Tell me about your difficult horses that turned out well

I have a 5 year old gelding who is very green and not easy. Thankfully I have a great trainer, who does regular training rides on my boy. Even so, some days I come out and he’s a real challenge. Spooky, anxious, and totally unfocused. Today was that kind of day. We made progress during our lesson, but I’m feeling…I don’t know…discouraged. I feel like I have the hardest horse in the barn, and sometimes I even see people giving each other smirking faces when my horse passes by (which is totally b*tchy, but besides the point). I’m a fairly experienced rider. I’m not frightened or necessarily overfaced, but still it’s just hard.

We’re going to stick with the program. I know we’re going to get better in time – both of us. But right now, I could really use some moral support.

Please tell me about your difficult horses that turned out well!

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I would suggest a lot more ground work. Whatever you are doing, do twice as much. Obstacles, hand walks, liberty, clicker, in hand lateral, whatever works for you. Teach him to stand still then come when you whistle. Teach him to stand on a tarp like its nothing. Get him to the point you can “feel” him walking with you when you lead him, stops when you stop, head at your shoulder. Teach him to back up or move his hunches with a touch of your finger. With a voice cue. Etc.

It won’t all translate 100% to under saddle but some of it will. It will improve his focus on humans and make him calmer. Don’t get on him until he is calm and focused on the ground.

As far as the smirking children, just pat your horse and praise him as you walk past. I don’t know why having a difficult young horse would be embarrassing. Among adults, it’s a source of pride to work with the harder ones.

I would also make sure he has lots of time to gallop around loose outside in free longe time, and lots of turnout. And I would make sure his vitamins and minerals are balanced and he isn’t getting loads of high carb grain. If he’s in a boarding barn his diet is unlikely to be balanced.


My sister is in your shoes right now with a very difficult and tricky young horse and lots of bystanders at the barn and competitions making rude comments under their breath. Hang in there, keep your long term goals in mind, try to ignore the petty jerks who are smirking at you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel! It just takes a lot of time and hard work to get there!

And yes, more groundwork!


i have a very tough horse that my mother bred. he started rearing when he was 3. he was started at 2.5, turned out for the winter and then started back at 3.
i have a great cowboy that i sent him to, and he was excellent for him. Second time i rode him he stood straight up for me. Never did it for the cowboy who had him about a year. Cowboy taught me what to do so that he was corrected, and I was still safe. that is an amazing skill I’ve acquired and have used several times on other horses as well. I used to be terrified by rearing. Now, it doesn’t faze me much more than bucking does.
Horse went on to win great ribbons in Green Conformation and A/Os at top shows. sadly sidelined for injuries. I still have him. And I enjoy doing all manner of things with him.

if the horse is worth it because he is athletic, no harm in continuing. you will learn a lot. and if it gets tiresome, there is no harm in moving him along and getting something easier. In my humble opinion, it’s time to call it quits if it shakes your confidence to the core.

Good luck!


He’s athletic and well-bred. Tons of his siblings are doing well around here. And my confidence isn’t really the issue because he doesn’t really do anything naughty. He’s just…a spaz. His mind is all over the place.

Groundwork is a great suggestion.


I can’t really share the “after”, but you are not alone. My OTTB was making great progress in the fall but our first outing (xc school) this spring was a disaster. After several hours of trying all the things to get her settled and focused I finally decided it just wasn’t the day. Once she was back on the trailer I broke down and straight up sobbed, in front of the property owner, who is super sweet but I still feel embarrassed.

Haven’t had time for another outing but our rides at home have been amazing and reminded me that its just a bump in the road. You know your horse and the progress you are making. In a couple of years it will piss you off when people say how “easy” your well trained horse is. Part of the process, part of this odd hobby we have picked. On the way home from our failed outing I told my husband maybe we should just get a boat. He got excited but its not happening :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:.


May the force be with us! I send you positive vibes :slight_smile:

You are not alone! My coming 6 year old mare can be very difficult and sometimes can be a superstar. She’s big (18.2) and powerful - and she knows it. She’s great with her trainer, but knows I’m not as skilled as he. Sometimes we have bad rides and I am very discouraged.

Thankfully I have a great barn family and they remind me where I was a year ago and how far we’ve come.

Do you keep a riding diary? That way you can look back and see your improvement when you are discouraged. Even small steps can feel mighty sometimes!


Ooh, a diary is a great idea. I’m starting that today! Thanks for the great suggestion.

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My late mare. WOOO boy was she a toughie.

