geographical area, but I still went into it very wary, tried her multiple times, figured they might not be super honest about breed and background, etc.

She’s definitely broke to ride but her balance is a little lackluster so we are working on that. No show record, and she’s not tattooed so if she was on the track it would have been unraced/early early training. She definitely has been longed before because she knows exactly what to do, and given that she was quite well behaved on the crossties both times I inspected her at the sales barn I tend to think she’s used to it. She also yields her hindquarters, picks up her rear feet and holds them in the air while she waits for you to take them if you lightly touch her inner thigh after picking the forehoof on that side, lowers her head and nudges it into her halter when you put it on, bridles easier than any horse I’ve known, etc, so although her ground manners have gaps I think somebody at some point but some work into her.

Re: the DNA tests, this isn’t an “Your horse is for sure X Breed” gimmick, which is impossible to say in good faith, but thank you for the warning!

I explained the way this phylogenetic analysis works in Post #4 - as opposed to 'we are testing for these markers which will tell you for sure what breed(s) your horse probably is - (I work in livestock science with a long background in genetics - no worries about getting ripped by Etalon and co, lol.) She does not have a visible lip tattoo, but she was bought at auction in Kentucky - Lexington iirc - and shows a combination of physical traits and tendencies that are usually ascribed to TBs. The sales barn where I got her asks more for QHs and doesn’t even publicly post the breed of the confirmed TBs they have because they sell for less/it may be seen as a deterrent, so there would be incentive to fudge the truth slightly. My farrier and vet both say TB. Ultimately I don’t care about that part so much as just being vaguely interested and using that information to know what if anything she may be predisposed to down the line.

I work with a trainer weekly and have been doing a lot of groundwork with her. I am not ignoring her issues, I have been doing everything I can to get to the root of them and figure out how to ease her nerves to include working with a trainer, a saddle fitter, and vet. I’ve been enjoying Warwick Schiller’s stuff and I also really like The Willing Equine. If you have any other recs that are similar especially if they’re podcasts I can listen to in the laboratory please share!

To be clear I wasn’t riding dead broke lessonhorses/am not totally new to horses. I’m used to dealing with behavioral issues, but of all the different types of horses I’ve ridden none of the more ‘advanced’ ones were ‘advanced’ because they were anxious. I’ve just been in lessons for years because I want to keep improving.


She actually answers to the command ‘come’ because I cannot whistle! But we do have a come command and she’s very endearing with how eager she is. She’s definitely a people horse and follows me around at my shoulder when I wander around her paddock.

I don’t know much about her history or whether she had vacation, but I THINK she was out of work because she was a bit undermuscled. They said she was a 4H kids’ show horse but I suspect that could be bullshit or simply what the auctioneer told them. Do you know of any good books on restarting?

The microsatellites used in this particular phylogenetic analysis are taken from samples off today’s horses and were crosscompared to make sure that they are sufficiently distinct. It’s done in a noncommercial university setting in a laboratory that’s had some pretty good peer-reviewed work come out of it.


Also, re this - I’ve been told that by stopping and giving her time to look instead of pulling her forward I’m rewarding her for “testing me” and increasing the chances she’ll do it again. Is that true or is it dogma?

Well if she was well behaved and undrugged in her sales barn and shows willingness to be bridled she’s had some handling. But lack of balance under saddle is definitely a sign of being green broke and means you want lots of developmental walk and trot work.

Some sensitive mares are absolutely horrified at the feeling of being unbalanced under a rider and they can prefer to balk rather than endure feeling lopsided. Other horses don’t care and barrel along all out of balance.

I love me a sensitive mare, in the end they are much nicer to work with and they generally want to be good and pick up on your cues and respond to the lightest touch. They do really well with constant praise about how good they are, sometimes you can see them actively trying to live up to it.

But when things go wrong and they are physically uncomfortable or they feel there is so much pressure that they can’t be good, or that there is only pressure and no praise, or they are confused or you aren’t listening to them when they try to point out problems, then they can get upset and express it in various ways

Whatever happened it’s clear that her first two months with you have not made her happy and she is expressing this in escalating ways to the extent she is now refusing to leave the barn with you. That’s a sign whatever you are doing so far isn’t working. My go-to would be liberty work because I find it easy, free longeing w t c on voice commands, then “leading” and backing up and whoa halt come, all without a halter.

How do you do this without a halter? Well I think that’s part of the process. You figure out what this horse in front of you needs to do these things at liberty and because these things are “off the books” and not part of a “real” training schedule you get to just focus on the horse and see what they need. No halter means you can’t get frustrated and pull or tug no matter what, which is really important if you have already problems with balking. I was working with a horse who had already reached the next step in balking which is run backwards sit down and rear. Liberty really helped because we just took halter out of the equation nothing to run away from.

