Regaining confidence when working with horses

Have you lost your confidence when it comes to working with horses? These expert training tips will help you get it back!

‘I have lost my confidence around horses’ is one of the most common phrases we hear as clinicians. Confidence is a big topic to cover because it can be so specific to each person and its triggers can cause real fear which may need to be addressed by a psychologist. But from a training standpoint, there are a few tips that can help you regain self-assuredness in your horsemanship.

What leads to a loss in confidence around horses?

Often it has to do with worry that they might sustain an injury while riding or working with their horse. For people who already experience physical ailments, these feelings of nervousness may be more intense. These feelings are completely understandable – nobody wants to get hurt doing what they love. However, anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time with any animal knows that they can be unpredictable. With horses specifically, riding or training involves some risk of injury. Even the best trained horse can have its unpredictable moments. It becomes a problem when the horse displays more and more unpredictable behavior and the rider stops trusting the horse. This causes the rider to lose confidence in the horse and can lead to a loss of enjoyment.

Why does a horse become unpredictable?

In order to understand why a horse becomes unpredictable one thing must be understood about the needs of our equine partners. The most important thing to a horse is to feel safe. If this need is not met, the horse will react the way he feels he needs to in order to protect himself. This may seem dramatic, but as herbivores that are low on the food chain, horses are programmed to save themselves even in situations that aren’t actually life or death.

Remember that horses rely on a leader in the herd to keep them safe. If the horse feels he can’t rely on the rider or handler for safety he will take matters into his own hands. In many cases, the relationship will start to change and the horse will start to take control more often. This usually turns into a repetitive cycle – the horse acts unpredictably, this makes the rider nervous, the horse knows the rider is nervous and takes control of more situations, this scares the rider more and so on. If this sounds familiar, read on to stop the cycle!

Horsemanship to the rescue!

As soon as the horse feels that you (the rider or handler) can keep him safe, he’ll trust you to lead him through scary and everyday situations. If the horse trusts you, he’ll be more apt to listen to you because he feels protected in your presence. Things will become predictable again, and in turn you’ll feel safer with your horse. The way to get your horse to trust you is through clear communication, and the way to get there is by advancing your horsemanship.

Where to start

If you and your horse have had a volatile relationship, it is going to take some time to change that. You’ll have to step out of your comfort zone in order to change the relationship dynamic. If you don’t feel safe with where the horse is at you may need the help of a professional trainer. This will give the horse a chance to work with someone who is confident in order to regain his own sense of safety and get back on track. But whether or not you enlist the help of a trainer, you have the biggest job of all – to learn how to best communicate with your horse through body language.

1. Start on the ground

A great place to start working with your horse is in a safe enclosed area with minimal distractions. As a rider or handler, you have to be predictable – so establish which cues you’re going to use and make them clear. Considering that you’ll be communicating through body language, start by moving the horse’s body and your own in order to communicate! If you can move your horse’s body parts on the ground comfortably, he’ll understand what you’re asking him to do. It is a building block to furthering the relationship and it is also the beginning of clear communication.

The next thing you should do on the ground is build a willingness with the horse by incorporating desensitization work and some easy obstacle work (start with ground poles and build up). The more obstacles you introduce, the more he’ll understand that he can trust you because you have not put him in danger. The more willing the horse is to listen to you the more predictable he becomes, and the more self-assuredness is built.

2. Rebuild the foundation

Under saddle you should keep things simple. Again, give clear cues and focus on moving the parts of your horse’s body independently under saddle. Your goal should be to move the haunches, the front end, the ribcage (lateral movement), move the horse forward and backward, and of course, stop. It is important to spend a lot of time working on this because you need to know what each ‘button’ does and the horse has to understand which part of the body to move and when.

This type of work goes hand in hand with building a solid foundation on the horse. Plan to dedicate a lot of time to getting this aspect of training down pat, and do it in more than just one location. Once you can move each part of the horse, and he’s willing to stop and travel forward, backwards and sideway, you are on track to making him a predictable partner again.

Once you’ve gone through this relationship-building process with your horse, you’ll be a much better and more confident horseperson. Even though a lack of confidence can be disheartening, it can also be a journey to a better bond with your equine companion!