The Nervous, Anxious, Spooky, Reactive Horse- Part 2

Understanding the Worry Cup

Part 2 of this series from Shelley Appleton: I am now going to provide a short description of each category but please make sure you consider each of these dimensions of stress in each individual horse as a worry cup can be clog up with more than one type of stress and to address the problem you may need to target more than one issue.


2) Lack of Trust or Obedience or both

I could write pages and pages on this issue and this sits at number #2 worry to discuss regarding the worry cup because this was highly relevant to ME personally. Buck Brannaman says that a “horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see… sometimes you will”. My ego didn’t like realising that I was the primary cause of my horse’s anxiety issue. But it actually turned into a very empowering thing because when I accepted it I improved my understanding and skills and I have become a much better horse trainer today than I ever dreamed I could be.

From the age of 10 to 25 I had really only ridden a handful of horses and these horses were mainly a little older and rather forgiving. Then I finished university and saved up all my money and bought a flash warmblood. Unfortunately this horse proceeded to morph into the mirror of my soul and got more and more nervous the more times he spooked and I fell off. I labelled him sensitive and felt depressed about buying a horse with such a difficult temperament. I tried to find solutions to his behaviour by focusing on pain and discomfort issues (worry cup issues #1) and he was dosed up with everything from ulcer treatment to calming herbs and I even went to the extremes of getting him to sniff calming aromatic oils before I rode him! None of it worked and I never competed him for many years. In fact, I only ever rode him in a 20 meter circle at the top of my arena. I rode that circle so much it turned into a trench!

Then I met my partner, a good horseman who after enduring watching me ride this horse around my 20 meter trench a few times, offered to ride him for me. Well that horse calmly walked, trotted and cantered around that arena without even batting an eyelid at scary corner, the tree of death or the truck that rattled up the road. The truth is my partner was a confident rider, who stayed in the present and who focused purely on the job and direction at hand. He looked up and forward and directed the horse to a destination after destination….from here to there. The mirror of his soul was calm and confident. Me on the other hand was nervous, I spent my time focused on the “what ifs”, looking to avoid anything potentially scary myself (so my focus was not where I was going but in the scary bushes) and defensively riding in a death grip to avoid spooking. Horses are the master of body language and my horse detected instantly that I felt unsafe which made him not trust me but enter a state of hyper-vigilance and then when he reacted to potential threats to his life and spooked I would lash out with my own fear with my whip or spurs which completely did nothing but punish the horse for feeling unsafe. Needless to say scary corner was very scary for good reason as I conditioned him to fear it.
So I was making him feel uncomfortable in my death grip, unsafe with my own nervousness and conditioned his fear with my aggression and the worry cup was filled to over flowing but there was something else I was doing that deteriorated my cues/aids and was also not helping address the spooking behaviour. Just say I was riding on the left rein and my horse started looking at something in the bushes next to my arena on the left hand side. As he approached his head would raise up and then he would spook off to the right. I knew he was going to spook so I would normally just turn him off to the right to avoid the spook. Every time I did this and responded to him thinking and pulling off to the right to avoid the thing on the left or he spooked right I was eroding my horse’s obedience to the rein and leg cues/aids. So when he felt unsafe responding to rein or legs were merely suggestions and every time he got worried this was reinforced either my me allowing him to change the line or by him changing the line and going against my line directed by my reins and legs. I make sure now that I am conscious of the horse being responsive to my cues/aids, so if I have a horse that starts for example, looking left and therefore pulling on the right rein to focus on what it wishes to look at left, I will ask it to look right. If I have a horse spook right I will immediately turn a horse left into the fence to reinforce responsiveness and obedience to my cues/aids.

So to eliminate this worry from the worry cup, you have to stop looking for trouble yourself, look up and look forward and ride your horse places and stay in the present and if you get a spook or a shy focus on reinforcing your rein and leg response and not on punishment.

3) Mental Anguish

There is an Australian horseman called Ross Jacobs and he is a prolific blog writer and I get a lot out of what he writes. Ross encourages people to consider horses’ thoughts and feelings and how everything a horse does starts with a thought. In training we apply cues and motivate with pressure to capture and direct a horse’s thought, making our idea become the horse’s idea. But if we are not consistent and predictable with a cues and application of pressure the horse cannot identify how to avoid pressure then the result is that the horse lacks clarity and with a lack of clarity the horse experiences stress and mental anguish. Poor training techniques and application of pressure that results in discomfort and a lack of clarity can clog up a worry cup.

This is by far the most common form of worry I see clogging up worry cups of horses and the easiest to rectify. Learning how to teach horses is something I have written about previously in my blog and I can thank Australian horseman Warwick Schiller for teaching me how to break horse training down into very small achievable steps for a horse (known as shaping behaviours) from the ground up into the saddle to create confident, calm and responsive horses. Five years ago I never really considered the mind of a horse when I was riding it; I was focused on biomechanically manipulating it. While people with tremendous skill and stable seat can apply this kind of physical manipulating pressure the majority of dressage riders like me cannot do this. So the horse can perceive a wall of pressure that it cannot avoid or control and depending on the individual horse will respond to this situation by expressing a variety of manifestations of anxiety. Some will become dull, heavy in the hands or dead to the leg. Others will try to escape, rush and become hyper-vigilant and reactive. While others will perform what is known as conflict behaviours e.g. buck, rear, pigroot, rushing backwards etc. which can then result in learned evasions as the behaviour led to the release of pressure by displacing the rider or removing the rein pressure. Therefore, once learned and a similar situation presented to a horse again, the horse is likely to repeat the conflict behaviour.

Therefore, learning how to apply pressure (teach horses) and minimise that pressure (learning to sit and ride a horse well) so the horse can gain clarity and a sense of control over pressure they are subjected to during training is a way to remove this source of worry from the worry cup.


(Part 3 of this series will further explore the worry cup, and the other 5 categories- stay tuned, and subscribe to be sure to not miss an article)


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Shelley Appleton

Shelley Appleton is a lecturer at the School of Pharmacy at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, a dressage rider, and horse training coach. After reading and watching Evidence-Based Horsemanship (EBH), a book and DVD by Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black, and working with horseman Warwick Schiller, she made a “massive conceptual leap” which synthesized her horsemanship with her grasp of the science. This year, she will be a guest lecturer in the Horse Physiology and Behavior unit at Murdoch University. “My focus is on human learning and how to make decisions when working with horses. So much horsemanship focuses on the horse’s ‘problems’ or its ‘training’ when really the deciding factor is who is hanging onto its lead rope or sitting in the saddle."


  1. Brilliant article, I can’t wait for the next ones. Shelley writes in an easy to understand way and makes you have lots of ah ha! moments.

  2. Loving all this….will definitely be considering my horse differently from now on!

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