I spent the entire first year hating her everliving guts. She didn’t scare me, I wasn’t overfaced, but she, like yours, was a spaz… but not in a mindless way. Hers was a little more calculated. I thought that I would get her going, sell her, and go find one worth my time.

Fast forward a year. WOW what a difference. We learned each other a little better, but overall a ton of wet saddle blankets (most of them out on the trail) had taught her to quit f*cking around and get to work because the ride might be longer than she thinks LOL.

I don’t miss every aspect of her, but I do miss a lot.

Remember, if you get just 1% better a day, in 100 days, you’ve got a whole new horse. With the young ones, it really is the long haul.


Yes, a riding diary! Actually I started that when my mare started getting difficult ten years ago at the start :slight_smile: and kept it up ever since. When working through things Ive noted weather, time of day of ride, feed, soundness, tack, extenuating circumstances, heat cycles, all in an effort to figure out the contributing factors and patterns. It was absolutely crucial. I also used them to track cost of feed and lessons and list my tack and gear purchases.

I had them all out the other day to try to figure out how old my breeches were :slight_smile:

They are not nearly as much fun to read as old high school diaries. “Sunny breezy day. Ride 65 minutes 2 to 3:05 pm. Good trot on trails to start but sticky in the indoor with the lesson program. Ok alone in outdoor after. Dressage saddle and snaffle. Totally sound trotting on gravel. Started new Vitamin Mineral Supplement.” etc etc for ten years. Pretty dull after the fact but so useful at the time to track patterns!

Really good to track training initiatives, progress, relapse, also any soundness stuff. Effect of feed on mood. Etc.

I’m less comprehensive these days now that I have a routine and fewer issues but I still make an entry for every day unless I am out of the saddle due to injury! Also good to write down what you do in lessons and need to work on for homework.


This. The thisiest this that ever this’ed.


My sympathies, OP. I am currently riding one that is making progress but can be quite difficult (and never predictably so) day-to-day. Some rides are discouraging, most are okay, and some are sublime. It can be a real challenge to stay focused and positive. Despite improving my skills related to riding the green/difficult horse, it often feels like I’m on a permanent plateau as far as my own advancement. I’m sort of straddling the border with this horse between being challenged but still generally good vs. a little over faced and triggering anxieties that do me no good. I just try to keep being alert to all the different things that were impossible a year ago and now the horse is confirmed at, and try to remain hopeful that in a month, six months, a year, who knows where we’ll be.

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Sim is the hardest horse I have ever retrained.

He is a good looking horse, so was bought by experienced horse people, but he was not right in the mind, suffered from separation anxiety and given to us.

He was green even after having been to a professional trainer. I don’t know what he did there as he didn’t seem to have learned anything.

I have taught that horse EVERYTHING. I mean everything. Not only to walk with and without a lead, but how to walk and to start with if you taught him something like don’t rub on me. You had to teach it in different places. It was like he learned not to do it while being tacked but had to learn it again away from the tack shed. Again down the paddock etc.

We did not have an arena. One ride and I knew he was not enough horse for me. I started lunging him in side reins and with beginner hubby on him so as the 2 would bond.

He is not a pet on the ground. He will retaliate if he thinks you are unfair. That happened at the riding school and he ended up biting someone and kicking out at staff members twice. He still could not be handled by beginners. You give him an inch and he takes a mile.

He naturally moves into pressure and not away from it. Most horses are the opposite.

He saw no reason why we would want to do a 20m circle in a 50 acre paddock! He had no idea what the outside rein meant. I only cantered him around the paddock.

We dealt with the separation anxiety by letting him out, so as he could visit whoever he wanted.

I mentioned to hubby that he would get better with an arena. Hubby built us an arena.

That helped a lot and I found that I was not listening enough to him. I was giving him the next aid without waiting for him to respond to the first aid.

I slowed down what I was asking, and the day I realised good boy out loud was a game changer was game changing. I used that when lunging and then took it away under saddle. I gave it back to him.

It turned out the dominance he shows on the ground is from lack of confidence. This was the same under saddle.

With confidence he started going forward.

NOW he looks like a horse and he acts like a horse. My biggest achievent. Some one comes and they see a well muscled good looking dressage horse and they drool over him.

Under saddle he is perfect for hubby. He has no buck. On the ground he will walk beside me with no halter with a click. Halt when I say halt. Back with the word back and 3 difference signals and for me is perfect.

He walks .all.over.hubby.

I come home I have to put the chain down to bring the car in. Dodge is out with Sim. Dodge gets fed in the house yard. Sim outside.

