Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Confident Horse

Mona at Panic and the Pony asked some good questions on a recent post - I'm reordering and numbering them for reference:
  1. Nature or nurture? 
  2. Have any of you had to build up a horses confidence?
  3. How long does it take to build confidence?  
  4. If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders? 
  5. Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horses confidence?   
First, briefly:

1. Nature or nuture?  Yes, and yes.

2.  Have any of you had to build up a horse's confidence?  Yes - Dawn was very high-strung and nervous and reactive, and braced when I started to work with her.  Pie had to recover from the upset of our bad accident in the summer of 2011.  Red started out very nervous, reactive and fearful.

3.  How long does it take to build confidence? It depends - on the horse's basic temperament and how the horse is handled.  Every ride and every interaction you, or a trainer, has with a horse, either builds or destroys confidence.

4.  If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders?  Yes, and no - it depends on the horse, the trainer and the rider and what you invest in the process.

5.  Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horse's confidence?  Yes, for any horse, from the least confident on up.

Here's what I believe makes for a confident horse:
Basic temperament. 
Handling, training and experience. 
The rider - consistency, reliability and connection. 
Internal softness - the inside of the horse expressed in relaxation, willingness and confidence.  This is where training of the rider, and exercises to do with the horse, all with an objective of softness, come in.
Temperament is just one variable, but it's not the only one nor is it determinative.  And it isn't breed-specific - I've seen calm and confident TBs and Arabians, and worried and scared QHs.  Horses come - are born - with varying degrees of natural confidence, just like people.  But the least naturally confident horse - the most reactive and nervous - can learn through positive experiences to become much more confident, and the most confident horse can have its confidence damaged or even destroyed.  There's a balance here - it's easier to damage the confidence of a less naturally confident horse and it's harder to do so with a much more naturally confident horse.

How the horse is handled and trained makes a huge difference to a horse's confidence - and it's even more important for a horse that is naturally less confident.  A horse that is naturally more confident has more margin for error.  The more experiences a horse is exposed to, the better, so long as it is done in a positive way, where the horse is rewarded for trying, without coercion or punishment.  Punishing a horse that is already worried or scared or confused is a recipe for disaster - there's no faster way to destroy confidence, particularly with a sensitive horse.  There are cases of horses that have been coerced and overwhelmed (coercive "desensitization") who become shut down and potentially explosively dangerous.  Consistency and reliability are key - and they must be delivered without emotions, other than the positive emotions of encouragement.

Red is a good example of a horse that lacked self-confidence.  He's a very intelligent, very emotionally sensitive fellow, and we expect he experienced some mishandling in his past. He was always worried - that something bad/scary would happen, or that, if he tried to do something new/different when asked, he would be punished for getting the wrong answer - he was defensive, and shut down and even afraid at times.  He also didn't trust people to provide him leadership that would keep him secure.  Sometimes this manifested as "misbehavior" or even "defiance" or "aggression" - all these terms would impute an intent that he just didn't have - he was just confused/worried.  His lack of self-confidence was so great that he struggled initially even with a confident rider - my trainer Heather.

To build self-confidence in the horse/human interaction, a horse that is lacking in self-confidence has to start by borrowing confidence from the rider.  A confident rider isn't a rider who's aggressive, or dominant, or demanding or controlling - a confident rider calmly and consistent provides guidance and direction to the horse, and is considerate of the horse and its feelings, careful to listen to the horse and its tries and asks, and fundamentally reliable - the horse can count on the rider's support and guidance.  A good trainer can help a horse a long way down the road on this, whereas a bad one can wreak a horse's confidence, sometimes for good.

If you're not a confident rider (this has nothing to do with equitation skills or being able to coerce a horse into doing things), you're best off on a supremely confident horse and one with a low-key, basically relaxed personality.  If you're having confidence problems, take a good hard look at where you are with your horse - trainers make good money on overhorsing their clients - if your horse has to be lunged half to death before you can ride it or the trainer's constantly getting on it to "ride it for you", something's wrong. And trust your gut . . . if you think you are getting bad advice from your trainer or don't like the way you or your horse are being treated, do something about it.  Don't turn your brain or your conscience over to your trainer along with your wallet.

If you've got a horse that's more naturally high-strung and reactive, and are up to this - your riding skills are good enough and you've got the right mindset - don't just have the horse trained by someone else, since it won't necessarily transfer over to you - have the horse get some training and then work together with the trainer to get the two of you on the same page.  A more high-strung and reactive horse can be confident, but just getting some training done and then having the horse go back to a rider who's not equipped to provide the horse the leadership it needs will result in things pretty quickly reverting to where they were.

