The Worry Cup

Horses, and people, have a “Worry Cup”. The Worry Cup is a useful image when we’re trying to quantify worry, in a horse or in a human. Imagine a cup, maybe even a measuring cup, being filled up, bit by bit, with worry after worry. One big worry might fill the cup all the way up quickly, while many, many small worries might fill it up more slowly. But full is full, and what happens when the Worry Cup is full? It overflows, and that usually results in a crisis of some sort.

There are SO many variables in this thing, working with horses. The Worry Cup is a principle that allows us to perhaps understand worry in a less emotional and more rational way. If the Worry Cup is not full to overflowing, we’re probably okay. We would like there to be as little worry in the Worry Cup as possible, but there’s always room in the very bottom of the Worry Cup for a little something. The less that’s in there on a chronic basis, the more we can fit in unexpected worries as we go about doing things with our horse.

Here is a for instance. Picture a one-cup Pyrex measuring cup. Picture my horse, any horse. You can picture you or any other person too, but for this example, I’m going to use a horse. Let’s say the horse is concerned about things in his blind spot back behind his tail. That’s a quarter cup of worry right there. And, because my horse is worried about things in his blind spot behind him, he’s also worried about maybe needing to SWITCH eyes with things behind him. That’s another quarter-cup of worry, so now we’re up to a half-cup of worry. Now, I take him away from his buddy, and his separation anxiety adds another quarter of a cup of worry. We are now at three quarters of a cup of worry. Say I am not a very experienced rider, and say my cues are not very accurate, and not timed up with my horse’s feet and I often unbalance him with my cues. Add another quarter-cup of worry. We are now at a full one cup of worry. No matter what the next worry is, it is going to be the worry that pushes us over the top.

It’s the same for humans. As our worries begin to add up, we can get so we have no more room in our Worry Cup and a crisis occurs. When we apply ourselves to the study of horses and horsemanship, one of the things we are looking to achieve is a way to keep the Worry Cup empty enough to accommodate the things we maybe can’t help.

Furthermore and most importantly, I think that “foundation” worries (for the definition of “foundation”, please read my blog “Why Foundation Matters”) go on the bottom of the Worry Cup. Daily, superficial worries (wind, air temperature, footing, etc) go more towards the top. Foundation worries include the worry mentioned above, about the horse’s blind spot. There are many, many more foundation worries. Foundation worries are the really basic things that a good starting job and then life experience should take care of. But a shocking number of horses have “holes” in their foundations that add foundation worries to their Worry Cups. I expect that these horses live in a state of mild (or severe) stress, dreading the moment that one of these foundational worries will come up.

Here is another example of a foundational worry. In Georgia, we have lots of scrubby forested areas, and there is a profusion of vegetation in there, including these thick, strong, thorned vines. When we go in those areas to get cows out, we can easily have our horses get their feet and legs caught in these vines. Or the vines can get twisted up in their tails. The vines don’t break when they catch around a horse’s foot, so you can be in there, with your horse’s foot “tied” to a vine that comes from who knows where. The only solution is to get off and either extricate the horse’s feet or cut the vine with a knife. To help our horses with this part of our environment (and for many, many other benefits), we pick up our horse’s feet with ropes as part of their foundation. We know we can put a rope around our horse’s foot and stop him. We know he won’t panic. So when that vine stops his foot, he’s done that before and he knows what to do. Stop and let me help him. By giving him that foundation piece, we keep that worry out of the bottom of the Worry Cup. Our horses don’t worry about going in those areas, and they don’t worry when they get hung up. They’re prepared. Preparation equals less worry.

As humans, what I’ve seen, is our tendency to try to fix the things on the TOP of the Worry Cup, rather than doing the work of fixing the foundational issues more near the bottom of the Worry Cup. Frankly, not all horse owners would know HOW to fix a foundational worry. So we don’t ride our horse on windy days, or cold days, or during feeding time. We maybe give that stuff up rather than address the foundational worry that our horse doesn’t understand how to focus on us above some other things. I know the wind is blowing, but if I ask my horse to go a certain speed and go a certain direction, that SHOULD be possible, despite the wind. Wind is only on the TOP of my Worry Cup. If I have the bottom of my Worry Cup empty, it’s amazing how much room is in there for other stuff!

Avoiding a worry in the Worry Cup doesn’t remove it. Dealing with it removes it. If I have a horse who is worried about things in his blind spot behind him and I do everything I can to avoid having things appear out of his blind spot, that doesn’t remove the worry from the Worry Cup. The horse knows it’s in there, and it still “counts” as taking up room in the Worry Cup.

Another thing we have to consider is that the human themselves could be a worry in the Worry Cup. Obviously, if a horse is afraid of humans, then the human is a worry in the Worry Cup. But there are other cases where the human’s presentation, their feel, or their timing may not suit the horse and cause him worry. I’ve seen cases where a person’s personality was a worry to a horse. That horse and person may just not be a “good match”. Sometimes a person’s skill level is perhaps not quite enough to supply a horse with the clarity, accuracy or support he needs at the time, so that might add into The Worry Cup.

Whenever I hear someone say something like, “My horse is bothered by dogs on trail rides,” or “My horse doesn’t like bits,” or “My horse doesn’t like the feel of this fabric or that fabric,” I wonder if there are maybe a bit too many things in The Worry Cup. There are times when a horse just can’t take ONE MORE IRRITATION OR BOTHER because his Worry Cup is so close to full already. The less things are in his Cup is, the more tolerant he may be of small variations and irritations in his world.


For me, what I’ve chosen to do about The Worry Cup is to keep as much of the foundation stuff out of there as possible. I look for the stuff at the bottom of The Worry Cup, and when I’ve found all that stuff and taken care of it, then I see if there is anything else left that needs to be addressed. Many horses don’t need an EMPTY Worry Cup, they just don’t like a FULL Worry Cup. I’ve found that we get a deeper, more meaningful positive change for the horse if we can remove the foundational worries, rather than removing the superficial or situational worries. And I keep track of The Worry Cup (the horse’s and mine) all the time, just so I know where we stand and how much room I have left in there at any given time.


Then there’s the human’s Worry Cup – but really, everything we’ve said about the horse’s Worry Cup also applies to the human’s Worry Cup too.

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One thought on “The Worry Cup

  1. Kathryn Brown April 20, 2018 / 6:56 pm

    Thank you, Kathleen. This is a really useful analogy/image, and it supports so beautifully the huge importance Foundation has in horse work. I just love the way you’re a thinker and a writer and a horsewoman. Thanks for sharing this gem with us! -KB


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