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Building trust – How in-hand confidence teaches self-management

Text: Skye Littlefield

Horses are herd animals, and we know that they rely on their herd to alert them of potential dangers, especially when they themselves are not paying full attention to a situation. Alongside this, they are flight animals, meaning that they’d choose to run rather than to fight, and their powerful bodies are built for just this. Because of these attributes, we often refer to our horses as spooky, when in actual fact, our horses are being cautious. We complain that we can’t ride out alone because our horses are too much of a handful. We complain that our horses won’t jump the deep, dark ditch. And, we complain that our horses won’t walk past what we think is “just a dustbin” without showing a fearful reaction. What we ask of our horses are generally not things that they’re accustomed to or built to do, and their reactions are governed by self-preservation.

Self-management

That being said, a horse can learn better self-management, in the same way that we as humans can learn to keep calm in tense situations. This is where patience and trust come into play. Trust is foundational in a horse-human relationship, and for me it cannot be built only from horseback. If we expect our horses to trust us, then we need to show them that we love them and that we’ll protect them from danger, including the ferocious peacock next door. A horse who trusts you will walk over anything you ask, cross deadly puddles, and calmly plod past that suspicious-looking pile of dustbin bags on the pavement.

Accepting reality and working with it

Depending on where you ride, you’re often faced with potentially-spooky obstacles such as dogs, people, and cars; regardless of what you’re approaching, you want to feel assured that your horse will approach the situation calmly and self-manage the assessment of the potential dangers before reacting.

I’ve got a 14 hand Connemara mare who – when I got her – had not left the yard in years, and had not done much work at home either. Needless to say, she was very cautious, nervous about most things, and quick to spin and bolt when she got a fright. Her spooks were huge; she would rear out of fear and confusion, and once she’d been worked up, it was impossible to get her to calm down for hours. This was not only dangerous to both of us, but it also felt exceptionally unfair to her, and I knew I needed to give her the tools to better cope with these situations. This timing coincided with a friend of mine getting her 5 year old, freshly-gelded Warmblood, who grew up on a farm and wasn’t sure how to get his feet over painted road lines. He still showed some pushy stallion traits, and being near 18 hands, he was a lot to deal with.

Two things we’ve always had in common as friends are the belief that our horses need frequent outrides and that you should get off of your horse if either of you are nervous. I know this seems counterintuitive to what you’ve been told, but I promise you it works. At the beginning of our journey together, we were stabled in an area with high traffic volumes, constant construction, and many dogs, donkeys, and ostriches. We’d often have to contend with cars shooting past at top speed, construction vehicles digging and dumping, and loose animals getting a little too close for comfort.

We set off on our first few outrides, not really knowing what to expect but quickly learning how to make them safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

The learnings

One of the first things I noticed was that our horses would show much less hesitation approaching a scary object if we were beside them, not on top of them. If you’re nervous, your horse is nervous, and so continues the cycle. For months, our rides consisted of hopping off, leading, and hopping back on. If you assess the situation, you’ll realise that your horse has entered self-preservation mode, not seeing anything besides the dangerous object and the space between until you step in. It seems so obvious, but you’ve immediately become a barrier for danger, and so your horse becomes less concerned about what they think is going to eat them. And, saving your horse from perceived danger gets you an extra notch on the trust belt. I’m inviting you to show your horse that you’ll protect them by leading them past scary things in-hand, helping them to build the knowledge that most worldly things do not pose a danger to them.

The next few things that became obvious were patience, reassurance, and praise. Our horses reacted much less explosively if we gave them what they needed to assess the unknown situation and showed them that they did well. Something that I’ve adopted is ‘don’t push and don’t punish.’ Don’t force your horse past the scary situation until they’re ready, and if they do spook, don’t punish them for demonstrating instinct. If your horse wants to stand snorting at the weird bush for 10 minutes, then let them, all the while talking to and scratching them, reassuring them that they’re fine. When your horse is ready, they’ll walk on as if nothing happened, albeit with a slight side-eye. I challenge you to try this both in-hand and in-saddle and evaluate how your horse reacts. For me, being the safety net on the ground remains the most effective option.

I’ve mentioned patience, so you’ll also need to be patient with your horse’s progress; it can take months to build these new habits, and consistency is key. While outrides can sometimes be a wild card with regard to spooks, it is worthwhile to begin these habits in an environment your horse is comfortable in. Start small, and introduce obstacles to your home arena; pool noodles, hula hoops, small dustbins, and pool floats are all great ideas, and you can use whatever you have on hand. I start in-hand to be my horse’s ‘bodyguard’ and move to the saddle once I’ve seen an improvement in reactions. Once you’re comfortable and confident at home, you can take your horse on a small outride in-hand using the same techniques, bearing in mind that your horse’s senses will be heightened in new environments.

The outcome

Through continuous practice, my 14 hand fireball has become calm, patient, and near-bombproof, happily walking underneath cranes and through construction sites, crossing busy roads, and not doing more than a bum wiggle when we do come across something unexpected. As horse people, we learn more every day about different approaches to horsemanship and making the horse-human relationship safer and happier. I invite you to try patience, reassurance, and praise with your horse and watch the trust within your relationship grow.