Back From the Brink: Managing Emotional Meltdowns in Horses

Last Updated on March 24, 2022 by Allison Price

Horses are more emotionally than humans, there is no doubt about that. Horses are prey animals and herd animals. They learn to adapt to the emotions of others (herd mentality), and then react accordingly. Prey animals see it as a matter of life and death.

All horses respond to a fearful horse. Horses are prone to mimic the emotions of other horses, which is why it’s important to control our reactions to horses who are experiencing emotional overload.

Horses can feel the same emotions as humans: happy, sad, scared and angry. It is possible to identify a horse experiencing an emotional meltdown, even though we don’t always know what the horse is feeling. This behavior can range from panicking, throwing tantrums over something that he doesn’t want to do, to being overwhelmed and shutting off. It is often frightening and dramatic.

A horse should be calm, focused, and consistent in all aspects of its behavior. But in a perfect world, horses are always calm, steady, and stable. Here are some tips and my management philosophy to help you recognize and manage emotional changes in your horse. I will also discuss technical skills that you can use to help your horse regain his thinking faculties when his behavior is out of control.

Meltdowns in Horses

He’s not my horse… he never acts like this at home!

No matter what age, breed, temperament or training level, any horse can succumb to emotionality. There are many possible causes. These could be anything from a startle response that causes a horse to fly (rabbit jumps from a bush), over-stimulation in a frenetic setting (like a parade; “first trip to the town”), to separation anxiety (herd bound), or gradually building anxiety that suddenly overwhelms (often due to underlying pain issues or fear), or tantrums or refusals (perhaps the result of poor handling or fear), or a horse being asked to do something it isn’s not capable of (“over-facing”)

Horses experiencing emotional meltdowns will have their heads up, stiffen or stiffen their tails, and a distressed expression. They may also be shaking throughout their bodies (“on the muscle”), calling out and shaking their heads. Sometimes, horses that are overwhelmed will shut down and become lethargic, heavy, and unresponsive. This behavior is often called “sulling up”.

No matter what the reason, horses that are emotionally overwhelmed will not be able to think or train. The horse can’t think well unless it relaxes first. Training cannot occur if the horse is not in a thinking mood. The immediate goals are to relax and regain control of your horse. Next, you need to bring him back into focus. Your job as a horse rider or horse handler will be easier if you can recognize subtle changes in your horse’s emotions and take proactive steps to get him back on track.

Thinking + Calm = Trainable

An attentive, willing, and compliant horse will have a relaxed posture with its head, tail, and ears down. It can either be focused on the handler/rider or its eyes on nothing. Both ears are open to the cues of the rider when they get out of the saddle. The horse will look at the handler calmly if asked to do something from the ground. A happy horse will lower its head and relax, sometimes bending one of its hind legs to rest. This is different from cocking the leg tightly as in a kick threat.

There will be times when your horse is emotionally overextended. Pay attention to your horse’s posture, breathing, and tension (fight or flight posture). Understanding the horse’s emotional origins will be easier if you can accurately read its communicative gestures (like pawing, switching its tail, tossing its head, and pawing.

It is crucial to analyze the situation in order to determine the motivation for the horse’s behavior. This will allow you to choose the most appropriate response. Are you observing fear, startle, separation anxiety or total mutiny? Are the horses trying to escape from something? Or are they pulling toward the barn? Is the horse trying to escape from something or pulling toward the barn?

Horses that are emotionally overwrought may become angry, fearful, defiant or refusing to listen, search, or despair, which can trigger behaviors such as flight or fight reactions. Horses can spiral into a vicious cycle of flight-like behavior, which is something we know. It is easier to bring the horse back into a relaxed, compliant state if intervention is done quickly. It is more difficult to remove horses from a cycle of behavior if they stay in it for too long.

The key to managing horses with extreme emotions is to be aware of any changes in their emotional state, analyze them and then take immediate action to stop the horse from becoming depressed.

Training Philosophy That May Help

In my decades of experience with horses, I have learned that excessive emotion in horses is not a problem for training, but a mental problem. To make the horse productive, I have to get him calm, relaxed, and thinking again before anything can be done with him. I must calm and de-escalate any horse that is not cooperating with me when loading him into a trailer, or crossing a sticky water hazard. If the horse is acting out, I ask the horse to lower his head, relax its posture, take a deep breathe, and sometimes stroke the horse gently for a correction.

It is crucial that I manage my emotions when dealing with horses’ emotional outbursts. I must be able to stay in the present and take deliberate, methodical steps. To slow down my reactions and cues, I’ve learned to inhale deeply as I relax my body. It is my responsibility to keep myself in a positive thinking state, to take control of the situation and to be proactive. It is possible to become passive, self-doubtful, or display contradictory body language.

To get a horse back on track, I must first establish a relationship with him. I will give the horse simple instructions and basic cues, such as turn right, turn left, stop, and go. I will praise the horse for its response to these simple cues and tell it how great it feels to be praised. I will try to regain the horse’s responsiveness as quickly and easily as possible.

Horses are flight animals and have a hardwired brain, physical, and behavioral for movement. Horses learn better when they’re moving. The handler or rider can regain control by using forward motion. Horses cannot be trained if they don’t have the ability to move forward freely and willingly. Sometimes, however, a horse’s movement in the wrong direction can trigger the flight response. I need to be ready to stop the flight immediately.

Sometimes, I address horses who are emotionally overwhelmed by people. This means that I consider it a mental issue. I need to slow down my emotions and control my reactions. To get the horse thinking again, I will use simple cues and reactions to encourage him. It is often best to keep a disoriented horse moving. A horse that is moving forward is easier to control, but I have to be ready to stop him if things get outof control.

Technical Skills to Use

The rider/handler must be able to control your breathing and keep your eyes on the ground. Horses mimic animals, which communicate primarily through gestures and postures. Horses will benefit from your ability to control your presence and call upon these skills when needed.

These skills will allow you to control flight and stop horses from moving into your path or wanting to bolt.

You can control a horse who is aggressive, threatening, or volatile by bending its neck. When I have concerns about the control of a horse, whether it is from the ground or the saddle, I ask that the horse’s neck be slightly bent while I ride or lead. It is easier for the horse or me to overcome a horse whose neck is straight in front of him. Riders must avoid putting too much pressure on their outside reins when they bend. This could cause the horse’s head to ache and lead to a run through the bridle.

Engage the horse in an activity that he is familiar with to de-escalate any emotional reaction and regain control. You can cue your horse to respond to you. This will get it thinking and then you can praise him. Consider cues like go, stop and turn.

Groundwork basics such as circling work and changes of direction, disengaging the hindquarters, and disengaging the hindquarters – if riding, don’t be afraid to get up to school your horse from ground to get him back on track. These groundwork exercises are important tools in your toolbox. Groundwork can help you gain authority and confidence in your horse.

These hard skills could be a topic for a book, not a blog. It can take many years to master. Over time, you will acquire the soft skills that are required by horses.

All of the resources that you will need to master these skills are available through my online member programs. These include how-to videos and audio podcasts as well as instructional articles by the hundreds. Go to to find out more.

End of the Day

Understanding and recognising the horse’s emotions is key. It is crucial to keep calm and focused when working with emotional horses. This requires practice and deliberate practice. The rider/handler must be able to control the horse’s emotions while still maintaining control and authority.

Nobody ever claimed that riding or training horses would be easy. It can take many years to develop the skills, knowledge, and judgment necessary to manage difficult situations with horses. You already have a good start from reading his blog. I hope you gained more insight into managing horses’ emotions and have some tips you can use immediately!

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!