Tips for teaching ’emotional’ control while riding; create a safe place

I wrote a blog post on November 23 that has been read almost 10,000 times. Below is a question I received regarding that blog as well as my answer. The original blog was titled, ‘The scared horse needs to be allowed to cycle through work cycles and then emotional cycles.’

How does this translate under saddle? I have a smart, energetic 17y.o. QH mare who is very respectful and understanding in the round pen. We’ve worked through our emotional cycles on the ground over time and it certainly makes a difference in our relationship. But once under saddle, if she gets into an emotional cycle because of a new motion (pivots, picking up her ribcage, yielding her hindquarters while moving forward) how do I get her out of it? I don’t want to reward her for becoming emotional and nervous by letting her out of the movement we’re trying. But I also don’t want to stress her further and cause damage to our relationship. Any advice is very welcome! Thanks!!child writing

The further we go in horse training the more subtle things become. Colt starting reminds me of kindergarden; the language we use is basic and broad. Which also makes things easier and more obvious. Think of how a kindergarden teacher speaks to the children. The progress is also more visible. Little Johnny can’t write…little Johnny can write his name.

Fast forward little Johnny to college and it isn’t so easy to measure his progress. Many of the things he learns are internal thoughts or refinements of the basics he learned years ago. The progress is more subtle…still very important…but harder to measure.

With all that said…

I could probably answer your question at least 20 different ways to make my point; but for this blog I will start with one place

Create a base. A reference point. A safe place. Some might consider this a place where the horse gets a reward. In kindergarden this is might be both a physical place as well as a verbal (emotional) reward. Two examples of this with Jac would be;

  • the section of my arena that I often rest him in between the back doors (straight ahead of the camera) I call it 12:00 and 3:00 in my arena;
  •  turning and facing me is a reward, I talk about this in Episode 13 at 17:30 seconds.

Jac starts to hunt those places (physical) because he gets to relax there (emotional). So turning and facing me is a physical movement that he associates with a emotional reward. Still with me? Good, because here is where it gets tricky.

When you are riding your horse you need to create a safe place. Something that they can hunt. Some physical movement that they can associate with a mental reward. By the time you are working on the movements you listed (pivots, picking up her ribcage, yielding her hindquarters while moving forward) we can pretend your horse is in high school.

Begin teaching horse how to respond to thumb before using spur.

Begin teaching horse how to respond to thumb before using spur.

That means that your horse needs to find rewards inside of things that might look like work. Lets pretend you want to work on moving your horses hindquarter while moving forward. I’m going to call that moving her hip. Warm her up and then do something familiar; say trotting a 20 foot circle. At some point I hope you have made that a ‘safe’ place, something not too stressful. This circle should be a place where in the past when she relaxed there you stopped and got off. You put her away for the day. Now when you trot a 20′ circle she gets hopeful….can you see how by doing this we are training her emotions to be associated positively with the circle?

Now we want to move her hip. So we trot the circle and she gets mentally prepared for good things to happen. After a few circles I would pull her nose slightly in and push her hip out with my inside leg. (I would have taught her to move her hip at a stand still first). At the slightest correct movement (hip swings out slightly) I would release and get back on my circle.

Mentally she will look at this as a bump in the otherwise smooth road. Trot a few more quiet circles and be done. If you do it 20 times in a row then she will have a reason to be stressed.

If you over do the ‘work’ of moving her hip you will destroy the ‘safe’ place. Be very aware that you don’t do that. You must have ‘safe’ places for your horse to return to or emotionally they head down hill.

In a few more episodes I will be showing the first time I ‘mount up’ on Jac. It is an exceptional demonstration of Jac mentally searching for the answer….and he has never had this question asked before. He is beginning to exhibit a hunt for an ’emotional’ state of being….because that is where I reward him. That’s a deep thought!


  1. Lisa on December 5, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Love this Stacy (met you in person in Michigan in 2009) The nontraditional riding horse whose photos you saw (and signed THANK YOU) seemed like he was solid in his mind under saddle in various conditions. However he “lost it” very unexpectedly when he stepped into a hole with a back foot under the snow. His younger sister stumbled through it w/o so much as a flinch. He spooked, bolted, bucking for 190 feet (I literally measured it) before I went off. Indeed I believe (with other more seasoned horse people) that he is one of those horses that always needs mental/emotional control and yielding reinforced as often as possible. I did get a walloping concussion through a helmet and beat up leg, but have lived & learned since!

  2. Brad Gosnell on December 4, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    I agree Stacy and always attempt all things with relaxation throughout the horses body. If you feel tension you pushed beyond the comfort place. It might take more time initially but the longer you do this the faster they learn new things because they know it’s safe to try. Once the trust is solidified there is less and less tension events as you ratchet up

  3. stacy johnson on April 30, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I am at home this week recovery form my mare getting scared at a show her second show. She broke in two on me. Worse every laid infrount and then under her step on face and leg. Not sure what scared her. She is safe here home. I am blessed God had his hand on both of us or would be worse fracture s lots of stitches. Any advise on her sudden fear.