No. This is not dogma. This is ignorance. It’s the kick them through it school of lesson horses.

All trails and obstacle training recognizes that you stay on the edge of the horses comfort zone. You let them process new stimuli. If you’re on foot, you walk closest to the thing (why a horse should be able to be lead from either side). The horse learns that when they are anxious that you see that, take it seriously and keep them safe. Later they will trust your judgement more. Also when they do spook they won’t go ballistic expecting you are about to effectively punish them


This is definitely true of her. I realized when I was riding her on the first trial that she was super responsive to voice and the moment I was like ‘well I know what I’ll name a red horse if I get one so I’ll just try using a name and address her directly’ her demeanor changed. She quieted a little when I sang to her when she was panicking in her stall when she first came home and if she understands what I’m asking she does it when I ask. Her half-passes are immediate and very graceful, without any real pushing needed.

Yeah, if she feels unbalanced at the trot she completely halts. I’ve been going to the gym trying to work on really upping my balance because she seems much more sensitive to it than any of the horses I usually ride.

Do you know of any books on restarting like you’re talking about?

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Re her history.

It’s quite likely she was started to some extent, maybe even by a 4H kid, but had a meltdown, became unmanageable by her owners, and was tossed on a field for 2 years and then sold. Do you know her real age?

I am not sure there is a book out there that can teach a newbie horse owner how to restart a nervous reactive green TB of uncertain age and provenance. My advice would be to shop around your area for a low key, well recommended colt starter and send her there for 3 months. Go watch the person work other horses and be cognizant of the whole environment and make regular visits and start riding under their tutelage. They will be able to evaluate how much training she has and what are her real quirks versus her reactions to you specifically.

H/j or dressage trainers are not usually colt starters. It takes a mix of raw bravery and sensitivity to do this well. Often IME they are surprisingly cheap compared to full training in a H/j barn.

If you need to restart yourself because of financial constraints then you could follow any of the colt starting books. It could be useful still to have a colt starter as a visiting instructor once a week. Do not take any advice from the person who told you not to let the mare look at things. If they are your current main instructor they are likely part of the problem.


Depending on the horse’s age, if you suspect it’s a TB, check for a tattoo and/or a microchip. That would give you an answer right there as to breed and age.

Because TBs were foundation horses for, and are still able to be crossed into AQHA, I would not expect any kind of DNA or genetic testing to be able to differentiate much between the two, unless you were specifically typing against parents.

The Retired Racehorse Project has a lot of resources online about training and retraining that you might find helpful:

“if she understands what I’m asking” is so important. You should make sure she always understands otherwise your cues are just white noise or random punishment. And then there’s the point where they understand but the emotions just won’t let them obey (like going into a trailer).

I figure with green horses indeed all horses you need to first optimize their energy level (up or down as required). Then you need to manage their emotions (fear, anger, excitement). Sometimes energy is energy and they need a good buck n run n fart in turnout and other times energy is actually emotion and they are running because they are upset. Only after you address energy and emotion can you get down to trying to communicate things without those two elements interfering. With my project horse, I let her have a big free run, then start voice cues w t c at liberty, and then let her come in to the center to do lateral work for treats. I don’t want her up close to me when she still has wiggles to get out.

As the horse starts to feel better about life and has a routine, the swings in energy and emotion are not so huge but obviously there’s still days they come out extra spicy or extra sleepy

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Oh god no, my trainer would never, don’t worry - there are a couple of people at this barn who subscribe to training by force, one of whom even told me “don’t just let her spook at silly things, jerk the leadrope if she does, you need to tell her she can’t just do that” as though this sensitive horse in a new environment is CHOOSING to get startled.

Also she is 14 but I do not have exact DOB. Two vets have corroborated that she’s about that age (early teens) by looking at her teeth.

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She doesn’t seem to have any tattoo remnants under her lip but I’ve heard that they can fade if they’re done poorly so I’m not sure. Would she be microchipped if she never raced? My current operating hypothesis is that given that she came from KY she was some sort of BYB situation, maybe tried on the track and didn’t do well enough to be worth racing, was sold, ended up at a pleasure home. I was told she was used for 4H Western Pleasure - but she has an old healed splint on her right hind and afaik WP wouldn’t really be strenuous enough to cause that…

Looking into the RRP thing, thank you so much for the link.

