4 Ways to Calm Your Horse Down

Do you think it’s impossible to teach your horse to relax? If you imagine it being like a “relax-button” that you simply have to press and your horse instantly relaxes like a ragdoll? No, not like that!

However, you can teach your horse to calm down and relax more, that he is in that moment that you need him to be relaxed! How? Training!

What is training

Training is teaching your horse to respond with a specific behaviours to a specific stimulus (cue). If you’ve trained ‘relaxation’ into a specific behaviour/context, you can recall that state of mind on cue.

We, horse people, do it all the time. Mostly the opposite of relaxation. Think of how most horses all respond and behave, just before breakfast. They are excited! They’re energetic and sometimes frenetic! That’s part of the behaviour that have been reinforced with a jackpot (their breakfast).

Reinforce calm behaviour

If you can excite them with food, you can calm them down with food. I have to say that before I used positive reinforcement I didn’t believe it could be done: teaching your horse to relax. On cue.

The only tool I had to calm down my pony was my voice. That’s what people told me to do. Oh, and to restrict his movement. How many times I’ve heard instructors shout: ‘Shorten your lead rope/reins/lung line!!’

When I was in a clinic with Shawna Karrash Kyra was very nervous, I was nervous and it was hard to calm myself down, let alone my horse. Shawna helped me to teach Kyra to calm down. That’s what we did for two days. I was looking forward to learn very advanced things and at first I was a bit disappointment we mainly focussed on calm and relaxed. I was looking forward to ride Kyra in this special occasion.

Key Lesson Patience promotes relaxation

Shortly after the clinic I moved Kyra to another property. It had a huge automatic metal gate at the driveway, which slides open with quite some noise and rattling sounds. It was there that most horses and dogs always spooked.

I decided to use my newly acquired relaxation skills to calm Kyra down when the gated opened and closed. I was glad I filmed the whole process because it only took 3 sessions to associate the rattling and moving of the gate with calmness!

It was then that the full potential of calming my horse really sank in! This was a powerful tool I now had, like a safety device!

Power of Key Lesson Mat training and Head lowering

Other examples are the self soothing power of mats (Key Lesson Mat Training) and Head lowering. I’ve seen that when clicker trained horses spook they often run to their mat. As if it’s a safety blanket. I’ve seen that they immediately calm down.

Key Lesson Head lowering also helps to calm your horse down and is an excellent way of measuring your horse’s state of mind. If he won’t lower his head, he’s might not be able to due to his state of mind.

Look what happens at 1:18 when Kyra spooks. Where’s she’s going! Now I use training deliberately to teach relaxation.

You can also help your horse to calm down by clicking and reinforcing calm behaviour and associate it with the object that scares them.
Watch these videos:
Kyra spooks at the giant ball
Kyra overcomes her fear for the mega ball (part II)
Fun and Games with the mega ball

4 Ways to use clicker training to teach your horse to relax

  1. Bridging and reinforcing calm behaviour
  2. Key Lesson Patience
  3. Key Lesson Mat training
  4. Key Lesson Head lowering

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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Key Lesson: ‘Patience’

In this key lesson the horse learns to stand next to you in a relaxed way and keep his head straight forward, not too high and not too low. The goal is to reward the horse for his ‘patient’ behaviour. Of course the horse is not really ‘patient’ when he stands with his neck straight and his head on a comfortable level, it is a ‘learned behaviour’. A very safe behaviour!

Benefits of this Key Lesson are (this makes it my favourite exercise to teach):

  • It teaches your horse relaxation
  • Responsiveness to cues
  • And it reinforces calm behaviour
  • Bonus: it’s incompatible with ‘mugging’, stepping on your toes and other unwanted behaviours

Focus on what you want
It is really important that you communicate to your horse what it is you want or expect from him. If you don’t think about this, you will end up with a horse that is always asking your attention when you are busy with something else. In this case you want your horse to ‘stand with four feet on the ground, relaxed, neck straight forward and horizontal’.

Asking attention
I think we all know horses that will show their whole repertoire of tricks if people are around to get attention, kick their stall doors in order to ‘call’ people over, push a person, sniffs pockets and try to get the treats out when the person is talking to someone. Or horses that pull their handlers to the juicy patches of grass as soon when they want to check their her phone for messages. Wouldn’t it be great if your horse just stood there ‘patiently’ and waited for you to be ready to give the next cue?

This is why the key lesson ‘patience’ is an important exercise to spent some time on. The time you spend on this exercise is really a good investment. It looks like the horse is ‘patient’ but it is just a learned behaviour, just like the behaviours described above. The difference is, that the key lesson patience is desired behaviour and you can put it on cue.

Default behaviour
Just like head lowering you could choose to make this behaviour the default behaviour. It is a very practical behaviour. It prevents the horse from mugging you, pushing you, sniffing your pockets or asking your attention when you are doing other things, like talking to a friend, adjusting your tack, braiding his mane and so on. It also calms your horse down if he is excited. This is a behaviour that the trainer always should reinforce, even when it is displayed without cue. That is the way you can make it a default behaviour. A default behaviour is a behaviour a horse can fall back on when he is getting frustrated, anxious or wants your attention.

Useful
Teaching a horse to be ‘patient’ is also a useful exercise under saddle, with ground tying, waiting in line on competition grounds, during a bath/hosing him down, brushing, saddling and so on. Ask you horse to be ‘patient’ if he can’t wait for your next cue and randomly shows behaviour. It will help him become relaxed. This can help prevent frustration. Then teach your horse to wait for cues.

Reinforce what you want to see

It is just that most handlers forget to reinforce this simple behaviour of seemingly ‘doing nothing’. The handler has to be aware of this behaviour and reinforce it and put in on cue. Once you have learned to recognize it in your horse, keep it in his repertoire by reinforcing it.

__keylesson_patience_clickertraining_1

If the horse has a tendency to mug you or invade your personal space, you can start teaching the horse to ‘look away’. Later you can shape it into standing straight forward with his neck.

_keylesson_patience_hippologic

Kyra ‘s head is still a bit high in these pictures. I shaped my ‘Patience’ now more into a combination of ‘Patience’ with ‘Head lowering’. It is such a great tool and helps calm the horse down and makes everyone safer!

Links to other key lessons

Thank you for reading. Let me know how what your favourite key lesson is and why.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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