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4 Steps for Overcoming Your Horse’s Fear of Other Horses
Does your fellow horse feel threatened by other horses in the warm-up arenas at races? Does he jump to the side when a horse gets too close, or does he threaten to rear – and even succeed, as mine did? Maybe he’s new to showing off, or feels overwhelmed by busy crowds because he’s used to working alone? Maybe he’s just claustrophobic. No matter what causes your horse’s fear, overcoming it starts with patience.
Step one: Work with another horse
Begin his rehabilitation by introducing him to others in a familiar environment where he feels safe. Ask a friend with a calm horse to ride in the arena with you.
1. As close as your horse will allow, ride next to the other on foot and in the same direction. Do this on both brakes.
2. From time to time, switch sides. Some horses feel ‘fixated’ on the outer fence and need reassurance that they are safe when between a horse and the boundary of the arena.
3. Then have the other rider walk behind you.
4, When your horse is comfortable with this, the next animal should walk towards you – only as close as your horse is comfortable. Don’t take him too far out of his comfort zone at this point.
5. Gradually reduce the gap between the two animals until yours is comfortable enough to pass on either side of the approaching horse with very little space between them.
This may be all your equine companion can take for the first few sessions. Be patient and try not to get frustrated. Your goal is for your horse to trust you. Pushing it a slightly beyond his comfort zone is necessary to make progress and for him to understand that he will not get hurt. But if you overdo it, you will break his already fragile trust and you will be in a worse position than before.
Slow and easy is the key. Once your horse is relaxed and comfortable with steps 1 through 5, perform the same walking exercises followed by jumping. Don’t walk up until he is completely relaxed with your current level.
Step Two: Introduce a second horse
Now you are ready to ride with two others. The second horse should also be a reliable animal, to add to your horse’s growing confidence.
1. Travel on foot between the two, in the same direction.
2. Allow enough space between animals so yours don’t feel claustrophobic.
3. If he is uncomfortable at first, walk to either side of the pair, then reinsert him in the middle.
4. When he’s okay with that, walk in the opposite direction.
5. The other two horses should now walk towards yours, with a wide gap between them for yours to pass. If your horse becomes restless, let the other two go away from him. Then repeat the process until he is no longer afraid and can walk calmly between them.
6. Your horse will feed on your trust: ride him firmly between oncoming animals so that he learns that he will not be hurt if he obeys you.
When he is focused on you, start working at the trot followed by the canter, passing between the other two horses as they come back towards you. Only move up when your horse is 100% comfortable with the current one. It is essential to take this slowly! Your horse will probably take longer to get used to working with two horses than with one.
congratulations! You have crossed a big hurdle. Keep practicing with the same horses, then add others or switch riding buddies. Your horse may even begin to enjoy social riding.
Step Three: Change riding positions
Before jumping into a show setting, test your horse’s confidence by riding him in an unfamiliar, non-show location with other horses. By putting him in a less stressful situation than he will encounter at a show, you will also be more relaxed and give your horse the best chance of passing his confidence test with flying colors. Ride him to indoor and outdoor arenas. (My horse was most anxious in an outdoor arena, so that’s where I focused his rehabilitation.) Doing this will ensure that your horse is comfortable in both indoor and outdoor shows.
Step Four: Become a Non-Competitor
Unless you’re the super cool type whose nerves won’t erode your horse’s confidence, you might want to consider taking him as a non-competitor at his first post-rehab show. Pick a low spot to re-enter competitive conditions. This will allow you to spend as much time as you want in the warm-up arena without the pressure of competition. You will be more relaxed and give your horse a good experience around strange horses. Then take him to the real thing – when he’s proven ready.
Every horse is different. Yours may be the type that will get over their fears quickly, or they may be like mine and need a lot of time and convincing! Do not have a strict schedule for his rehabilitation. If you act like you have to solve the problem forever, it will be solved much faster than trying to force it before a certain deadline. You could lose a show season – but you would have lost it anyway while your horse was afraid of the heat. Keep your goal firmly in mind, but be flexible with your time frame. Patience is the key.
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