The Anxious Speed-Event Horse

Learn horse-training strategies to bring out the best in your nervous show horse.

Bob Jeffreys and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Suzanne Sheppard, of Middletown, New York, help horsemen in need with their horse-training problems. Here’s the advice they gave one rider about handling her anxious speed-event horse:

Dear Bob & Suz,

I am a 33-year-old experienced rider and instructor, and my horse is Foxies Gambler, a 7-year-old appendix Quarter Horse mare. We competed locally all summer and fall of last year, with a focus on games and speed events. I love her and love riding her very much, and she has won a lot. She has come a long way since I got her last spring. She had a history of being extremely spooky, nervous, bucking, running off, etc.

Our issue: “Foxie” still gets anxious, nervous or reactive under specific conditions and loses focus on me. She becomes easily distracted at horse shows, while trail riding alone, or when riding at home when a dog barks or moves in the brush and/or when the wind blows. At a show, she will arrive tense and call to many of the other horses there. She is not focused on me and is looking for things to spook at. At home, she is more laid back and even quits the lope after the second or third lap of warmup.

There are so many things she does so well, and when we are connected, it is incredible. I have tried all I know, including round pen work, ground work, consistent riding and implementing a good feed program.

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Can you help us?

Aspen Black of Rocky Mount, Virginia


Due to space constraints, we’ve summarized Aspen’s situation, which we learned more about when we called her.

Clearly, she is committed to bringing out the best in this complex, talented, sensitive horse, but she needs new, more effective strategies to get to the next level. Let’s consider possible factors in Foxie’s behavior:

    • PainPoor saddle fit, a sore back or some other source of discomfort may be present, causing tension, stiffness and hyper sensitivity.


    • Lack of knowledge – Foxie may be able to “go through the paces,” but doesn’t know how to do so calmly, confidently and listening to her rider.


    • Fear – Foxie may be so insecure that she becomes panicked when away from other horses at a show or on the trail, both very stimulating situations with lots of distractions.


    • Rider error – Because Foxie is so talented and willing, Aspen may have jumped the gun and worked on advanced skills before confirming the basics, like impulsion, speed control and transitions up and down.


    • “I don’t want to!” – Foxie simply refuses to relax and slow down because she loves to go fast.

When we spoke, Aspen had already made a good decision:

She had decided to hold off competing in speed events (even though she loves to barrel race), but was frustrated by their slow progress.

Because Foxie is young, has made a lot of progress in less than a year and is eager to please, we think she needs more time and good training to fill in the holes in her training.

We suggest the following plan:

Go back to basics, training Foxie four to five times a week with a snaffle bit. Ask her to give to the bit at the walk, jog and eventually the lope so she remains supple, relaxed and focused.

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Because speed excites her, focus on emotional training; this is the area where she needs the most improvement.

Lots of quiet work at the walk and trot, teaching her to slow and settle after work at speed, will help her learn how to relax in all gaits.

Because running away in a panic is unacceptable, work on correct impulsion, engaging the hindquarters in all gaits so she learns to move forward in good balance and on cue.

Lateral work will strengthen her focus and her body, so do lots of it, getting specific control of each part of her body and guiding her through increasingly complex maneuvers.

Keep her busy enough that she doesn’t have time to worry about other horses.

When Aspen incorporates this plan, she will build Foxie’s self-confidence, her attention span and her confidence in her leader, Aspen.

We’ve sent her a copy of Bob’s book, “It’s All About Breakthroughs!” so she has a reference for hundreds of exercises to work on.

Success is assured when you plan your work effectively, and then work your plan with your horse.