Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Gaining confidence with horses

Gaining confidence with horses


This is a big issue for people beginning their lives with horses and some who have been with horses ‘forever’ but never really learned anything about their real nature. The subject of ‘confidence’ is just as big for the horse as for the human (both need to have confidence). Confidence for the horse translates to ‘trust’. The horse is always asking whoever is around it; “Can I trust you? Do you know what to do to help me to feel safe? Can I have confidence that I am safe if you lead me? Can I have confidence if I do as you request that I will not be hurt and will continue to be safe?” The horse has to have confidence in whoever is leading it, be they horse or human. If it does not have confidence it will be safe, the horse will instinctively begin to fend and look out for itself.

For the human, confidence means having the knowledge that you know what to do in most all circumstances that will help the horse to trust and be confident it is safe. Developing this confidence is something that really does take place over time. There is no magic pill you can take that will give you the knowledge and confidence that experience over time will. However, there are a few things people can do that will accelerate their development, learning and confidence with horses. One of these things is to read books, look at videos and attend seminars on the topic of horse training (not riding) as much as possible. Forget about becoming a great rider for now and focus on the horse itself. If a ‘ gentle horse trainer’ (not a riding instructor) is in your area, call them and see if its possible to spend some time with them watching what they do. Being able to see the process is a huge help in acquiring the knowledge that is desirable. Videos are also great for that. Most horse magazines have numerous videos advertised in them. So the first thing I would suggest is for interested people to find learning aids that can be view and trainers to watch.

Being “patient” with the horse is extremely important. If one can really develop ‘great patience’ in the face of a confused, fearful horse, they will gain immediate confidence in their ability to stay with the process of bringing the horse back to feelings of safety, whatever that process is. Patience just by itself is a huge plus in anyone’s life. If you can stay calm and understand the goal and overall agenda of the horse’s sense of safety as being paramount and patiently work towards that always, your confidence will be increased right away.

Learning to move appropriately around a horse is not that hard but very important. First of all, always be thoughtful and respect the horse’s personal space. The horse will tell you by its demeanor, it’s posture, movements and attitude if it is comfortable with someone entering its personal space. Not unlike a human having an appropriate boundary, the horse needs you to respect it’s boundaries. Most people do not respect the horses right to personal space and invade the animal’s boundaries constantly (reaching into a horse’s face to pet its nose is a perfect example of this). Always connect first by talking to the horse before you get too close. You’ll know (intuit, observe) if the horse is OK with you approaching it. If it is not, respect that and talk to it some more and move around the horse at a safe distance until the horse feels OK about you approaching it and invites you closer with its responses. You’ll keep yourself a lot safer also. Do not stand directly in front of the horse. Horses are by nature claustrophobic. They also want to be able to look ahead and around for possible danger. Standing by the left or right shoulder is always the safest place to stand, for the horse as well as the human. Most horses have been handled mainly on the left side, so they are most comfortable with the human standing on their left side (by the shoulder). Also, you are much less likely to be bitten or kicked in that position by the horse. Horses kick those behind them if they are surprised. So, if you want to walk behind a horse talk to him and keep one hand on his rump as you move around him so he knows where you are and your intention to move around him. When grooming the tail stand a bit to the side, not directly behind the horse. There is a kick zone to avoid if possible. That zone is the place where the horse can obviously ‘nail’ you with a kick if it were inclined. Kicking is mostly a defense mechanism. As is any kind of seemingly aggressive behavior. The horse is protecting itself. This behavior does not deserve punishment; it deserves compassion, understanding and leadership to bring the horse back to a ‘safe place’ in its mind and feelings.

As far as a horse lunging or kicking at a human when bridling, that is not typical behavior. Only if the horse is made very uncomfortable by how the human is trying to put the bridle on, will he move towards the human or away. There is an appropriate way to ask a horse to accept the bridle (and saddle). It is somewhat detailed and will be addressed in another essay. If you make the horse nervous by inappropriately trying to get him to accept the bridle or saddle, it will set up a situation where he has no confidence in the human’s ability to ask him to accept new things. It will get harder and harder to bridle or saddle him. Horses get habitual (take on habits) very fast and habits are hard to change. When bridling a horse it is best to first get the horse comfortable with lowering his head when asked to. When introducing a blanket and saddle it is best to ‘sack the horse out’ first extensively. This means getting him used to the blanket and things flapping around and on him.

