Nervous horse - advice, please? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 4 Old 04-05-2009, 09:48 AM Thread Starter
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Nervous horse - advice, please?


I am asking a question for a friend of mine who works at a horse rescue facility. They have recently taken in a new horse that's very skittish and nervous. She's 4 years old and is afraid of people due to abuse in the past. She darts around when led or sometimes just stands still with her nose in the air and refuses to move. When people come to her stall, she retreats to the back. She's nearly impossible to catch in the pasture.

My friend's supposed to be working with this horse to help it get rid of its fear of humans, but she's having a lot of trouble so I decided to ask you all for suggestions for her. What can she do to help desensitize this horse and help it become less nervous and fearful?

She does know what she's doing, as she's been working with rescue horses for several years, but if anybody has dealt with a horse like this before, ideas and suggestions are much appreciated. I'll pass on the advice to her. :)

Thanks in advance,

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post #2 of 4 Old 04-05-2009, 10:26 AM
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Time, time and more time. With a horse like that, there's no substitute for lots of time and quiet handling. She needs to earn the horse's trust before things will go any further successfully. Start by just sitting with the horse in a field or stall (safely) and let he horse get used to and comfortable with her presence. Eventually once the horse realizes that she's safe, she will get curious and approach the human. You can take small steps towards here but any time she backs off or gets scared, you need to also literally step backwards and let the horse get comfortable again.

With a badly abused horse it can take months or even years for them to develop trust again, however the more you let the horse come to you, the better and faster the horse will heal (as opposed to trying to force contact). Once an animal gets into their fear/adrenaline response, there's no learning going on so even if she gets close enough to the horse to groom or handle her, if the horse is already terrified, the handling isn't doing any good.

Take it slow, and good luck!

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post #3 of 4 Old 04-05-2009, 10:33 AM
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This is a particularly hard question to answer because not all the information is available. Here is what I do when a nervous horse comes in that doesn’t want to be caught and has a problem with being scared all the time.

First I create an association between getting caught and food. Not bribery, but similar to clicker training. If the horse is extremely difficult I will create a temporary fence from the paddock to the stall. Let them come in and eat and then let them go back out. Usually it only takes a few days to create a strong enough association to have them waiting at the gate to be brought in.

I interpret nervousness as confusion. The horse is unsure about what are the expected responses from the cues given by the human. In my experience it is usually the stop and go. Even the behavior you are seeing in the stall is sourced in this conflict. I will spend a long time leading the horse and eliminating the conflict over the cues. The cue for stop means an absolute stop and nothing else. Forward means straight forward, not sideways or anything else.

Of course this is just a glimpse of how I approach a nervous horse and may sound a bit simplistic, but the real remedy is found in the simple approach. Good Luck and make sure to use common sense and stay safe!
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post #4 of 4 Old 04-05-2009, 03:53 PM
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Sitting with the horse in the stall is a great idea. The horse has to become curious about people before she will start to ask questions and gain confidence. Your friend could also do some Parelli with her. That's an excellent way to gain a horse's trust and respect at the same time.
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