tail swish
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

And I’m not talking about the panic you might feel emotionally, or even mentally (that’s a subject for another time).

I'm talking more about your physical reaction - the kind that your horse interprets as going into panic mode.

Let's say you are  working on transitions. You are going to the left at the trot, and you want your horse to pick up the canter at C, canter through the corner and down the rail to a 20 meter circle at E.  This is a standard series of movements for Training Level in dressage, but could be worked on for any discipline..

Has this ever happened to you?

In this scenario, your horse begins to scramble at your canter aid. Instead of reaching deeper underneath the body, rounding through your half-halt and striking off with the outside hind into a balanced canter, he goes faster faster faster, becoming choppy in the trot and heavy in the reins. You feel you need to pull on the reins to maintain your (and your horse's balance), but because you want the canter, you kick again, hoping that his increased energy will send him into the new gait.

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He just goes faster still. Maybe at some point, he does canter off, but now his head is high, his nose is stuck up to the sky and his back becomes hollow (and you can feel that because you start bouncing on something that feels like concrete). You have trouble steering, it feels like he's going to break stride any second, and you fight to not lean into his "motorcycle" lean on the circle.

When you go through this series of events that lead to a disengaged movement, it is easy to let everything go and allow the horse to scramble or break stride or maybe even buck! It's also fairly easy to fight the situation by pulling on the reins in attempt to slow down the legs or half-halt - but that results in futility as well because the horse is already so off balance that he simply cannot help you.

Even if you are not thinking "panic", your body may be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.

What to do?

1. Stop.

At the first hint of imbalance (probably indicated by legs speeding up), stop.

Pull up the horse.

Stop the legs.

Calm down.

Stop the panic.

Literally, gather yourself up. Gather your horse up. Gather your thoughts.

And immediately after you've stopped, try again.

2. The secret: go right back to what you were doing.

Start your trot again, reestablish correct balance, develop a good rhythm, and ask for the canter again.

Alternately, if you think your horse will have an easier time, canter right off from a walk.

In any case, stay focused on your exercise. If you were planning to do the canter transition, do the canter transition.

3. What not to do.

Don't change the subject and walk or trot around the remainder of the circle.

Don't rest. If you walk, canter off as soon as physically possible.

Don't charge through the process again. Remember that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting to get different results! 🙂

Don't get frustrated. Stay calm and controlled.

Don't quit too soon. Although you shouldn't drill something ad infinitum, be prepared to try it a few times to see if there is some improvement. You might be surprised to find that after the fourth or fifth try, the horse somehow just figures it out.

Have you ever stopped an exercise to gather up yourself and your horse? How did it work out?

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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also like:

Don’t Mistake the Halt For a Stop!   Don’t do it! Don’t mistake the halt for a stop. They are two entirely different maneuvers.

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

Stop Kicking the Horse! Kicking your horse only stuns, disturbs, imbalances, and hurts. Once you have better balance in your seat and a more consistent contact with the bit, aim toward using your legs with more purpose.

How to Ride Your Excited Horse in 5 Easy Steps: Let’s face it – horses aren’t always calm and accommodating. There are times when they can be… shall we say… a little over-exuberant!


  1. my first instructor always said, ‘if you feel out of control you can always just stop’. I stop often at lessons, whenever I feel either me or my horse have lost all focus. we stop and regather ourselves for a few moments. My present instructor just looks at me. But the horse appreciates it.

  2. Great article, I love how this article and others are about learning to connect with your equine friend in a calm, gentle manner. We have American Curly Horses and they are very willing. Our goal is to be good partners and share them with others.

  3. I find stopping particularly useful in complex movements or things that require a lot to think about. It’s too easy to get confused as to what each hand and leg is doing, especially when each is meant to be doing something different. Stopping allows you to think ‘right, ok, this goes there’ and then try again.

  4. Yes, it has happened to me. Basically because I am not black & white, not decisive enough in my transition. I request slowly in a grey sort of manner, rather then tell him “now we canter”. As I do not feel unnerved by this, it only last a few steps. It is just a reminder to be the captain of the ship and be black & white and quick in my commands so he does not misinterpret or does not make his own plan. But I do feel silly during those few steps. I like problems that I have control over and this is one of them.