Episode 95: Help, my horse has emotional outbursts on the trail

“Is there a way to teach emotional control to a horse? He is super quiet when ridden alone. When ridden in groups I can feel his nerves bundle up and then he broncs.”
In this episode, I discuss the concepts: why naturally quiet horses can be prone to ‘outburst’, four places where this issue can be addressed, how cues systems are as much mental as they are physical, and the saying, “Ride your best horse the hardest.”

Transcript of Podcast

Episode 95- Help, my horse has emotional outbursts on the trail.mp3
Announcer: [00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:23] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. This is season 9 of the podcast and the focus is on trail riding. Today, I’m answering a question that came in about a horse that has outbursts on the trail. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: [00:00:45] Hi, Stacy, this is Connie. My question for you, is there a way to teach emotional control to a horse? I have an eight-year-old gelding who’s super quiet when I ride him alone. But when I ride him in a group, it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 horses he knows or a group of 30 horses he doesn’t know. He has emotional outbursts on the trail. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 2 hour ride or a 6 hour ride, 10 minutes in, or the last 10 minutes. There’s no rhyme or reason to why or when he does this. But the good thing is he gives me cues that it’s going to happen. I can feel his nerves start to bundle up before he starts to bronc on me. Typically, what I’ve been doing is I put him on the tail of a seasoned, quiet horse that I know will not react or kick at me. And I keep him between the reins and I keep him right on that horse’s tail until I feel him relax. My fear is I’m not always going to have a seasoned, quiet horse around me and I don’t want to get hurt. And I don’t want to get another rider hurt. If I’m around a horse that is not seasoned, is there a way that I can teach him a cue, like a calm down to when I feel those nerves bundle up? I would greatly appreciate any feedback from you.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:14] The short answer, Connie, is yes, you can teach horses to have emotional control. I begin this work and I advance this work quite a bit in my ground work program. When I eventually get to the point with the ground work where I’m happy and satisfied that the horse has the concepts of emotional control on the ground, then I also go ahead and move it into the saddle. But I really want to open up things and find out most of the issues that I can from the ground, because, for example, if a horse doesn’t know how to calm down after they physically speed up, I want to deal with that through groundwork before I try it out and find that response on their back. I made a video last year about this subject. It’s about five minutes long. I’ll put a link to that video in the show notes of this episode on my website. You can also find it on my YouTube channel, and it is titled Teach Your Horse to Stand Still: Trail and Arena. And it was in the middle of doing a series of videos last year, and although the emphasis was on how you teach a horse to stand still, I clearly demonstrate the groundwork that I use for teaching emotional control. You’ll literally hear that phrase used during the video. And what I do is I show you the–a bunch of the techniques really quickly where I’m like whipping around the horse or asking the horse to move quickly and then slow down and doing some of these different things. And then what I do is I jump from that concept on the ground to the idea on Willow’s back, where I show that I want to be able to close all my aides. I want to be able to make light contact on both reins and both legs. And that is my stand still cue. And in the the video you’ll see a great demonstration of both the groundwork and that touch of the ridden work. Now, if you want to take it deeper, I have another series on there called Stacy’s Video Diary, Jac. And you can watch all of the training. It’s–it–I followed a horse for a year, but you can jump in at the beginning and you’ll really see a lot of the groundwork and emotional control training with a horse that’s obviously not under emotional control. I love it. I think it’s episode 3, I wrote, How many times does Jack drag Stacy out of the camera angle? Because the videographer didn’t understand that there’d be times that the horse was going to, like, suddenly dart a different direction. And the horse was so green and inexperienced and he was a young stallion. So he had lots of opinions and he would just drag me out of the camera shot. And I left that stuff in there because that’s all the good stuff.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:26] So I’m back to this topic in this video. So the video, the short video, the five minute long video that shows you a lot of stuff real quickly. Inside that video where I’m teaching the stand still cue, while that’s not exactly the cue that you need right now, it will serve to illustrate a point that I want to make to you. And that point is that any kind of physical cue that you teach your horse is only as strong as your horse’s understanding of that cue mentally. So when you watch the video, you’re going to see my stand still cue of light pressure on all four aides and you’re going to see that it’s a fair amount of pressure. You’ll see that Willow’s face is drawn back to vertical. You’ll see the pressure. You can almost see like a vibration of that pressure in my hands, the reins, my legs are making this slight waving motion because you can literally see the pressure and how she’s kind of all bottled up there. And yet she understands that that bottled up is not supposed to have her move and so that cue does not just work out of the box. So this is what I mean by any cue you teach the horse is only as strong as the understanding of it. That means you can’t just jump on your horse and use that cue system and have it magically work, because at this level we’re starting to move up the…up the levels into like upper, you know, we’re going from basically we’re going from elementary school up into high school. Now, if you were listening to some of the previous episodes here inside the trail riding series, you’ll notice that there are times that people are asking questions about how they can get the horse under emotional control. But they also would like to be able to still continue straight down the trail, meaning they don’t necessarily want to have to like trot circles or, you know, bend the horse all the way around to their leg or do some of these different things. And so there are more basic cues that come before the one I demonstrate in this video. But the one that I demonstrate in this video is actually very, very similar. If you go back and watch a much more recent video that I just posted of Presto’s first trail ride, if you watch basically what Presto is doing is a walking version of the stand still cue. So I’m walking and riding with light pressure on all four aides. Now because I’m walking that–the pressure is kind of coming and going, but is never at zero on any of those aides until we get quite a ways down the trail. And I feel him relaxing and then I start playing around with moments where I release a little bit more pressure and moments where I pick up a little bit more pressure. But that’s not being determined by me being reactive to him. Like I talked about in the last podcast, it’s being determined by me experimenting, touching, saying, OK, I’ve decided to release you here. If I pick up a little bit here, how are you going to respond? Which is basically a continuation of what I was doing in the arena. But the video that you see with Willow is..the–what you’re seeing there is you’re seeing that it’s the end result of a whole bunch of layers of training, including the groundwork. And that’s the same thing that you’re seeing when you watch Presto in this walking version of contact.

