Ask an Expert

Training a Spooky Horse

August 20, 2012

Horses learn best when their education is layered in steps.


I am working with a 3-year-old gelding. He hasn't been ridden more than three times, all of which were a year ago. My question has to do with bringing this big guy down to my size. I have started a few horses in the past, and it runs in the family, so I am well aware that there are horses that horsemen just have to draw the line on. This one is pretty close to that line. He is spooky, and if I try to lunge him, he gets very angry and tries to either run me over or rear. I can get a saddle on him, but my fear is that if I can't simmer this big boy down, I'm going to get hurt. Any tips on how to gain control of his head from the ground and saddle? Or any tips on how to calm him down where I can get his attention to begin working with him from his back?

— Coalton Bland

For this question, we sought out Darlena Jennings, a Certified Horsemanship Association clinician and master instructor.


Coalton, it does sound like you have a dominant and somewhat spooky gelding on your hands. The good news is he is young, and time is an asset with any horse.

From your letter, I understand you have some experience training horses and have some family knowledge to draw on. These are valuable assets. To “bring this big guy down to your size,” you likely just need to frame some of the training techniques you already have into small, manageable pieces. I respect your statement about knowing when to draw the line with a horse that may be over-facing your comfort zone as a trainer. I also believe the opportunity and willingness to work with more challenging horses expands our abilities as trainers. Remember, ground work is never wasted. It will allow you to get a better understanding of your horse and yourself, and assist you in making a decision to proceed toward under saddle work or move him on to a more experienced trainer.

Training Philosophies

Set the stage for positive learning. Know what you want; know how you are going to ask for it; be fair; and be prepared to follow through.

Horses learn best when their education is layered in steps. Do not proceed to Step 2 until Step 1 is well established, and so on. This is even more important when working with a nervous or spooky horse.  Make your goals for each step very small so that they are easily attainable, allowing plenty of opportunities to reward this young horse and yourself for your progress.

Prior to beginning any training, we need to remind ourselves that we communicate with horses via pressure and release. Pressure of some sort is applied, and when the horse gives the desired response, he is rewarded with the release of pressure. Just because a horse responds favorably once does not mean he has learned the specific movement. He will require repetition to truly learn. The more nervous the horse, the more repetition he will require to gain confidence and build trust. With a dominant horse, repetition will gain ongoing respect.

To create a learning environment where your horse can feel safe, it is very important that your requests of him are fair and consistent, i.e., ask for the same thing, the same way, each and every time. If a trainer is not confident about a technique, he may give up and try another approach. This is valid only after an amount of persistence has been given to the first technique. Flip flopping from one technique to the next, without ever gaining the desired response, will only lead to confusing a horse and adding to his nervousness or dominance. Be persistent!

Persistence and consistency can also be equated with the phrase “ask, tell and command.” The pressure we use to gain the desired response should be applied very gently at first (perhaps a visual or voice cue), then increasing increments of firmness added until the correct response is obtained. As soon as the correct response is obtained, the pressure should be immediately released. This release is the moment when the learning occurs.

It is important to note that if you stop part way through the ask, tell and command phase, without achieving the desired response, this will be perceived by the horse as a release, and he will learn to balk or ignore you. When you introduce something new to a young horse, you need to ask first, even though we know we are not likely to get the desired response, simply because he does not know yet. Eventually, if we always ask first, then follow through with tell and command when necessary, he will start to put it all together and happily respond to the subtle “ask” cue.

It is important to know the difference between a direction and a correction. A direction must be asked for first, and then followed through to tell and command, if necessary. A correction in the form of a “scold” is applied, if, for example, the horse walks into your space without being invited, by going directly to the command phase (see more on this later).

Need help training a difficult horse or mastering a tricky maneuver? Become a better horseman today by downloading AQHA's Borrow a Trainer report, brought to you by The American Quarter Horse Journal. This report is packed with 11 valuable lessons from today's top trainers.

Lesson 1

In this lesson, you need to establish the horse's respect for your space, train him to back up when asked and teach him to only move toward you on your request.

  • With a rope halter and long lead (12-15 feet), with minimal metal hardware on the lead, find an open flat area to work. Stand about 2 ½ feet in front of your horse and face him with the end of the lead rope in your hand and the slack on the ground between you and him.
  • Make eye contact with him, lift your hand holding the rope to the height of your face, and raise your index finger (this index finger gesture is similar to the one we use to ask someone to wait a moment). This is the “ask phase” and cue for your horse to back up. He likely won’t, because he has not yet learned, but this is eventually what we want him to respond to.
  • When he doesn’t respond after approximately 3 seconds, ante up to the “tell phase” by snaking the lead rope back and forth so it lightly flaps under his chin. He will likely raise his head and stiffen, but do not stop. Give him another 3 seconds of this.
  • If he does not respond with a step backward, ante up to the “command phase” by vigorously snaking the rope from side to side flapping the halter against his cheeks. Keep it up until he backs up a step. Be prepared to be persistent, and be prepared that your arm may get very tired in the first few attempts at this exercise.
  • Remember the release is when the learning occurs, so do not stop until he backs and as soon as he does, even if it is only one of his feet, stop.
  • After a pause of about 10 seconds (enough time for him to absorb and process the release), begin again with a lift of your index finger and so on.
  • Repeat until he is backed up to the end of your lead rope.
  • Let him stand there for a few minutes and correct him if he moves toward you (see below).
  • After he has stood well for a few minutes, invite him toward you by lowering your eyes to his front feet and stroking the lead rope in a “come here” fashion. You want him to stop 2 ½ feet from you, so at about 4 feet, lift your eyes, your finger and the end of the rope.  If he doesn’t stop, snake th

    e rope.

