Hi! I have a 14 year old Hanoverian mare (chestnut to boot!) who has had a very spotty training regimen. I was away at college when she was young and, due to my own back injuries that are only now getting treated, I haven’t been able to keep her in regular schooling until this fall.
She’s very smart. Very energetic. Alert and aware of everything that’s going on All. The.Time. I do a lot of transition work with her, circles, serpentines, anything I can to keep her mind engaged, relaxed, not focusing on whatever bogeyman is in the corner. Yesterday we spent 30 minutes just on different kinds of walking exercises. We also go on trail rides regularly.
The problem I’m having is that when she spooks, she really panics. Shaking, backing up, spinning around. I lose her attention and I can’t get it back again and it’s put us in some very unsafe situations. I’ve always ridden in Sprenger french link snaffles and really like them. I got my Connemara pony up to 3rd level in them. But with her, I’m thinking I will need a stronger bit, at least until I get her to a place where she is a bit more trusting of me and is a safer ride in general. I’ve been reading about pelhams, curbs, kimberwickes, etc and am feeling pretty lost. I understand the pros and cons of each on paper, but am hoping to find people with real life experience with them. I have a pretty soft hand and do not get worked up easily, but I need to be able to get her attention without feeling like I need to yank on her bridle.
I’ll note too that I recently put her on a calming supplement. It seems to have helped a bit, but not enough to keep her from worrying about that pile of bricks that looks different than it did 30 minutes ago when we rode past them on our way to the ring. It’s only been about a week and a half though, and I understand it might take a while for that to really work in her system.
But any advice about bitting for strong, smart horses would be greatly appreciated!
If she’s going backwards in reaction, a stronger bit may well take her over the top of you. I’d stick with what you have. At the same time, it sounds like a lot to handle as she is getting back into work, and it sounds like you’re recently recovered from an injury - this is one of those times I would strongly recommend having someone else put in some rides to help get her through it. I suspect a bit of consistency will help her, but if you’re just recovered from an injury you won’t have the steadiness you need to get her past this point.
Agreed with netg. The last thing I would do with a horse that stops, backs and shakes is put on a stronger bit. You might add flipping to that.
If you still feel you can ride through that, work on distraction to get her attention back. Perhaps turning in a circle and working on turn on haunches and turn on the forehand until you have her attention back. I have a mare similar to you in that she’d spook at the same thing every single time. This was what worked. I think magnesium helped some, also, just to take a slight bit of the edge off.
I agree, harsher bits on a horse that is spinning and backing up will not fix a thing and can prove dangerous as the horse can start to rear and get more sucked back.
Counterintuitively, the way forward out of this is to go forward. Get the horse off your leg and going straight forward rather than ducking and spinning. This takes some courage and perhaps a professional rider.
A snaffle is actually a very good bit if you have an emergency one rein or pulley stop in your tool kit. You actually have fewer options in a leverage bit or curb. A mild snaffle used correctly is usually the best thing for smart and sensitive horses.
At this point, you have a teenage mare that is still green and has developed some behavior issues due to intermittent and inconsistent work. She may also have some pain issues, who knows, arthritis starting up in her teens. You have never been in a position to ride her consistently, and it’s possible this is because she has always been a bit too much horse for you.
I can’t think of a better set of reasons to send her to a good, gentle, but brave trainer for 30 or 60 days. Also for evaluation. See where she is in 60 days. If she is still a handful at your current riding level, consider rehoming her as a project to a young trainer and starting out with a quieter broke horse.
My initial reaction is that changing the bit is not going to be at the heart of the solution here. It may be part of the solution but I would approach the problem from different angles first.
You said that she has only been in a program for about a week, that’s a very short amount of time!
Especially if you feel unsafe riding her, I would recommend doing lots and lots of ground work and lunging first and then build your under saddle work up very gradually. In my opinion working from the ground does wonders in terms of building trust and confidence between horse and rider.
I have a horse who was much like you describe your mare. I’ve worked with lots of green horses and little spook here and there doesn’t bother me, but with him I just knew there was something different about the degree and frequency to which he was spooking. I tried just about everything under the sun, I had him examined by all different kinds of practitioners all of whom dismissed me and told me that he was just naughty and needed more discipline - but I just felt that there was something more to the issue. It turned out after lots and lots of research and finding a really good vet that he was suffering from issues in his SI area. After we treated that - he turned into a different horse - much calmer and very rideable and trainable. That being said, I still had to take his training very slowly and methodically, did lots of work on the ground, lots of work at the walk etc. before moving up to more involved under saddle work.
So first I would always recommend ruling out any underlying physical issues. Then just take it slowly, it takes a lot of patience and it can be frustrating at times, but I think taking that more holistic approach always pays off tenfold in the long run - rather than jumping to a stronger bit etc.
Every horse is different, some just need more time - before they can jump into a “normal” training regimen. It sounds like with your horse, just coming into a program and a bit challenging, you might need to start thinking of your training time line in terms of months/years instead of weeks.