Stacy Westfall: [00:09:26] Now, let me make a few guesses about what’s going on with your particular horse, and again, this is just some guesses, educated guesses. But first thing I’m really comfortable saying is that, your horse’s outbursts, they are a feedback loop of some sort from your horse. He is giving you feedback, he is telling you about a buildup of emotion or energy that he does not know what to do with. He doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s coming. It might show up 10 minutes into the ride. It might show up six hours into the ride. But he’s got this building tension that he doesn’t know what to do with. So let’s see if we can come up with ways that you can educate him past that. Now, the really good news to me is that you’ve come up with a temporary solution. And here’s what’s really interesting. Your temporary solution, you feel the building energy, you can feel that kind of coming, you say, and you put him behind a horse that you know won’t kick and that will handle the energy that your horse is putting off. And that is remarkably similar to what I said that I was doing when I was riding Presto and my husband was riding Willow ahead of me. And I said that when I was doing that, I basically had a walking wall in front of me. So the first thing I want to say is, really, really you did a great job figuring that out, because that’s exactly what I did on that trail ride with Presto. Now, let’s discuss 3 ideas that I have after listening to your voicemail, I’m going to go through them quickly, then I’m going to go back through them and review them. Number one, naturally quiet horses can be more prone, I think, sometimes to outbursts. That’s a big one. Number two, you need to notice any changes that you might make when you get into groups of horses. And then number three, I would like you to notice little changes in him that might seem innocent, but there’s still changes when you’re in the group. OK, let’s go back through those 3.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:58] So number one, naturally quiet horses can be almost more prone to outbursts. That one seems a little bit strange when I read it, but here’s why a lot of times, naturally quiet horses get kind of an easy pass on some of the lessons because they seem like they just kind of get it and it just comes easily to them. And so they don’t really get trained on purpose how to handle emotions when they come up. And so I think it’s really interesting because you just notice different horses. So the first example I ever saw that I can remember of a horse like that was growing up, my mom’s gelding was an angel. Even looking back at him now, with all the knowledge that I have now and applying it to everything I saw then, this was a remarkably good minded, quiet horse 98% of the time. But the few times that I can remember him losing it, I mean, he lost it, lost it, lost it like big time out of control. Now, I can’t, I don’t even think I could come up with 10 times that that I can remember that happening in my entire childhood. He didn’t tend to get worked up, but on those moments when he did get triggered, there was no recovery possible. I’m talking like there he goes, running down the driveway, dragging something. Like it’s gone, like you’re going to go find him in another location. So it wasn’t that it was a slow recovery. So what’s really interesting is that he was so good so much of the time that it was just kind of taken for granted. Now, jump in my mind from me as a little kid seeing that all the way til now. Now I see different horses and I see horses like Presto. Presto wears his emotions on the outside of whatever Presto is experiencing. You can see on his face and his body and it makes him great for photos. It makes him really funny because he’s super expressive. But, you know, it’s right there. So if something’s bothering him, you’re going to see little signs of it. You’re going to see big signs of it. Now, there’s a big chunk of horses that do the opposite. Gabby is a little bit more like that. Gabby draws more into herself is the way that it feels when I’m around her. And that means, like, she kind of almost internalizes those external pressures. And so it feels completely different. Like Gabby doesn’t feel nervous. She’ll outwardly look calm to other people. And I’ll be thinking, oh, this feels really bottled up. The best example I have of it is that last year when I took her to the Western Dressage World Show, that was the first time she’d ever been hauled that far. We went from Ohio down to Oklahoma. She was in this big new environment, all this stuff going on. I know that I was at a show, which means I’m automatically acting weird and all this stuff is happening. And I remember going into one of my classes and I had to do a leg yield for a very long distance in the arena. Let’s just use a number, 100 feet. So I’m supposed to go, like, vaguely sideways and forward for like a hundred feet and. When I started, she was moving sideways and forward, and the longer we went, it was like we went 20 feet and we were going slower, we went 40 feet, we were going slow, we went 60 feet, we were going slower. And I was thinking, I cannot get this mare to move. And I was using all my aids. I was using everything I had that, you know, had with me in the show arena. But what else I know was happening was that she was in that arena, big place for the first time, and all of these different things were happening. And she was basically, when I say drawing herself in, there’s almost a shutting down feeling to her in places. Now, I think that when they’re less trained than her, you can get more of the explosive version that you’re experiencing. But what I’m saying is there are horses that instead of them getting this really worked up and out feeling, they get this more drawn in feeling and then what they do with that afterwards, a lot depends on their training. So just be a little bit onto that idea.

