Like all prey animals, horses survive on instinct and while this helped to keep them alive in the past these days it can sometimes present a problem, especially when you’re out on a trail and have an overly nervy horse.
Whatever is affecting your horse’s confidence it makes sense to them and in his mind is perfectly normal, but if you’re willing to put the work in then you can help your horse to overcome this and ultimately enhance the bond the two of you have. While every horse, and every situation, is different there are often similar methods for helping him overcome his fears and lack of confidence.
Be patient with your horse
We can all remember a time when we were worried or scared of something and how when people were patient with us it made us feel better. Yet, if somebody gets annoyed that you’re worried or belittles you for feeling like that it actually reinforces your worry. Horses are no different and while it can be difficult to not get frustrated if your horse spooks at an open trunk try and remember that although you know it won’t hurt you, your horse doesn’t. Every horse is different and some will take longer than others to overcome their fears and anxieties but the more patient you are the quicker this will happen.
Faced with an unfamiliar situation your horse’s first reaction will be one of fear, when he realizes that there’s nothing to be scared of though he’ll then become curious, this will then give way to confidence but it needs to be done at your horse’s pace. That doesn’t mean to say you should give into every spooky moment your horse has, but at the same time if he clearly is scared over something don’t force him to confront it straightaway. Use a calming voice to reassure him and in time he’ll feel happier.
Understand where your horse’s lack of confidence comes from
Not in every case, but certainly in the vast majority, a horse’s lack of confidence originates from a particular point or event. Maybe a car backfired while you were out riding or maybe a previous owner wasn’t so understanding of your horse. While you may think your horse has forgotten about it, it’s actually at the forefront of his mind. Every time you ride near where the car backfired your horse remembers it and becomes anxious which eats away at his confidence. While you obviously can’t undo the past you can make the future better. Helping your horse to overcome his fear goes hand in hand with improving his confidence.
If you don’t know where your horse’s fear originates from you can use his behavior to make an educated guess, after all, if he becomes really anxious every time you ride past a cow but is otherwise normally calm you can bet your bottom dollar he’s scared of the cows. Once you know where the root of the problem is you can start to address it by slowly exposing your horse to it and I really do mean slowly. If it’s cows he’s scared of then walk him to an area where he can see the cows, talking to him the whole time, then when you can feel him start to relax praise him and walk away. Every time you do this you’re building a positive memory as well as reinforcing it until, eventually, he’s perfectly happy being in a field full of cows.
Keep your goal in mind
Of course, your ultimate goal is to help build your horse’s confidence but why? That might sound like a silly question but is there a particular area where your horse is lacking confidence, does he spook at cars, is he jumpy at shows?
Breaking your goal down into small goals can make the whole task seem much more accomplishable, just think of each ‘mini’ goal as a step along the path to a more confident horse – each step is one step nearer to your end goal.
Keep calm and don’t overact
You might not realize but your horse looks to you for guidance and reassurance a lot more than you might realize, much the same as we did with our parents when we were first discovering the big wide world.
You can use this to your advantage though, if you see something that you think will spook him start talking to him in a gentle, reassuring tone. It doesn’t matter what you say to him, it’s how you say it that is more important. At the same time as you do this gentle rub his neck or withers and, if you’re riding, loosen the reins so that he can’t feel any tension in them.
At first, it’ll probably seem like this isn’t making a difference but in time you’ll start to notice your horse growing in confidence. The key is to take your time, don’t hurry your horse and work at his pace.
Don’t punish or blame your horse
Everybody will have their own opinion on whether the proverbial carrot or stick is better but nature has plenty of examples of where the carrot, or reward, method works best. From the moment a foal is born their mother will use gentle encouragement to get the foal to do the right thing. She’ll use her nose to apply soft pressure until the foal moves onto his own feet, then when he’s standing she’ll reward him with love and affection. The foal quickly learns that if he does what his mother asks it’ll be good for him.
Maintain healthy boundaries
Nobody likes it when people don’t respect our personal space and horses are no different so having a healthy boundary will give your horse a place he can feel safe. It’s important to understand your horse’s body language and then act accordingly.
If your horse is trying to tell you he’s not happy then listen to that and give him his space. You might not think that this will make a difference but you’re actually letting your horse know that not only do you understand what he’s telling you but you respect him too. This will help the two of you bond which will mean your horse trusts you and knows if you’re not scared then he doesn’t need to be either.
Regardless of whether you’re training your horse or not it’s important to be consistent. If you tell your horse off for playing with his food bucket one day but encourage him to do so the next he’s not only going to be confused but is also likely to become frustrated which can make it harder to build trust and improve his confidence.
Horses need consistency, it helps them to know when they’ve done the right thing and when they’ve does something wrong. At the same time, don’t get cross with him if he does something wrong, he’s far more likely to react positively to being rewarded when he does the right thing than he is when he’s shouted at for getting it wrong. After all, wouldn’t you?
Ride out with others
Horses that spend most of their time in enclosed areas (even if it’s a 20-acre pasture) can find trails a little bit daunting. To them fenced in areas are safe, but in open spaces, without fences, there’s nothing to protect them from any dangers so are therefore on edge.
If you’re always riding on your own then it can be difficult to accustom your horse to this but it can help if you ride with other people. Horses are great at learning from others and will always learn the quickest from other horses so riding with more confident horses will help to teach him. When your horse sees something he perceives as a threat and the other horse doesn’t react it’ll give your horse confidence. In time this will grow and eventually the two of you will be able to ride on your own without any issues.
Recognize your weaknesses
We influence our horses a lot more than we might realize but at the same time, we also think that the problem is with them rather than with us. Its human nature to do this, but we all have faults and weaknesses so it’s important to recognize that you might also be playing a role in your horse’s lack of confidence.
Don’t worry though, as well as being the hardest part, recognizing there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it. If riding is your weakness then consider having lessons to help you iron out any issues or bad habits you might have. Speaking to others, either face to face or on social media can not only help to shed light on the problem, but it can also help you to find a solution.
There are also plenty of online courses and videos that can help you to build your horse’s confidence, Equestrian Coach, for example, have a great selection of videos.
- Understand horse body language
- Bonding with your horse
- Are horses smart?
- Boredom busters
- How to prevent loneliness
- Back strengthening exercises for horses
- Why does my horse weave?
- Want to work with horses?
- Life hacks for horse owners
- Do horses like being ridden?
- Caring for an old horse
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