Nervous Horse

Heed this solid training advice to get a troubled horse headed toward recovery.

An America's Horse Daily reader submitted the following question regarding a very nervous, untrusting horse. AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight offers her expertise toward a solution.


I have a 17-year-old Quarter Horse that has obviously been abused. On the ground he is very respectful and sweet, but he has a very tender mouth and any hand movement while in the saddle causes him to bolt. After taking a serious fall last autumn, I thought to have a local trainer who is gentle-handed ride him for a week so he could become used to being ridden again. When I went to pick him up, he really wasn't there (in his mind). He had gone somewhere safe and it took him a couple days to get back to normal. The trainer rode him, but it was very difficult for him to get the horse to walk. He was nervous and waiting for the ball to drop. I tried riding him once, but it was so scary. He was ready to blow in any direction. He is so worried he won't please and will be punished. Is there any hope, or is he just a beautiful Quarter Horse pasture ornament?


There is always hope. Any horse can be trained for the better if he is in the right hands, just as any horse can be trained for the worse in the wrong hands. Really, the question is, are you qualified to re-train this horse, both in terms of effectiveness and keeping yourself safe? And if so, do you have the time, energy and commitment that it will take?

I cannot answer those questions for you, but I know for myself, even though I am qualified to re-train a horse that is this troubled, I don’t think I could commit the time it would take to make it happen.

I’d have this horse checked thoroughly by a vet to determine if there are any physical issues that may be causing him pain. If he is in pain for some illusive reason, he could be slightly on the verge of panic/flight all the time and thus unable to handle any additional stress. Once you have ruled out any physical issues, you can turn to training.

This horse needs to go way back to the very beginning. I’d forget about riding for some time—if he’s that volatile, he’s certainly no fun to ride and he sounds fairly dangerous. No horse is worth getting hurt over.

He needs lots of desensitizing and lots of ground work to build his trust and confidence. For however long he has been troubled, it will probably take at least that long to get him right. For every bad experience he has had, he needs to have a positive one, just to bring the score back to even, so that you can move forward with his training.

For the desensitizing, I’d use a process known as “Advance and Retreat.” There are several articles on this subject in the Training Library on my website. For the ground work, you can follow the steps outlined in my DVD series called “From the Ground.” It starts with basic trust building and relationship building in the round pen and then advances to lead-line work. This, along with the desensitization and a whole lot of patience and persistence, will get this horse on the road to recovery.

Good luck, and be safe!

Julie Goodnight, Certified Horsemanship Association master instructor

*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting a qualified veterinarian and/or an AQHA Professional Horseman.