Wow thank you everyone for the quick responses! I was thinking stronger bit only to get her attention back to my hand, but will take your advice and keep riding through as I have been doing. And Scribbler, I wish I could afford to send her to a trainer, but as it is, the ring fee is all I can afford right now. I’m not a scared or very inexperienced rider. But yes, my life has definitely been such that my horse’s training has been woefully inconsistent. We have had vet come out to check her for pain and so far so good, but it is something I’m keeping an eye on. Thank you all!
Agree with my learned colleagues above…anything harsher might backfire. Give yourself a bit of security with some sort of Hail Mary strap, either around the neck or fastened to the saddle, and don’t be ashamed to get yourself an event vest. If it gives you just that little bit more confidence to put the leg on (when your whole body just wants to go fetal LOL) then it’s worth it.
I would try CBD pellets. I have a difficult horse as well. Part of it is he’s just finally starting to grow up at 8 years old but I’ve found this summer the CBD really helps keep his focus on me rather than everything else going on around him. He’s not one to spook but rather bucks and bolts when he gets too excited usually by other horses doing their thing and he struggles to keep himself together. CBD has been absolutely amazing and we have progressed so incredibly far in his training this year because instead of constantly having my guard up wondering when he’s going to explode next I can actually ride! Plus the anti inflammatory and pain relieving properties have kept him very comfortable as he has pedal osteitis in his front right.
If she truly is running through your hand in the instances she checks out, you may want to check out if a drop noseband is an appropriate solution. That said, I echo the thoughts of all above who express cknserns about more bit escalating the situation. A drop isn’t a bit but it may evoke a similar response and I would hate to see more headgear be the cause of an escalation of a situation.
This mare sounds very green. Consistency with a program and a routine may help. There are some great suggestions above regarding that, and I definitely second the concept of even as things go badly don’t be afraid to ride forward (and stay off of the mouth). One of the least productive things to do if a horse bolts is to just grab at their face.
If you’re going to your hand when she spooks that tends to cause more tension in the horse. It’s an understandable human reaction, because people like to fix things with their hands and the spinning and such can be scary, but to the horse, the tension on their mouth is confirming their startle reaction/spook. Try, if you can, to loosen your arms and ride her off the leg; try not to yank on the bit to get her attention, ask her to go forward instead, trot a circle or something, see if you can get her to stop spooking & spinning with your leg instead of your hand.
Highly praising the moments of work and relaxation tends to help too, I find. Just rubbing the neck when they do that. Worked wonders on very a nervous, spooky young horse. He also learned that leg = relax and go forward. So if something spooked/startled him, he knew leg = relax, go forward, push from behind and receive oodles of praise. Eventually got to the point where he would go past anything scary that older, more trained horses were looking at or wouldn’t even go near, like wood chippers and flapping flags (not every day occurrences at our barn), because he trusted the rider’s leg and ate up the praise. He did not get any neck rub for any spooking, only when he step forward and worked, which made him relax – getting his body to work (really step under himself) put his mind at ease/on the rider, instead of his surroundings.
Also agreed with checking for pain, especially if it’s happening well into the ride, so instead of horse relaxing, it sounds like she’s getting wound up? Could be sore somewhere. Also if she tends to spin only one way – could be spooking from pain/discomfort. I had one that did this, only to the left, also had an SI issue, as with previous poster. When that was dealt with, nearly all the tense/spooky/hot reactions disappeared – and when he started spooking again, we knew it was bothering him again.
I don’t know if these are dressage legal, if that’a concern for you, but I’d also try ear plugs (even if it seems like they’re spooking at something they see, I find it helps cut down on distractions or level of spookiness for some), at least in the beginning, then go without them. And perhaps riding with another, calm horse(s) around might help her settle down. I know you said you can’t afford a trainer, but it might be beneficial to have an experienced ground person/friend/someone you don’t have to pay nearby to remind you to use your leg and not your hand, when horse is spooking. If you can swing it. Or put someone you know/trust on the horse who can sit through spooks and/or promote a ton of relaxation from the get-go.
Magnesium and B1 supplement. Powder form seems to be more effective than pellets. I used T-Dex B1 and it worked wonder.
Ear plug, foam ones, that you warm up and put in and take out really delicately. Obviously use a ear bonnet as well so you don’t lose them.
Once you regain some control and get some training done, then you cut back gradually.
No training can be done if the horse can’t concentrate for more than 5 minutes…
At the same time, look for pain and/or management issues.
Pain : saddle fit can cause sudden burst of panic.
Have the vet check for tooth problems, eye sight, ulcers, back/hip/SI…
Does she panic always on the same side?
One gelding I trained used to « duck and cover » only to the right… sigh… He had poorer eye sight on that side.
Is she quiet in the barn? Is she quiet in turn out?
How long does she stay out per day? Has it changed recently?
Horses are affected by the temperature.
Would she need a blancket? A quarter sheet while ridden?
My mare gets fidgety and anxious when cold. I ride with her BoT back warmer and she stays toasty and quiet.
As far as training goes, never make her run around in a paddock/lunge ring/arena.
Never lunge her at speed to get the energy out.
If she’s turned out, never let her panic.
