How to calm your horse - Groundwork

By Rith Mazet

Riding advice

21 February 2011 17:24

Making a start

You can do this exercise anywhere – in a school, arena, or a corner of your field. Tack up as usual but don’t mount. Take the reins over your horse’s head and lead him into your arena or work space, using the reins like a pair of leadropes. The reason for this is to give the horse maximum freedom and so he doesn’t feel held down or controlled.

All you do now is start walking randomly around your space. At the beginning, your horse will be a little tense and nervous as he won’t know what to expect. He’ll need some direction and control, so the reins should be held quite close to the bit.

To guide him, simply do what you want him to do, showing the way and leading by example. To walk on, start walking. You may need a light tug on the reins to get him going. In a state of complete relaxation, horses prefer to follow a leader, so put yourself in front.

If he does try to surge past you, hold him back politely but firmly on the reins. Keep the pressure on the bit to a minimum. The last thing you want is a fight. If he’s pulling quite hard, give regular tugs on the reins, rather than a hard, prolonged pull. These can be quite sharp but should diminish as he understands what’s wanted.

When you want to make a turn, simply turn and walk that way yourself. At this point, the hold on the reins should still be quite short.

Ring the changes

The essence of this exercise is to keep on changing direction. Put in lots of circles, large and small, change the rein across both the centre line and diagonals, and in both directions. Add in any other figures you can think of. The purpose of all this is to bring your horse’s focus of attention onto you. If the track stays the same (either round the outside, or a never-ending circle), your horse will get bored and his mind will wander. This is when he starts resisting or playing up.

I think of it as scribbling. Like a small child with a pen who can’t draw yet, you simply wander around in a random way. Don’t do more than half a side (long or short) without making a change of some sort. The horse mustn’t be given the time or space to think about anything else.

Getting there

You should find that, after a while, your hand starts sliding down the reins almost by itself. What’s happening is that you and your horse are starting to feel comfortable with each other. Your horse is beginning to understand this game and finding it easy. There’s nothing for him to worry about.

You, on the other hand, are thinking about the next move and where you’re going, and are no longer worrying about your horse. This is the best way for you to be with, and work with, your horse.

How long it takes for you to get to this state depends entirely on your horse and his level of nervousness or anxiety. You may come to it within a few minutes, or it may take longer, but sliding your hand down the rein is part of the goal.

However long it takes, stay with it until you feel that your horse is starting to relax and follow you about. You should be neither pulling him along, nor holdinghim back. He’s simply there, behind you. When he seems to have got the idea, and is settled enough, come to a standstill and show by example that you want him to halt. Use a voice command, too, to reinforce the idea. I use the word ‘stand’ but you can use any word you like – just keep it consistent.

Horses don’t find it easy to stop for no apparent reason, it goes against their basic instinct, which tells them to keep moving for most of the time. If he does walk on past you, give a light, downward tug on the reins. This should make the message clear.

Once he’s stopped, start walking again and continue for a while. By now, the hand on the reins should be much lower down and the arm nearly in a normal, walking position. When this happens, your horse is approaching submission. He’s going where you go and doing what you want.

When the moment seems right, ask for halt again. The goal is for him to read the signal when it comes, and stop behind you. This is true submission.

And so you go on, walking around randomly and putting in the occasional halt. The ultimate goal is to give your horse a more or less free rein and have him following you like a sheep.

No worries

Remember as you go on that the key words are casual, calm and collected. Don’t worry about your horse – do what you have to do in a calm, casual manner. Don’t even look at him but use feeling to tell you what he’s doing.

Think of it as going for a walk with your horse. It’s a slightly strange walk, as you make your patterns on the ground and keep changing direction, but a stroll with your horse nonetheless.

If he has a spook or startle, simply change direction in a quiet, casual way. Make it look as if that’s what you intended to do anyway. Don’t do anything else but continue walking in your relaxed way and let him do what he has to do.

If there’s a part of the arena or field that seems to make him jumpy, avoid it in the short-term. As he settles down and relaxes, work your way gradually towards it.

At the first sign of nervousness, change direction and take him away from it. You should find that he loses his fear of that corner within 10 to 15 minutes and will allow himself to be led into it from then on quite happily.

How long should I go on?

This depends entirely on your horse and his level of anxiety, agitation or excitement. Most come to submission within 10 to 15 minutes. Others may take longer, but 30 minutes should be plenty. If after half an hour you haven’t achieved relaxation and submission, end the session and start again another day. He should have the idea by then, so the second time should achieve the desired end result.


Once you've achieved submission, you can start to ride - click here to find out what to do next in our second part.