    • Stacy on April 30, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Yikes! I can’t know for sure…internet isn’t good for that…but I would ask others who were there what their thoughts are. Sometimes an outside observer can offer a different view. The most common answer is that there have been tiny signs of problems that the rider missed. I would recommend asking others who know you and her what their opinion is.

  4. johanna on December 16, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    that is just a rocking’ post-
    you may or may not be aware–these ways of thinking apply to all animals, not just horses!
    thanx for being out there-

  5. Kate Butterworth on December 10, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Stacy, thanks so much for doing these tips and showing your work with jac. I have a young Friesian colt and am following each Jac episode eagerly as I have had many horses and educated a few but never a colt I want to keep as a stallion before. Your guidance is much appreciated.

  6. Anita Will on December 10, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Never stand in the position of the person in the picture it’s the dander zone!! You could get kicked in a nano second and have a good strong hold no more than 12 inches from the halter closer is better from the halter to turn the front end of the horse into you and the rear end away from you if something reactive happens such as a kick! I am telling you this from years of experience even standing ahead of the cinch you can have a horse jump up in the air and kick with both hind feet. this happened to me and I was ahead of the cinch area. I was lucky and got it in the chest not the head or I wouldn’t be here today. The horse was advertised as a kids horse and we were doing this very gently to ask him to move away from pressure he did it the first time then kicked me in the chest when asked gently again. I am 200 lbs and I sailed 4 ft up and 5 feet back it hurt like heck with lots of brusing and surgery later from a cyst from the hemotoma. Not a fun deal we didn’t get this horse needless to say. I recommend a training stick before using the thumb it keeps you further away from the danger zone be sure and get the horse used to it first and stand in front of the cinch area near the shoulder and keep your arm up high and a eye on the head not the hindquarters!

    • Stacy on December 11, 2013 at 10:34 am

      Anita-I am so sorry for what happened to you. This photo was taken during filming and it was edited to a close up. Maybe the position will make more sense to you when you can watch the episode. I am standing where I would stand to saddle the horse and have done lots and lots of training to ensure that he is safe to be around. At some point this horse is going to need to be safe for a farrier to handle, to brush all over and to do many other things that will require me to be located at times behind where the cinch would be. As you recommended he has been very well trained using the stick and string prior to this.

  7. jim brunson on December 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Why don’t they have you on R F D TV? You would help a lot of new horse people.

    • Stacy on December 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

      People pay money to be on RFD-TV. I think that is a little known fact. Unlike other national channels where some people (or shows) are paid to be on RFD requires payment. So I am using the internet instead, lol.

  8. chuck bennett on December 10, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Backyard/Stable horses and novice riders are hard to coach from afar. Bored horses/riders are messes looking to happen. Smarter the horse/dumber the rider the quicker the sale barn. For a fact. Back in the fifties we would ride a young horse till he quit worrying about us. When he started smoothing out, getting his feet under him, learning to pack the weight, cross a draw, walk up/down a hill.
    When he could handle these things without grabbing himself or bolting, we would use our legs to move him past an obstacle (Soapweed Mesquite tree, just enough rein to start the colt to learning). he could see past and not tall enough for him/rider not to worry about a booger(Most people put the blocks in their horse)
    Bet I cannot post on your blog!
    ~chuck bennett

  9. Wendy Russ on December 10, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    You are soooo good! Love the way this is tying together.

    • jim brunson on December 10, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      I like the way you lay it out.. The way you think ahead of your horse.

  10. Jennifer L on December 10, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    These posts you do are so helpful. My 6 yr Arab is perfect on the ground, and he is in high school in the saddle, but he still gets very jumpy and nervous when I’m riding. It’s clear he doesn’t get into the correct emotional state. I will be working on this with him as soon as it gets warm enough to start riding again. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom.

  11. Karen Forehand on December 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Wow, this makes sense to me, now to get my husband to read and try this with his 8yr old mare. She gets very nervous on the lunge line in our arena but has been ridden on lots of trail rides with no incidents. This past spring after he lunged her and got on to ride. He got lax and she dumped him as he moved her into a lope. I think she was def in an emotional state and did not have a “safe” place to go!

Leave a Comment




100% Private - 0% Spam

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

No one taught you the skills you need to work through these things.

Riders often encounter self-doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, and other challenging emotions at the barn. The emotions coursing through your body can add clarity, or can make your cues indistinguishable for your horse.

Learning these skills and begin communicating clearly with your horse.

Click here to learn more.



Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest content and updates by email.