Sim comes in, pushes Dodge out of the way of the laundry. Sim takes over. Hubby is in the laundry making feeds.

I ask if he needs help. He said he was fine until I came home but now Sim is there and he is stuck and can’t get Sim away.

I am nowhere near Sim. I turn and say SIM. OUT.

Sim turns away from the laundry, walks out past the chain and I put the chain back up.

I don’t see the horse as being a problem!


I have one of these. I got him as a 5yo, he came off the track at the end of his 4yo year, spent a month with a rehab/adoption program, and was adopted. While at the program, he was ridden, jumped in the ring, XC schooled by young teenagers. He was handled on the ground by kids. He was quiet, easy, and perfect.

He was returned to the program six months later very underweight and frantic in every way. A bird could sneeze two miles away, and he would hyper focus on it and be anxious. Never spooky, but very high tension and worry about everything. His issues ended up being a mix of physical and emotional/mental. I don’t know 100% what happened to him in that six month window with his previous owner, but it was not good. He was returned because he was “too nervous to show.”

His teeth were atrocious and he had severe bruising all through his mouth from his molars. He also needed several chiropractic adjustments to get all of his parts working together. Before I had that done, he could only go one direction semi-controlled. The other direction was out of the question.

His emotional state was also really challenging. Even on the ground, he was well behaved and very well mannered, but he functioned at a baseline of anxiety/stress that was high and impacted every part of his life. I spent a LOT, and I mean a LOT of time with him. As in 2-3 hours every single day.

I do a lot of ground work naturally as part of our daily routine, like I do not go out of my way to do a “groundwork session”, it just becomes part of what we do each day. Move out of my space, or stay with me, back up, focus, let me move your shoulders, etc. Getting his focus on me and his confidence and comfort with me was key. They have to seek you out as a calm place that they can look to and not mentally escalate because once their brain hits that anxious threshold, it’s very hard to bring them back down, and they don’t learn/retain well when they’re that “up.”

I have to be very kind and relaxed but also confident and clear/decisive with him. A lot of it comes from your natural demeanor and presence around them, and the relationship you build with them. With riding, I had to learn to be a much softer and balanced rider. I was not when I bought him but learned out of necessity. I still spend every single day with him, several hours, because that is our routine and what we both like.

He’s quiet and easy most of the time now, and when he isn’t it’s due to a physical issue (he has quite a few.) He becomes tense/anxious/unfocused due to pain (which is fair.) He is kind, he is sweet, he is honest, and he wants to please. He has never been a scary horse, in the eight years of owning him there is not one instance where I’ve been afraid of him. That said, in the wrong hands he would probably become deadly because someone would either walk on eggshells around him OR really bully/man handle him.

Warwick Schiller has a great YT channel for this kind of thing, 10/10 recommend checking him out. He has groundwork and riding videos for all types. Putting in the time to build the relationship and trust with them will improve every aspect of you and your horse, on the ground and riding.

One tip that really helps is not being robotic or “follow ABC steps to get XYZ result.” Going by feel and by listening to your horse’s responses/answers and working from those vs “but the steps say…!” will help a lot. Horses have a lot to tell us, we just have to listen :smiley:

Very long story short, it can be done and can be very rewarding, but it’s hard. Just plain hard, sometimes seems impossible, but it’s not. My horse is now 12, and we’ve evented, show jumped, done dressage, hack out regularly, ride bareback (he was good, but those withers YIKES.) “Too nervous to show” my rump roast :sunglasses: Chin up, it will get better! This happens to a lot more people/horses than folks think. What you see online is a “best of” and not reality.


When my boy was six I made a list of pros/cons for keep/sell. He’s 17 now. He still can be a pita. But, I’ve shown in several states, took him to Texas (from NY) for the world show, been to QH Congress 3 times and continue to work on learning new things. So, if your guy is worth it-keep working on it. They’ll be good days and bad days. Remember always that it’s about progress not perfection!


I got my mare as a supposedly broke 8yr old with dressage training…whatever it was she had, it wasn’t solid, she was half wild, no brakes, and if you didn’t keep her to a walk…well good luck haha. I think it was probably about 2 years before I cantered her. I wanted to do dressage, and she was the type to rush on the forehand and giraffe neck her way around. It took us years, an excellent coach and very very helpful saint of a barn owner taking teenage me under her wing. She as very, very difficult to teach self carriage to, and I remember lots and lots of tears.