Horses with high anxiety don’t benefit from acting out and letting the steam blow… it only accentuate their anxiety.
If it was mine, I would walk her a lot in hand prior to ridding. Like 20-30 minute or more from the ground with a lead chain and her head down. A power walk, but quiet.
I do that a lot at shows with anxious horses. It establishes a more relaxed training session. It warms the horse up and they are more focus.
So, ver check, some calming supplement and aids, and a better training and management plan are in order.
With my old mare who was quite panicky, I found bitless actually helped. It let me take a stronger hold, without her feeling trapped/pained. You could put a side pull or similar under your regular bridle. I have since used bitless to help a few horses that have anxiety when ridden.
I agree with the above though: this anxiety sounds over the top, so I would wonder if there is a physical reason for it. Chronic pain can make anyone jumpy/nervous.
Thank you everyone again for the suggestions! It’s nice to know there are others who have experienced similar horses/situations. The vet is coming soon to do her coggins, so I will definitely have him check her for possible points of pain. She’s always just been very alert though. Even in the field, she’s watching everything all the time. Cars that go by, dogs, other riders. She’s very smart as well, so I think part of her problem is that brain just never turns off. Which is why we do a lot of walk and stretching work to just try to get her to chill out a bit. She was actually great in the ring the other day, but on the walk home (she lives in my backyard, about a 15 minute walk away from the ring we use) everything was a monster.
She’s great for the vet, terrible for the farrier. There is one leg she’s particularly sticky about, now that I’m thinking about it, so I will have the vet look at her hind end. It very well could be pain.
Spins in both directions. It really depends on where the monster is.
But yes, sounds like going back to the beginning is the right thing. I’ll see how the supplement she’s on right now does for her temperament in a few weeks and remind myself to ride forward and relaxed!
My horse was like this as a youngster. The bolded describes my horse to a “T”. Like others have pointed out, a harsher bit isn’t the answer. I have always ridden my horse in a Herm Sprenger “training” bit, a “bean” center, double-jointed, 14mm bit that is slightly larger for his mouth but gives me “sliding” room to move the bit in his mouth and remind him that he’s working/I’m there.
Her panicking is because she’s insecure and doesn’t have trust in you. I did a lot LOT of ground work with my horse over tarps, obstacles, see-saws, etc. The whole point was to make him face a new situation that was potentially scary and teach him that he could think his way through it. And listen to me/trust me when I said “you actually can go through the puddle without dying”. It might take several attempts, reward any “try”. Also, I always reminded him to pay attention to me. A little tug on the longe line, etc. Now, when I ride and he is looking intently at something he’s going to spook at, I say “hey”, and really bend him, or flex his head in so he isn’t looking at the scary thing, or shoulder-in, or leg-yield (it’s hard to take off spooking when moving laterally), basically little kind reminders that tell him “put your focus on me, you’re working”. Reminders are sliding the bit in the mouth, leg pressure to bend, even over-flexing for a few steps so his back is up and relaxed. He used to be hard to divert, but over time it is much easier. He still can spook, but I’d say 80% of the time it’s a half-hearted spook that is easy to ride. If he’s really worried about something, I let him stop and look. I can tell when he’s really, really that nervous because he’ll shake or I can feel his heart beat. That happened a lot when he was four, very rarely now. He trusts me.
Your mare might be a challenge because she’s 14, and may have more set insecurity behaviors. But if she’s really smart, she’ll catch on to your new program more quickly.
Don’t try to “push your mare” through things, like making her go by something she’s truly scared of, of using a harsher bit, etc. because that can result in her truly trying to get away from something she’s afraid of and you getting hurt.
Beyond a quality diet which has changed drastically over the years (he was such a nervous horse as a 4 year old he ate a ton and couldn’t keep weight on), no supplement “magically worked” for my horse. Time invested in his training did.
Dormosedan does wonders for my horse’s attitude when being shod. He mainly yanks his feet, esp the hind ones, when the farrier handles, trims, and especially nails the shoe on because of the feeling and the sound. As I hold, though, he can look like he’s snoozing. I can’t always see it. My farrier is one of the best around and I wanted to keep him, and my vet really likes his work and knows my horse, so we all agreed on drugs!
Emjay-It takes awhile for your body to develop the strength in the required muscles to stabilize her., and to rebuild the reflex response required. In the meantime, I would pre-ride longe, and then work in a quiet area. Use many rein free trot-walk transitions. It is not a bit you need but rebuilding her response to your body’d request
Great.article in this month’s Dressage Today. Something I work on with students on the longe but it works. Until you get the hang of it, your inner thigh muscles will speak loudly.
Only thing I’ll add is to keep her in contact all the time you are working. That allows quicker half halts when you sense her attention lags. Lots of complicated walk work keeping her attention on you at all times. And I’ll echo the magnesium ( performance equine magrestore. You’ll find lots of threads here about how great it is) and groundwork.
Just will add that sometimes if the needed correction is to bend the horse to control a spin, then a cheeked bit can help. But stick with a snaffle–it doesn’t sound like you need leverage for this horse.