Conquer Your Horse's Fears

Conquer Your Horse's Fears

Improve horseback riding for both you and your horse by building confidence.

generic sorrel horse with rope halter in field (Credit: Sarah Zeman)

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A frightened horse will find it extremely difficult to learn because he is constantly on the defensive and ready to react. As a result, he’s also no fun to ride on the trails. His actions are more reactions than responses to the rider’s demands, and they might even be dangerous for himself and his rider.

A frightened horse can learn to accept new things if his teacher gains his trust and respect. A horse that accepts a new situation remains relaxed. If he merely tolerates it, his stress level will always be on the verge of pushing him over the limit, and there will be a constant threat of danger. The horse might even become introverted, and his next reaction could be surprising or dangerous.


To get started with desensitization, establish a relationship of trust with your horse.  

The first few steps of desensitization include:

  • Stand close to your horse, taking care not to loop the lead rope around your arm or feet.

  • Rub your horse, starting on the easy parts like the neck or withers where horses love to be scratched. Rub, stroke or scratch, but do not pat him because horses do not enjoy patting. Using wide strokes, gradually move toward the more sensitive areas, moving a little  closer with each stroke.

  • If your horse reacts, stay calm and relaxed, and keep rubbing. If necessary, lighten your touch a little, but try not to stop altogether, and do not let the horse make you move your feet. Do not try to stop your horse from moving, but teach him to stand still by making it more comfortable to be still and quiet and less comfortable to choose another option.

  • Leave the really sensitive zones, such as the head, ears, sheath and stifle, until you have obtained a very good result with the rest of the body.

  • Try to find your horse’s “sweet spot” where he most enjoys being scratched. This is often the neck or withers.

  • If your horse reacts violently or tries to bite you, block him rather than punishing him. Hitting him will generally be too late and too emotional to be either understood or effective.

  • Be patient. Trust grows with respect, just as respect cannot exist without trust.

Practice these steps regularly. Once your horse becomes comfortable being rubbed all over, you can use rubbing as a reward and a source of comfort when he’s frightened on the trail.