Control Your Energetic Horse

Too much barn time, too little exercise, or an exciting environment can leave your horse feeling full of himself, and you wondering how to ride him safely. Following our tips might mean the difference between a good ride and risking life and limb.

A cool breeze and frisky horses seem to go hand in hand. But a chill in the air isn’t the only reason a horse may be high-spirited. Too much barn time, too little exercise, or an exciting environment can leave your horse feeling full of himself, and you wondering how to ride him safely. Following our tips might mean the difference between a good ride and risking life and limb.

It’s a cool Colorado morning and Flash is feeling frisky. John Lyons puts his mount’s energy to good use practicing turnarounds?but only after an appropriate warm-up. Photo by Robert Dawson

1. Assemble your gear before you get your horse. You know the classic picture of the little child dressed to go out in the snow? As soon as mom has him bundled up, what does he have to do? You guessed it. Get yourself ready, gloves, helmet, tack?whatever?before you take your horse out of his stall. Put boots on your horse. If he’s frisky or the footing is wet, his feet are often making lots of small, poorly controlled steps, and he’s more likely to hit one leg with the hoof of another.

2.? “Ride where you can, and not where you can’t.” Though it may seem obvious, that saying really packs a lot of wisdom. Staying safe requires that you be realistic about where you can ride your horse safely today.

You know when and where you have really good control and where you’re taking chances. Just because you had a great gallop across a big open field

on a hot day last summer doesn’t mean that it’s wise to do it today, with the wind blowing and your horse feeling fresh. Since you know that horses are more easily spooked in some situations, it’s best to avoid challenging areas on a day when your horse is feeling particularly frisky. Consider riding in the arena, for instance, if you’re not 100 percent sure you’ll have good control on the trail.

John Lyons’ cool weather riding session actually begins on the ground. Ten to 15 minutes worth of work can do wonders to take the edge off. Here, Lyons works with Flash on the head-down cue. Photo by Robert Dawson

3.Work from the ground. Perform ground work until you’re confident that you’ll be safe in the saddle. There’s no reason to get in a rush to get on your horse. Ground work can do wonders to calm an excited horse. Be specific about what you want your horse to do. Your objective is control, not blowing off energy. Often when you allow an energetic horse to blow off steam, he ends up more excited than when he started. Instead, give your horse specific requests, where you put him under pressure momentarily, and then relieve the pressure when he does what you ask. As you repeat the movements and the releases, he’ll begin to settle into the exercise.

4. Use a bridle rather than a halter, even for ground work. Your horse will respond quicker and will be less tempted to pull on you when he’s wearing a snaffle bit. The less he pulls, the easier it is to control him. Remember that if he pulls on the reins or ignores your rein cues when you lead him, he’ll do the same when you’re riding.

5. Slow down, and control yourself first. Take a personal inventory of how you’re feeling and responding, and be sure to focus in a positive way on what you want to happen. It’s natural to get impatient with a horse when you sense he’s not paying attention to you, but don’t let those emotions rule. Make sure you’re clear about what you want your horse to do (not just what you don’t want him to do). The faster the horse moves, the slower your hands should move. That way, your actions are definite and your horse will have time to respond to them.

6.Focus on controlling specific pieces of your horse. Control the head, the shoulder, and hip. Tell your horse to do this, and then that, and then something else. Try steering his shoulders, rather than just his nose. If the shoulder doesn’t work, then use the hip. Perfect the “head down” cue. It’s as if there’s a switch in your horse’s withers, and when he drops his head, he calms down. To teach the cue at the walk, take the slack out of one rein. The moment he drops his head just a bit, release the rein. At first, he won’t know what you want, and he’s likely to think you want him to turn. But the timing of the release allows him to figure it out. If you can keep his head at a reasonable elevation, you can control the rest of him.

Once Flash is feeling settled, John Lyons is confident to ask for a collected canter. However, he advises that if your horse is feeling exceptionally frisky, you may want to work at the walk and trot. Photo by Robert Dawson

7. Talk out loud to your horse using accurate words. Providing a running commentary will help keep you focused on what’s physically happening. Don’t say, “Wow, Buddy. You are a nut case.” Instead, as you describe what’s actually happening, you’ll find yourself dealing better with it. “Wow, Buddy, you have a lot of energy, and your head is too high. Drop your head, please.”

8. Be proactive, not reactive. Practice being in control from the first steps of the ride, so you don’t end up having to react each time your horse reacts to a distraction. Don’t scold him for being energetic. Give him lots of little jobs so that he is absorbed with doing what you ask. Keep him busy.

9. Allow extra time for transitions. When your horse is feeling frisky, he’s not likely to be as attentive as other times. And the higher the horse’s energy, the more we’re tempted to jerk the reins. You don’t want to surprise him with a request. Watch your speed. Don’t work on anything complicated; instead, practice familiar exercises, realizing that your horse is not likely to even do those well at first.

10.? Allow adequate warm-up and cool-down time. Excited horses get sweaty. If it’s cold or wet out, watch for hypothermia, both in yourself and your horse. It’s easy to get focused on your riding and not realize you’re getting too cold or wet. Your horse is your buddy. He doesn’t want to be out of control. You’re with him to have fun. Try to enjoy his exuberance, but stay safe, too. Know when to end the ride.

“Frisky Day” Workout

  • Groom and tack horse (10-15 minutes): Don’t hustle your horse through this part. You’re mentally setting him up for the ride. If he normally gives you his foot nicely, but today he’s not focused, help him to settle down. Practice picking up feet until you feel that he’s no longer worried about that. Have him leave the grooming area with the mind-set you want for riding.
  • Warm up, starting on the ground (10 minutes): Pick one exercise and repeat it until your horse gets into a nice rhythm and you’re both relaxed. When you feel ready to ride, check your cinch, and mount up. Work on the same exercise from the saddle. Keep your horse walking until his strides are big, loose, and relaxed, but give him little jobs to do, such as moving his shoulders, dropping his head, crossing the arena, and so forth.
  • Move under saddle (20-30 minutes): Enjoy your ride or training session.
  • Warm-down or cool down (10-15 minutes): Whether you call it a warm down or cool down, allow your horse to walk to relax his body and mind.

John Lyons is known as “America’s Most Trusted Horseman.” His ideas and concepts in horse training have influenced every performance level, riding style, and horse breed throughout the world.
Lyons is one of the most sought-after trainers, speakers, demonstrators, and clinicians in the United States and abroad. His certified trainer program has graduated almost 300 trainers. Lyons and his wife, Jody, live and work in Parachute, Colorado. For more information, visit

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