Stacy Westfall: [00:16:36] Now, I mentioned number two, notice any changes that you might be making when you go out on that group ride. For example, there’s a good chance that when you ride alone, I know that when I ride alone, that means I get to set the pace. It means I get to make a lot of decisions. It means that I can actually give my horse rein, and let the horse make a lot of decisions. And so automatically when I ride in a group of horses, I end up needing to use more cues I might need to slow down or steer. And on top of all that, the temptation to be turning and talking or not paying attention to the horse and talking is through the roof. So notice any of the changes that you might be making when you’re in the group. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a criticism, but it’s worth understanding your changes and how they might be playing into it. For example, in the last example of Gabby, kind of like the bogging down in my leg ield, it was almost as if on top of all the stuff she was taking in for input, I was then giving aides to do something and it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now, in her world, when that happens, she just kind of shuts down a little bit more. There was a quietness to how that happens. I’m suspicious that when your horse has that straw that breaks the camel’s back moment, I think that might be where you’re experiencing the outbursts. And one of those things that could be going on is using your cues, which feels very necessary and might be very necessary in the group. But it would be interesting to diagnose what you may be doing differently on your individual alone rides versus your group rides and how that might play into it, because then you can address it and you can train it so that he doesn’t have that response to your cues.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:35] Now. Number three, notice little changes in him that might seem innocent, and what that means is just like Gabby kind of getting duller and slower to my aide, it doesn’t seem like the worst thing because there are a lot of things that seem a lot bigger. But you need to notice the little changes because that was part of her feedback loop to me. And for me, part of the way that I took it is also I get to say to her, I understand there’s a lot going on. I want you to look to me for the answers because, see, Gabby tends to be one that thinks she needs to make her own plans because she’s a very dominant horse. And I think when she was getting a little overwhelmed by everything that was going on there, she kind of forgot that she is supposed to look to me because I can help her out. And so those little reminders like that, sometimes when I notice the little change in her, it was a good reminder for me to be like, I need to bring her back to me. It’s not that I want to change the world around her. I don’t want to take her into a more quiet environment. I thought she’s ready for this, but it’s still going to be stretching her comfort zone. So for you, I want to know if you noticed little changes that might seem innocent like that he could be getting kind of dull or dogging down like that. I want to know if you can touch things and move things. So that means can you bend him and move things like you would be able to do in the arena or when you’re riding alone, when you do touch things and you ask him, do you notice that he’s got a lot of tension? Does it feel like he’s taking shorter steps than he normally would when he was ridden alone by you versus in the group? And what I’d like you to do is either pretend there’s a video of both rides or make a video of both rides, that’s a little tricky when you’re on your own, but it can be done. But basically in your mind, pretend that you were watching a video of you riding alone on a successful trail ride that you’re happy with and then you riding in a group before he has one of these outburst moments. And I want you to replay that video over and over in your head and figure out what’s different about you and different about him, even if they seem innocent. Then that will give you a starting point for some of those clues on what’s going on.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:19] Now, I also think it’s very worth mentioning that the way you describe your horse’s behavior when you start feeling that build up is very much the way that I would have described how Presto felt at the very beginning of the first ride I took him on. You can see that video on YouTube and Facebook especially. Pay attention to the moment, like you’re going to see at the very beginning of the video, you can kind of see a little red car there. You can see me getting on him, and then you can kind of see that he’s very forward. There were acorns falling out of the trees or something. Maybe the squirrels had it in for me that day, but he was definitely being, like, spooked forward. He was very uptight. My plan and what I did end up doing was doing the same thing you were doing. I used Willow as a wall. But you’ll also notice how I’m using all of my aides. Yes, I’m even closing my legs slightly as I’m closing my reins to slow him down. So, I want you to know that because that can be a stage. The thing is you want to know how to get away from that being a permanent thing versus a stage. So I see four different places for you to do this work.