A young, green horse with a basically calm temperament who's never been messed up (Pie) will come along on the confidence scale much more quickly than one who's more high-strung and reactive (Dawn and Red) or one who's been mishandled (Red) - either over-pressured or mistreated or from a situation where the owner didn't set appropriate boundaries and expectations (Red had both circumstances, which made him particularly challenging).  For example, when I sent Pie and Red out for training in the spring of 2012 - I also was up there to ride both of them while being coached by my trainer twice a week in addition to the 4 days a week she worked with them - Pie was back home in a month (not finished but well on the road), whereas Red was there for 90 days and occasionally he still has moments where his confidence evaporates, although they're much rarer now - he's come a very long way.

There are definitely exercises that build self-confidence in the horse:

Leading - having a horse that is confident of what your spatial boundaries are, and knows how to lead, builds self-confidence in general.  There are lots of different leading exercises to do - see the sidebar Working Towards Softness.

Patience and self-calming - exercises like just standing around and ground tying help the horse learn to relax into stillness.  A key to this is that you need to provide the horse with a quiet, calm place to be - with you.  Again, look at the sidebar under Working Towards Softness.

Grooming - this is why full service is a very bad idea (in my opinion) - building connection through daily grooming and hoof handling is very powerful.

Scary object training - this needs to be about working together with the horse to help them learn to trust you - it isn't really about desensitization, it's about building confidence.  I've found clicker training to be quite helpful in this area with a worried horse, to encourage them to try.  The best desensitizing is exposing horses to lots of things in a way that builds their confidence in human leadership (in general - some of this will generalize from one person to another) and your leadership (in particular).

Any and all of the softness exercises on the sidebar.  Softness is really an internal thing - it's a physical and mental relaxation that expresses itself in the work.  It's all about providing the horse a mental and physical "soft space" to exist in together with you - it's a huge confidence builder and also provides a place for you to ask the horse to go together with you when things become stressful.

Gradually exposing the horse to new experiences - without overwhelming them or forcing them - particularly in the company of calmer, more experienced horses.

Horses gain confidence in riders who set consistent expectations for desired behavior - inconsistency only confuses the horse and eventually leads the horse to discount you as a reliable leader (leadership has nothing to do with being your horse's "alpha" or dominating the horse).  One of the most fundamental aspects of this is setting personal space boundaries into which the horse may not move.  When people say their horse doesn't "respect them", they either mean that their horse doesn't do what they want (which 99% of the time means that the horse doesn't understand what is wanted, can't physically do what is wanted or has no confidence in the particular situation or with the particular rider - none of this has anything to do with "respect"), or that the horse is "pushy" (think about the attribution of intent in that language - words matter) or walks all over them.  A horse that walks all over someone isn't a horse that lacks "respect", it's a horse that doesn't know where the person's boundaries are because the person has failed to set them, consistently - and this means every single time.  Consistency leads to relaxation - the horse doesn't have to worry about what the rules are or that they are going to vary from moment to moment.  Consistency in personal space, handling - leading, grooming, hoof picking, etc. - consistency in standing when ground tied or mounting, all these things build in relaxation and confidence.

There's another type of consistency that's very important - in your offering softness to the horse at all times - the horse needs to know that you will offer a soft spot that the horse can always find and relax into.  This has nothing to do with "being nice" or going goo goo over your horse or feeding them treats or kissing them on the nose - it's about providing the horse calm leadership and mental and physical softness that the horse can find and relax into.  If you need to upgrade your riding skills to be able to do this, then do it - I did this in the spring 2012 when my bad accident with Pie exposed some deficiencies in my riding skills and attitudes.

To build confidence, the horse need you to help them through - provide active, soft leadership in - situations that might otherwise be scary or worrisome.  If your horse is concerned or alarmed, do something, don't just sit there, and do something right away - don't even wait a second - give the horse a task you can do together that the horse can successfully do and be rewarded for by finding the soft spot.  Don't force the horse to do the thing that is the problem or "face the object" - that typically results in reinforcing the horse's concern - ignore the problem and work right along back towards it as the horse is able and pretty soon you'll likely find the problem has just evaporated.  And don't punish a horse for spooking - "he's just doing it to get me" - no, he isn't - he's either learned that there's something scary there - usually from his rider's expectations and reactions - "my horse always spooks in the corner" - or there is something scary there - at least scary for the horse.  Just keep on riding and ignore it.  One of the saddest things I see pretty frequently is someone punishing the horse for spooking after the spook is over and the horse has taken a calm step or two - they've just punished the horse for calming down.  Unless your timing is just about perfect - this is so rare as to be almost non-existent - using punishment is pretty darn ineffective, except perhaps for making a more worried horse.

