School’s Out

Posted by in about horses, Blog, nerves, nervous, nervous rider, nervous riders, no school, positive thinking, responsiveness, slow down, slowing down, slowing down a strong horse, slowing horse down on Sep 15, 2012

Is your horse responsive? To your leg and your hand? Forget about on the bit or bend. Will he move forward and slow down when you ask?  In the school – and out of it?


There’s more to schooling than 20m circles and serpentines. Whilst most horses will behave quite reasonably inside the confines of a ménage when you go outside it can present different problems. Just because you’re away from the school it doesn’t mean your horse can forget everything he’s been taught. (No school? No problem! Check this out )


A lack of brakes can be a huge problem to some riders. It won’t help your confidence and it certainly won’t improve your hacking! If you’re nervous the last thing you want to do is put yourself in a situation that is going to frighten you. If jumping’s your thing and you fancy trying your hand at cross country a lack of brakes coming into a fence can not only take the pleasure out of it; it’s dangerous too.


You may think you know your horse inside out but he knows you too! He can feel when you’re nervous. He knows when you’re not quite sure too. As with any schooling knowing how to deal with things is at least half the battle. If you’re prepared and know how to react to different situations you’ll feel more confident.


Your horse is more likely to tank off with you than he is to bolt but do you know the difference? Both feel similar but require different reactions. When a horse bolts he’s running away from something that’s scared him. When he tanks off he’s running towards something and he’s doing it to scare you!


Your horse isn’t bolting if he’s running towards the gate, your yard or his friends. He’s tanking off. It’s a habit which needs to be broken. There are two ways to do that. If you’re feeling confident it’s time to get tough.


Show your horse you’re the boss. When he heads for home don’t try to stop him. Turn him. Anchor your outside* hand on his neck. Turn his head with short tugs on your inside* rein. Turn his body with sharp kicks from your outside leg. Sit up and look up. Looking where you want to go is the best way to get there.

(*in a field situation inside is the side you are turning towards. Outside is the side you’re turning away from.)


Even if it takes you the whole length of the field to turn don’t give up. When your horse does turn tap him with your whip and take him right back to where you started. Once he knows you’re determined to win he’ll stop trying.


There’s nothing wrong with avoiding situations. Your horse won’t think “She’s not doing that because she’s scared” but if you jump off and put him back in his stable every time he tanks off he’ll definitely think “I’ll try that again!” Take your time. Build your confidence.


If you’re tense your horse will feel it. Depending on his temperament (or mood!) he’ll either tense up too or take advantage. Call his bluff. Take a deep breath and kick on. Using your legs stops you freezing and it will make him think you’re in control – even if you don’t!


If your horse regularly tanks from one end of the field to the gate ride at the gate end so he can’t. As you feel more confident move further up the field. Don’t ride round the edge. Ride small circles to keep him thinking. This is a common situation in a school too – if your horse tanks to the gate do the same. Ride circles at the gate end and gradually move further away as your confidence grows.


Your horse is more likely to bolt if he’s away from home and feeling insecure. Bolting down a bridleway is more a test of your agility than your nerve. If you have to duck under a branch never look down. It can be hard to know when it’s safe to look up again. Lean down but look up.


You can stop a bolting horse by circling. It unbalances him which instantly slows him down. That’s easy in a field but impossible on a bridleway. Don’t panic. You might not be able to turn him but you can turn his head.


Put both reins and a clump of mane in one hand to steady yourself. With your free hand grab the rein halfway up. Pull it out and back as hard as you can. Then relax for a second before pulling again. By turning your horse’s head to the side you’ll unbalance him and stop him seeing where he’s going. He’ll have to slow down.


Don’t stand in your stirrups and pull. Sit down in the saddle and keep your legs on. Sharp tugs on one rein are more effective than pulling on both reins together. Your horse will just pull back and he’s always going to be stronger than you.


Using your voice is an excellent way of calming your horse down. Frightening as it may be, screaming “STOP!” won’t help! Say “Steady” as you tug and release your rein until he trots and finally walks. It will work. He needs reassurance when he’s frightened not telling off.


If your horse is nervous in traffic never ride out on your own. Wear high visibility clothing and ask a friend with a reliable horse to ride along side you. If you meet a lorry or tractor your friend can ask it to stop and go ahead to lead you past. They can wave and thank the driver while you keep both hands on your reins and smile.


If you’re having trouble stopping think about making some simple changes to your horse’s tack. There’s a new page (Link available from the top of the Home page) all about types of bit and nosebands here – which will hopefully help you to find your way through the hundreds of bits on the market and find something that works for you and your horse.


Bits and gadgets tend to follow fashion. Avoid them if you can. There’s no such thing as a quick fix. Ask your instructor’s advice about stronger bits too. They know you and your horse. If you’re nervous or just having trouble slowing down into a fence don’t think you’re being cruel by using a stronger bit. One squeeze on a pelham is infinitely better than a hundred desperate tugs on a rubber snaffle.


Being out of control is frightening. Especially at speed. Don’t let it put you off. When you know what’s happening – and why – you’ll find it easier to control your nerves and your horse.


Good luck!


If you’re having trouble with schooling, stable management or any other aspect of training your horse get in touch. You can post a question on the forum or contact me privately by emailing All my advice is free so you’ve got nothing to lose. And feel free to ask anything you like – however silly you may think it is – there’s always someone else out there who’ll be glad you asked so they didn’t have to!


For a more detailed look at getting your horse more responsive to your aids check out Teach Yourself 1. It gives you five exercises to use to get you and your horse working together. Get Started 1 shows you how to plan schooling sessions and what you should be aiming for every time you take your horse in the school.





  1. Sep 26, 2012

    I wish this column had been available years ago when I was doing recreational riding in the country. It might have prevented some wild gallops through the woods. lol Kudos, Lorraine, for your clear, helpful writing.

    • Lorraine Sep 27, 2012

      Thanks Patti – but look on the bright side – I bet you can grip like a limpet!

  2. Feb 18, 2013

    Excellent article Lorraine.
    One squeeze on a pelham is infinitely better than a hundred desperate tugs on a rubber snaffle.
    I’ve been saying this for years, usually to horrified gasps, in fact when we put a jointed pelham on very chunky 12.2 for my very slight daughter, quite a few people gave out to me, but at least the child was in control!

    • Lorraine Feb 20, 2013

      I couldn’t agree with you more – and I’m willing to bet your pony (and child!) do too! Too many people are quick to point the finger at stronger bits but when the alternative is ‘equine dentistry’ which would they prefer I wonder?! There is a time and a place for everything.


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