One thing I picked up from Western trainers (through the trainers on the modern Jesse Berry site is to count to 10. One trainer on one of their videos said that it can take 4 seconds for a horse to process an aid mentally, patience is required.

I was reschooling an elderly Arabian mare with extremely doubtful earlier training (she was in her mid twenties.) When anything changed in the riding ring–like a jump in a different place, a jump with oddly patterned rails or new infill, that she would FREEZE and ignore all my aids. When I started counting to 10 (slowly and out loud) she started relaxing. Sometimes I had to count to 10, maybe get 1/4 of a step before she balked again, counted to 10 again, made sure I was breathing, give her my leg aids, and WAIT. It took several months of this but eventually she stopped freaking out when anything changed and would even walk past the changed jumps without any of her previous problems. She completely stopped balking though I am sure if a modern equivalent of a fire breathing dragon appeared in the distance the balking would have shown up again.

She was confused and did not know what to think about anything, and she was obviously scared that she would be punished for her confusion. She needed to learn how to process her initial fear of something new, and just letting her stand there while I counted to 10 gave her brain a chance to process whatever the unusual thing appeared in front of her. At first she would give me a HARD balk–total freezing in place, then as she learned to deal with stuff the balks reduced, the balks got shorter, and she became much more willing to listen to my aids. After about a year she would sort of startle in place, I’d start counting out loud, and by three or four she would give a little snort and move her head down to show me that she had dealt with her fear and confusion and she wanted to move again.

Another thing I learned is with some horses immediate praise confuses them because their brain has not had a chance to process what had happened before the praise. This is another area where counting to 10 paid off big time for this mare, she would obey me, I’d release the aid, I’d count to 10, then I would praise her for figuring everything out so well when she obeyed me. She went from not knowing what praise was to becoming a praise addict, when she was good she expected her praise, but her reward (beyond releasing the aid immediately) had to come after she processed everything in her horsie brain.

I went to having to count to 10 for balking 5-6 times during a 30 minute ride to counting to 10 maybe once every few months. She also got so an immediate GOOD GIRL! was good enough for praise (in that she understood she was being praised.)

Be patient. Keep breathing. Give your horse time to process stuff mentally. Be prepared to teach your horse what praise is.

I have MS and really bad balance etc… This process has worked with two ruined horses my riding teacher put me on as my main lesson horse for a while, this mare and a totally ruined QH gelding who learned that backing up FAST really scared his riders. Both became really nice horses who were a pleasure for me to ride.


If she’s a 2017 foal or later, yes. Microchipping was required for Jockey Club registration from 2017 forward.


Bummer! She’s allegedly '09. Do you know anything about their new DNA testing program and whether that would turn anything up? JC website isn’t super clear on that.

Check out Phil Haugen. He has weekly podcasts (about various things) but you can also do virtual training with him. His philosophy revolves around training the horse to get out of the reactive state of mind and into the thinking state of mind. (which is not easy!!!) That’s the ultimate problem with your horse. She is lacking confidence (balking), has anxiety (gets worked up), etc. And whenever she’s doing those types of things, she is reacting. You have to figure out a way to get her to “come back to you” and be back in the thinking side of her brain.

Phil has a great way of explaining things from the side of the horse. How is the horse processing the information? How they responding? If you can better understand what is going through the horse’s mind, it can help you know what to do. I’ve had the luxury of attending one of his clinic in-person (and going to another one this year) but I also got great insight from him from 1 phone consult when I was having a trailer loading problem (before the clinic)!.

So there would be another resource for you to explore.

Well again, think of it in terms of reacting vs. thinking. If she’s got her head elevated, eyes wide, and staring at a scary object, her brain is REACTING. She’s in fight or flight mode, and she probably about to choose flight. Whatever is going on in her mind, she is so scared for her life, that her only solution is to get the heck out of dodge.

How do you change that? (not easy - especially for one that is aged with these issues)

For starters, one of the things that Phil teaches is a one-rein stop. But the idea is that you have your horse so trained and relaxed for that one rein stop that you have literally done it thousands of times on each side. So that, when you get into a situation like this, you start going through the motions of that one reins stop and it “snaps” your horse brain into the thinking side again, because those motions are familiar to the horse, and it’s so trained, that they know you are about to ask to do a one rein stop, and they just melt into it. And now, you’ve successfully taken their mind off the scary object, and got them to stop reactin, and start thinking. Win!

Does that happen overnight? Heck no. Might be months to get to that point. But it’s a journey and you just work at being a little better every day.

Yes, this ^^. Slow things down. Almost everyone gets in the habit of going too quickly and not being patient and WAITING.