Find ways to help your horse be successful, and make sure they know that you share their delight when they are - this builds confidence and connection.

That's it - that's what I've learned - what do you think?


  1. Thank you so much for writing it. And of course I have a follow up question. :)

    When you talk about temperament, I think it's easy to recognize the fearful, over reactive horse AND it's easy to recognize the super calm and confident horse. If you're a nervous person (I'm totally pointing at me) then you may have a tendency to believe that your horse is fearful and over reactive when in fact they are somewhere in the average range. Is there a series of tests you could run a horse through? I think that as an amateur without confidence, I am dependent on my trainers advice and objectivity (taken with a grain of salt since I do PAY them to work with me and my horse). It makes it challenging to know if I'm over stating my horses temperament or not.

    I am going to go re-read the Working Through Softness series again (for the fourth time). I get something new every single time so I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to write out these posts. I find them incredibly helpful. Though they do also make me SO SO SO wishing I could take a clinic with Mark Rashid. Too bad he's not coming near me anytime soon.

    1. And check Mark Rashid's web site under community - he's got a few approved instructors listed there and maybe one is near you.

  2. Mona - unless you're dealing with an untrained foal, I expect it's hard to know what a horse's innate temperament is. An older horse is a combination of temperament, training and experience and the rider's own confidence level. There's a horse at my barn - an Arabian - with a reputation for being spooky and reactive - I've seen it in action. With his owner - a confident (in that she gallops down the trail without really knowing what she's doing) but somewhat loud and nervous person - the horse is head-high, eyes wide and just plain worried. With the "trainer" the person uses, who's confident but punitive and rough, the horse is even more scared although usually submissive. With the horse's share-boarder, an experienced, calm, thoughtful and confident rider, the horse's demeanor changes completely - the horse will sometimes spook, but gets right over it and just has a completely different look.

    How confident are you, and if you need to be more confident (to lend her confidence and give her leadership), do you have the will and means to get there - which doesn't at all mean that you should take on something you're uncomfortable with. Some horses may never be suitable for less confident or less skilled riders, even if they can be fine with a less confident rider. I'd let a less experienced person ride Pie under certain conditions (although I never do), but I'd never let anyone else other than Heather ride either Dawn or Red - they're a lot more confident than they were but still need a pretty confident, skilled ride.

    Take a hard look at yourself and what your goals and expectations are.

  3. "even if they can be fine with a MORE experienced rider" - sorry about that

  4. And confidence can be very situation-specific - either because a horse is very used to a particular activity or situation, or because the horse just loves a specific activity. Our Lily (now retired) is a case in point. She's a warmblood/QH cross. She is very herd-dominant - which means she's used to having to watch out for things - and is also very intelligent, and very, very reactive and spooky. When we got her, she had almost no experience jumping, but she was very athletic and it turned out that she loved jumping above all things - and we're talking big jumps - she could have been an upper-level jumper if her health has held up (she got heaves).

    Lily was very difficult to ride - she hated arena work and was completely uninterested in the trail. Her signature move was something we fondly call the "boltandbuck", and she was capable of a true capriole from a standstill or while working. But she loved, loved, loved to jump. My daughter would warm her up briefly on the lunge (she would tear around and buck and bolt, and refused to be ridden in the warm up area), and just get on and go in the ring. The moment Lily set foot in the jumper ring, she was a master - calm, skilled and would jump anything, no matter how scary it might have looked or how big it was. I don't believe she ever refused a jump. She wasn't easy to ride even then - she was also very fast and thought faster was better - but in the jumper ring she was all business and never spooked.

  5. I love how much thought you put into this discussion. You make so many excellent points.

    I feel that it is essential that the horse and rider be trained together. The horse can be helped to a place of confidence by the trainer where he is ready to begin working with his rider, but unless the rider is also gaining skills and confidence, improvement is unlikely. I don't think that all personalities can be made into a successful pair. A very nervous rider is just not a good match with a very nervous horse. Starting off with a complementary match is best for everyone.

  6. Well, I think everything you've learned is spot-on...just wish I could remember everything and be consistent and provide confident, quiet leadership all the time, for my horse. But, like everything else in this life; it's about the journey...I'm learning and I'm progressing; and by golly, my horses are progressing nicely too. Thank God they are the kind, patient and forgiving animals that they are. I've said it before Kate, but it bears repeating (again); I wish you lived closer to me...I'd hire you to work with us in a New York minute! Good stuff and thank you!


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