10 Steps to a More Confident Horse

Here are 10 steps you can easily incorporate into your riding and training habits that will ensure your horse gains confidence every time you work together.

In this excerpt from her book What Horses Really Want, horsewoman Lynn Acton provides 10 steps you can easily incorporate in your riding and training habits that will ensure your horse gains confidence every time you work together and maintains his confidence, no matter what challenges you may face.

  1. Encourage Investigative Behavior, experimenting, and problem-solving. Horses must be comfortable with new equipment before you ask them to follow your instructions, so you start with investigative behavior. Allowing them time to experiment and figure things out helps horses make the best use of their cognitive abilities.

    Build confidence by allowing investigative behavior, as Bronze is showing here. Photo by Jerry Acton.

  1. Start on the ground and demonstrate whenever possible. When you’re on the ground, horses can see your instructions, and your own confidence. When they are absolutely comfortable with a piece of equipment, then you can mount up and repeat whatever you did on the ground.
  1. Keep a positive attitude. Laugh a lot, especially when things go wrong. Seriously. Corrections do not build confidence in people or horses. Laughing at mistakes instead dismisses them as unimportant, so you can move on in a positive way.Laughter is also a great stress buster for your horse as well as yourself. I have a friend who giggles when her horse spooks. She trained herself to do that. Her horses go from higher-than-a-kite anxiety to calmly focused faster than any I’ve ever met. Most of us are not laughing when our horses spook. That’s why we do confidence-building exercises on the ground where we can laugh.
  1. Start easy and break every task into tiny steps that ensure success. Since every success builds confidence, baby steps mean faster learning. Watch for hidden anxiety, and be sure that the horse stays truly relaxed, whether that takes three minutes or three weeks. You want him to think, “That was so easy, what’s next?”Breaking skills into small enough steps is not as simple as it sounds, especially since many of us have seen more demonstrations that glamorize speedy “training” based on pressure instead of patience. Calm horses making step-by-step progress provide no drama.
  1. Reward effort. You do not wait for a task to be completed or perfect. Instead, reward effort and improvement. Low-key rewards such as a stroke on the neck or word of praise can provide encouragement without interrupting what you’re doing. A special accomplishment or breakthrough in understanding earns more exciting rewards. The less confident a horse is, the more patience and rewards he needs. Use food judiciously, so it is not a distraction from learning.
  1. Go for precision, not speed. Do each step slowly and precisely, as dogs are trained in agility—and for the same reasons. It helps keep everyone safe and allows you to reward stepwise improvement. If a horse is to negotiate an obstacle at higher speed later, he already has the habit of placing his feet correctly and listening to his handler or rider.
  1. Keep sessions short. Short sessions promote efficient, stress-free learning. Both horse and human can maintain focus better, and you prevent boredom. Give the horse processing time in between sessions. You might feel you’ve accomplished nothing on any given day, but your most important accomplishment is your horse’s feeling of, “That was easy. I can do that!” Meanwhile, small layers of progress stack up to reliable skills. These help counterbalance the layers of negative experiences that so many horses have had. As a Tai Chi master once told me, “Once with focus is worth 50 times mindlessly.”
  1. Be patient while horses think things through. Early responses may be slow because horses have to think about what they are doing, just as you have to think when you first practice a new skill. Watch for understanding, ideally with a spark of excitement that says, “I get it. I can do it!” Quicker responses come from practice over time. Even familiar cues may need processing time in a new context.If a horse struggles with something and just does not seem to understand what you want, let it go. Come back to it in five minutes, a day, a week, or a month, and it is amazing how often he will respond more accurately. If not, try a different approach.

    Once horses understand what you’re asking and are confident doing it, they do not forget.

  1. Incorporate variety. Practice should be interwoven with other activities or obstacles to prevent boredom. A good rule in all activities is to mix opposites: new skills and old, fast and slow, easy and difficult, mental challenges with harder physical work, and so on. Switch gears often enough to keep the horse interested, but not so quickly he feels pressured or frustrated. Variety is necessary not only for mental health, but to work different muscles for fitness. The longer the session, the more variety is needed.
  1. Finish with a success. Always end with something the horse has done well. Leaving a horse with a positive feeling means he comes back next time with more confidence, which is your goal in the first place. I like the image Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister presents in Horse Training In-Hand: “You want to finish each session with a proud horse who wants to please you.”

    The result will be a horse who calmly faces the same challenge, and others, down the road. Photo by Jerry Acton.

This excerpt from What Horses Really Want by Lynn Acton is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here