Spotting the signs of anxiety in your horse — the traffic light system

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Thinking about your horse’s emotional state as ‘traffic light zones’ is a great way to get results in your training, explains equine behaviour consultant Justine Harrison.

For training, such as trying to overcome separation anxiety, to be successful, you need to begin at the point your horse starts to become anxious.

You want to work with your horse in his emotional ‘go’ or ‘green zone’, when he is relaxed and paying attention.

If he starts to worry, you will have entered his yellow zone where his anxiety could go either way — if you give him time and don’t ask any more, he may relax and be happy to continue; alternatively, his behaviour may escalate and he will start to panic, entering the red zone.

Individual horses may display anxiety or hold tension in different ways, but common indicators to watch out for are:

Green zone

Attention without tension. This is the ideal emotional state for your horse to learn and build confidence.

  • Soft body posture

  • Relaxed muscles

  • Soft, round eyes

  • Relaxed facial muscles

  • Happy to eat

Yellow zone

Could go either way. Go back a few steps and, if necessary, put your horse back in his field or stable and try again later.

  • Raised head and body posture

  • Raised tail

  • Tension in the face — the chin, pursed lips

  • Triangulation of the eye

  • Increased muscular tension

  • Fidgeting

  • May be reluctant to eat

Red zone

Too late! Remove your horse from the situation as safely and calmly as you can. Try again later or once he’s relaxed.

  • Flight mode

  • Trying to leave the situation

  • Can’t stand still

  • Vocalisation

  • Whites of the eye visible

  • Unable to eat or concentrate

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