Stacy Westfall: [00:22:37] The first place to do this work is in groundwork again, there’s the short video that’s a demonstration, there’s the in depth video series that shows you the training, and they’re both on my YouTube channel. And I’ll put links in the show notes. So do the groundwork. Make sure you turn up the speed. A lot of times the horses that do what you’re what you’re describing about your horse, a lot of times they’re the ones that tend to be a little bit sluggish about the get up and go. And so when you do make them get up and go, so like say you’re lunging them and you want to teach them to go from a, you know, from a jog up to the canter, don’t be afraid to actually make that happen. Like, you should be able to lunge the horse around, have a cone on the ground out near the outside, and B, I wanted to pick up the Canter right there beside that cone right now. A lot of times that’s when those horses will get a little bit like they’ll be like, what? Who’s what are you doing? Why are you putting this much pressure on me? And that’s where you can find the little shaky spots, because even though you’re not cantering on the trail, at least I don’t think you were in these examples, even though you’re not cantering when this is happening, physically moving their body like this will a lot of times bring up the emotion and a lot of the training that I do for my horses that led to like the bareback and brideless ride that many of you remember with Roxy. What makes that so interesting to watch is that you can see that there’s clearly a separation in the horse’s mind between doing something physically hard and intense, but staying mentally relaxed. Well, that’s a training process and it really does begin on the ground. And you can see that illustrated with excellence, with me being dragged all over the place in that Stacy’s Video Diary series. So number one do the groundwork and do turn up the pressure. Number two, do arena work that you can use on the trail where you can bend and move body parts and pay attention to his responses and your habits. Number three, when you’re riding alone, practice touching those same things and moving the horse around when you’re out on the trail and notice whether you see a change between arena work and riding alone. And then when you go into the riding in a group, practice those things again, riding in the group, and then now you’ve got four different places that you can cross reference and you can make a list of the differences and the similarities across those different places. Again, really, in particular, watch for how you’re using your aides. Go back and listen to Episode 91, where I discuss what I think might be the biggest mistake riders make out on the trail. And if you really want more specific techniques, season 4 of this podcast, which is Episode 35 through 49, is all about the horse’s body. The season before that was all about the horse’s mind. Those are excellent, excellent reference points to go back to. They talk about forward motion and teaching, whoa, and improving steering and handling hot horses. And I think you’ll find little nuggets buried in each one of those. And very specific, I talk very specifically, even in the rider’s body season, about like how to hold your hand, where to move this hand. It’s very detail oriented on the techniques back in those seasons. So do some deep diving into those.

Stacy Westfall: [00:22:37] And one last thought as I wrap this up is that and this is for everyone listening, but especially for those of you who are trainers. There’s a saying in training and it goes, Ride your best horse the hardest. Now, I’m sure you could interpret that in some kind of a mean way, but the underlying intention of the saying is that often the horses that have the most potential are in some ways kind of easier than the more challenging horses. So they don’t get trained to the same level as the more challenging horse. I’m going to say it again, ride your best horse the hardest. The saying is there to remind trainers that the “good horses”, the less complicated horses, they are often the ones that we accidentally don’t train enough. That’s what I have for you this week. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:27:34] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

5 minute video: Teach your horse to stand still: trail and arena

Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac- Episode 3…watch Stacy get dragged around:)

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