Some 12 years on, we never went up the levels due to me riding inconsistently, but I can pull her out of the paddock after 6 months of nothing, and she knows her job. She still has way too much go go go for a 20yo with physical issues, and occasionally needs a reminder, but it was worth it because she will go anywhere and do just about anything I ask, and is the most reliable horse I’ve ever known. These days we mostly trail ride bareback in a halter, and if you’d said to me 12 years ago we’d be cantering up the street like that, I’d have said no way. But here we are!

I should also say that anyone smirking etc about difficulties with a young horse is just a straight up a**hole. I’ve got a just broken baby right now and I’m counting myself incredibly lucky that so far she’s been a total gem, I had every expectation that it would be far from easy, and I’m sure that time will still come.


I feel for you. This was my rising 13yr old for a long time. He was dangerous and there was a point at which I would have sold him if I had dared allow anyone else to ride him. I got the condescension and nasty comments from other boarders too.

All the ground work “move this bit of yourself that way” and “respond to my subtle cues” sort of thing didn’t really help his underlying anxiety. Sure I could have him respond to subtle cues and move whichever way I wanted, but he was still anxious and spooky and all that sort of ground work in the world was never going to change that.

I rode at dusk the other night, in the ring, lights off, and the smoky grey cat was darting about the gate, into the bushes, behind the gateposts, and such. My horse was worrying about her and as I rode through that corner of the ring I pushed my hands forward, looping the reins, and was very quiet with body and legs, doing nothing. My horse gave the cat the hairy eyeball and trotted by without leaving the track. I handed off the responsibility of controlling his spook entirely to him and he didn’t spook or even go pretzel shaped.

My horse needed to learn to assess, determine the situation was not terrifying, and calm himself. Warwick Schiller described it as emptying out the rabbits, and when I saw that video I knew that was my horse.

The story goes that WS was doing a clinic and a person said their horse was the stupidest horse ever because they’d go out on a hack and see a rabbit, then another, and a bit later another, and the horse didn’t care about any of them, but when he saw the tenth rabbit he’d freak, dump his rider and bolt back to the barn. WS suggested the horse wasn’t okay with any of the rabbits, but he could handle one rabbit’s worth of anxiety. Two rabbit’s worth was also doable. Three, four, five - harder but manageable. Ten rabbit’s worth of anxiety was too much for the horse so he escaped at that point.

WS suggested that if the horse lets go of the rabbits anxiety, he won’t get to ten rabbits. We have to empty out the rabbits before adding more. But the horse has to learn to let go of the rabbits himself - we can’t do it for them. I went down the rabbit hole ( :wink: pun intended) and watched a bunch of WS videos on the subject, and commenced “rabbit practice” with my horse.

It’s taken time. In the first six months I did rabbit practice on days I had wanted to do dressage because my horse needed the rabbit practice on that day. I was amazed at the difference after that winter. It wasn’t problem resolved but rabbit practice got less frequent as it was less necessary. A year later he astonished me again with the further improvements over that time. He’s not perfect, but he can go from freaking out to chill and cooperative with a few minutes. He lets go of his rabbits so freaking out is a rare occurrence. It’s more “That concerns me.” and we do a little rabbit practice for a minute or two and he gets a chance to look and think and decide “oh, nothing to worry about.”

I will also add that magnesium helped him as well. I tried that and found he reacted more slowly to scary things. It was like it took the hair trigger away and gave him time to think. Six months later we started rabbit practice and him learning that he could let go of his rabbits, and how to let go of his rabbits changed our lives. He’s not controlling his anxiety, he’s able to let it go and be confident that the situation is okay.

I can now do things with this horse that I had previously thought would never be possible.

I wish I had known how to do this with my second horse, years ago. He learned to control his anxiety, but he was anxious. His life would have been much better if he’d learned to let go of his rabbits.


I have watched some of the WS videos and I’m familiar with the rabbit concept. I think it was a metaphor for cognitive behavior therapy. Refresh my memory, though…how do you help them “let go” of the rabbits?

@Scribbler said it first: Ground work --not by your trainer, by you. WS is good, I’ve heard, but there are others. I used a CD series “Gaining Control and Respect on the Ground” and started with Disk One, Exercise 1 applying it to my unpredictable 6 year old QH gelding. It took about a month -we accomplished disks 1-5 --and I had a new horse. I also started the “Confident Rider” CD series (did 30 min ground work, followed by 30 min saddle exercises). Everything can be done in an open field, FYI.

There’s lots of long replies --but that’s my suggestion. John Lyon’s best quote (of many) “The horse you lead is the horse you ride.”

I’ve done the “Respect on the Ground” CD practices with all my horses —they are three well-trained horses (but I have my stable at my house and all the time in the world --an advantage).