It is important throughout this exercise that you do not move your feet. We want our horse to move away from our pressure, thereby establishing respect and leadership. If he moves into you, and you move away, you will be giving him leadership. This is where the correction would need to be applied. If, at any time, your horse moves toward you when you have not requested, go directly to the command phase by snaking the rope vigorously from side to side to let him know very clearly that he is to have respect for your space.

Repeat this exercise, sending him out to the end of the rope and inviting him back, until he is responding well. If you are consistent and persistent, he will learn it quickly. The more nervous or dominant the horse, the more repetition he will need to gain confidence and/or respect.

Training a horse yourself doesn't mean you have to do it alone. Download AQHA's Borrow a Trainer report, brought to you by The American Quarter Horse Journal. Find out what you need to know with these 11 valuable lessons from experienced trainers.

Lesson 2

In this lesson, use lunging to establish verbal and visual communication cues and a work ethic.

Prior to each lunging session, review Lesson 1. This is a good foundation to prevent your horse from attempting to run you down when you start to lunge.

Be sure that your equipment is adequate. A rope halter is quite comfortable when there is slack in the lunge line, but also has a bit of bite to it that will send a meaningful message when you need to ante up.

Decide on a lunging language that will be used consistently and decide on what your ask, tell and command phases are going to include. Know yourself that you are willing and able to follow through to the command phase when necessary.

Here is an example of what I use, if the desired response is for the horse to walk:

  • Ask: To encourage the horse to walk, say “walk on.”
  • Tell: Keep the whip low and pointed directly lateral to your hip (not toward him). Repeat “walk on,” lift and drop the whip to hip level and back to ground. Give him a couple of chances to respond.
  • Command: Repeat “walk on,” and tap his bum with the lash.

If the desired response is to encourage the horse to trot:

  • Ask: “Cluck” (make your clucks a two-beat rhythm like the desired gait.)
  • Tell: Continue to “cluck” and tap the whip on the ground in a definite two-beat rhythm.
  • Command: Continue to cluck and tap his bum with the lash.

If the desired response is to encourage the horse to stop:

  • Ask: Plant your feet and drag the whip end on the ground in front of you so that it crosses under the lunge line and in front of his motion.
  • Tell: Say “whoa,” keep whip in front with the end on the ground.
  • Command: Repeat “whoa,” and give a series of sharp tugs and releases on the lunge line until he stops.

In the beginning, the majority of your lunge work will be trot to stop to trot. The trot is the easiest gait to establish your circle, rhythm and work ethic. It is important to note that when the horse is doing what you have asked, stop asking. For example, once he is trotting, keep your hands low and the lunge whip “turned off” by resting the tip on the ground. He may need a cluck or a raise of the whip now and then to maintain the gait, but do not chase him or lift your arms like a bird of prey when he is trotting well. It is our eventual expectation that he will continue to trot until he is asked to do otherwise.

Repeat this lunging session as many times as is required to get your horse responding well to the “ask” for trot and “ask” for stop cues.

Be unrelenting when it comes to the correction of him moving into your space. If he comes toward you after the stop, go directly to the correction phase of Lesson 1 by vigorously snaking the lunge line and flapping his halter until he goes out to the perimeter of your circle.

If he tries to run you down when asking for the trot, or during the trot, then go directly to the command phase for trot and get him moving forward on the circle. It may be perceived as harsh to go beyond command to demand, and deliver a couple of sharp snaps on the bum; however, this is dominant and dangerous behavior that must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. My guess is, if he is scolded consistently for bad behavior, he will come around very quickly.

If he rears during lunging, go to the command phase for trot. Send him forward on his circle and be demanding! If you stop because you are fearful of the rear, he will learn that rearing equals release and, therefore, must be the correct response. You need him to know that rearing equals correction and hard, hard work in order to deter that behavior.

After being corrected for rearing and running you down, he may look for other ways to avoid your leadership, such as attempting to leave the circle and drag you with him. This is where your equipment is important. Your rope halter has cheek knots which will bite with a series of sharp jerks. Correct him with this, but be sure not to hold a grudge. Once he comes back on the circle, give him slack and ask him to work forward again. It is more effective to correct your horse when he is thinking about doing something, rather than after the fact. Just before he decides to leave the circle, he will look out, turn his ears out, and flex his jaw to the outside. If you see this happen, correct it quickly with one good sharp jerk and release of the lunge line.

Once he is lunging well and responding to the “ask” cues consistently, you can add tack to his lunging sessions and eventually progress toward riding him.

Concluding Thoughts

In the meantime, there are plenty of fun ground sessions that can challenge you and your horse. My philosophy with ground work is, more is better, and it is the foundation for all of your in-saddle work.

Prior to riding, ask yourself: “Have I established enough respect, leadership and trust with my ground training to feel confident to proceed to under saddle work?” If your confidence is shaky, you will not be effective with follow through. This might be the time to “draw that line” and decide to proceed with another, more experienced trainer.

Good luck!

— Darlena Jennings, Certified Horsemanship Association clinician and master instructor.

The Certified Horsemanship Association, an American Quarter Horse Association alliance partner, seeks to promote excellence in safety and education for the benefit of the horse industry. CHA certifies instructors and trail guides, accredits equestrian facilities, publishes educational manuals, produces how-to DVDs and hosts regional and international conferences. For more information, visit the CHA website or call (800) 399-0138. To find a certified horseback riding instructor or accredited equine facility near you, go to

*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting an AQHA Professional Horseman.




Getting help with a difficult task means you're one step closer toward achieving your goal. Download AQHA's Borrow a Trainer report, brought to you by The American Quarter Horse Journal, and learn new tips and techniques for training horses from the horse industry's top trainers.