Here is a good procedure to practice for asking a horse to lower its head: with a halter (preferably a rope halter) and lead rope already on the horse, stand on the horse’s left side halfway up his neck. Hold the lead rope about 18 inches under his chin and just allow the weight of your arm to come on to the rope. Do not try to pull the horse’s head down. Just let the weight of your arm be there. The horse will, at some point, lower his head just a bit to get away from the weight of your arm. The instant you feel that horse lower his head, even a fraction of an inch, remove the weight of your arm completely by lifting your arm just a tiny bit up or releasing the rope. Then, do it again. You are asking the horse to lower his head by doing this. You might also bend forward with your body just a bit to encourage him to follow your body language down and look down at the ground (where you want the horse’s head to go). A human should be able to get a horse to lower his head as low as requested. He’ll just about put his nose on the ground if asked appropriately. A horse with a lowered head is a relaxed horse. I ask horses to lower their heads sometimes if they get a little nervous. So it is always a good skill to have. You may want to get really good at his one as it will help you ask the horse to accept the bridle by lowering his head. It is important not to hit the horse’s teeth with the bit as well. Anyway, if this procedure is practiced it will help a human gain confidence and skill. It will also help a human to understand how to begin to ‘read’ a horse.

‘Reading’ a horse means being able to ascertain what is going on for the horse in any one moment. Is the horse calm, nervous, upset, anxious, trusting, afraid, in pain or whatever? This is a very important skill to development. It will also help to develop confidence, even if all the proper ‘moves’ are not known yet. If a human can look at a horse and begin to ‘feel’ what is going on for it, they will have a skill that is priceless. The way to develop this skill is through patience, kindness and the desire to help the horse feel safe first and foremost, and not just grab him and use the horse for something. It means moving slowly observing the horse’s responses to whatever the human does. It means not approaching too fast and connecting first. It means showing respect. It also means using intuition. Intuition and ‘feel’ have similar meanings when applied to horses. You intuit what a horse is feeling. We do this kind of thing all the time. When we meet someone new or go to a new place or try something new, it either feels OK or not. It can feel ‘right or wrong’. Our brains (our intellect) may say something is OK to do, but our heart (or gut) says it is not. We follow our intuition when we follow our hearts. Horses have a very developed intuitive side. They intuit if something wants to ‘eat them for dinner’. They intuit if there is a predator present long before it gets close. They have to because it is their survival. I connect with horses a long ways away from them. By the time I get up to them we are connected and feeling good about each other (unless the horse has some abuse issues and is fearful of humans in general). I can intuit that quickly and respond accordingly to help the horse to know I am no threat to it. Developing our intuition will help develop our confidence.

If a horse moves into my space while being led or if I am in close quarters with it (the stall), I do not want to get physical with it to ask it to move away. Many times pushing a horse will prompt the horse to push back and they will always win a test of strength. Rather I have gotten very good at shaking (snaking) the lead rope under the horse’s chin which is annoying to the horse and will prompt the horse to move away from the shaking rope. I will also face the horse, shake the rope and move towards the horse confidently asking it to back a step or two. This will generally allow a human to begin to set a boundary with the horse as to how close the horse can be. If there is no lead rope and halter on the horse, such as in the stall, I will wave my hand quickly right under the horse’s chin or at his nose. This will generally get him to lift his head and take a step away. I have developed a ‘feel’ for what is too much pressure or energy in the shaking or waving so as to not scare the horse. I can also shake a rope at the horse as well (or my glove).

It is important to be able to set a boundary with a horse. This one skill alone will bring tremendous confidence, as the human will understand how to get their boundaries respected. Setting appropriate boundaries is a good life skill to have. Success with horses is a great way develop skills that enrich us in all areas of our lives.