10 Oct Making Your Horse More Confident: Ultimate Guide
Training Your Horse to Be More Confident
It’s no joke that many horses lack confidence, whether it’s as they approach a scary jump, are asked to walk over a tarp, or even as they’re led down an unknown path. A horse’s flight instinct automatically means that the horse will usually try to avoid anything that even hints at danger, so it’s no wonder that they aren’t very confident in a lot of situations.
Some horses are more confident than others. However, if you have a horse that needs to be more confident, here are ways you can help them get to that point:
- Build Trust Between You and Your Horse
- Desensitize Your Horse to Scary Things
- In order for Your Horse to Be Confident, You Need to Be Confident!
- Practice! Repeatedly Put Your Horse in a Situation to Build Confidence
Believe it or not, your horse can be trained to be more confident. Building a horse’s confidence is much like building a human’s; each one is different so each one will demand a different approach. Some horses will take longer to find their confidence while others may find it right away. Either way, you’re there to help guide them on the right path.
Build Trust To Help Your Horse Be More Confident
Building trust between you and your horse is the first step to help your horse be more confident. A horse will be more willing in any situation when there is a trust built with the handler compared to a situation where there isn’t. Horses want to follow leaders, and they’re looking to you to be the leader.
Here are some ways you can build trust between you and your horse:
Spend Time With Your Horse to Help Build Trust
Horses are like humans in that they thrive off of relationship. Horses are herd animals and need the relationship of the herd in order to feel safe and happy.
The way horses build relationships is by spending time together. If you watch your horse in the field, there’s probably one horse in particular that they’re always near. More than likely, that’s your horse’s buddy.
In order to build trust and relationship between you and your horse, you’re going to have to spend time with them. When I say spend time, I mean time with your horse other than when you’re riding. Grooming and bathing your horse is a great way to spend time with them. My POA pony personally loves when I play with his mane. (It makes him fall asleep.)
If you notice in the pasture, horses graze side by side all day. Even just going out into the pasture and standing near your horse while they graze will help your horse to become more familiar with your presence.
Practice Groundwork to Help Establish Yourself as the Leader
Groundwork is basically any training you do with your horse while you’re on the ground. This is important because horses build their relationships from the ground up.
If you watch the horses in the pasture, you’ll notice that the more dominant horse can control the motions of the other horses simply by stepping towards them. On the ground, you’ll exercise the same principles. Getting your horse to move its feet and learn where your personal space begins and ends is the start of establishing yourself as the dominant one in the relationship.
Groundwork is important because you must be a leader on the ground before you can be a leader in the saddle. If you’d like to learn some basic but highly effective groundwork techniques, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
Reward Your Horse When They Do Good
In order for your horse to truly think fondly of you as the leader, you must reward your horse when they do good.
You can make a big fuss over them and pat their neck, or you can even just release the pressure that was applied and let them stand still for a moment. Horses learn by the release of pressure when they respond correctly to the pressure in the first place.
Many times, (we’re all guilty, myself included) we keep demanding more from our horse even when they’ve responded correctly. This causes the horse to be confused about what’s actually correct since they were never rewarded for doing right. This will only frustrate you and your horse later when they’re not sure what to do.
By having a definitive reward for doing good and doing what you ask of them, your horse will start to focus and respond better to your cues. They’ll start to learn that they’re looking for the reward, which they’ll get when they respond correctly.
If you’d like to learn some other ways you can build trust with your horse, check out our article, Bonding With Your Horse: 8 Simple Tips That Actually Work.
Desensitize Your Horse to Encourage Them to Be Confident
Desensitizing your horse means getting them used to and accepting of scary and foreign things. Horses are flight animals and they’ll naturally want to flee from anything that they’re unsure of. By desensitizing them, you’re showing them that these scary objects aren’t a threat and there’s no reason to flee. This will help your horse build more confidence by helping to eliminate their fear of certain things. Here’s how you can desensitize your horse:
Groundwork is Key to Desensitizing
Before you go into a desensitizing session with your horse, make sure you have your groundwork technique down. By technique I mean make sure your horse respects your space on the ground and can respond to pressure correctly.
When scary objects are introduced, your personal bubble will usually go out of the window as far as your horse is concerned. Having the ability to correct that behavior and keep your horse focused on you rather than the scary object will help you advance when desensitizing your horse.
For desensitizing, I highly recommend that you first are capable of working your horse in a circle around you on the ground and that the horse will move it’s hind-end and front-end when asked. (To see how to do this, see my article here.)
Find the Things Your Horse is Particularly Unfond Of
To help your horse build confidence, you’ll want to desensitize them to things that tend to make them not confident. Once desensitized, they’ll see that there’s no reason to be afraid of said object and they’ll feel more confident when they have to face it.
I’ve been on trail rides with green and not-so-confident horses where all they needed to set them off was a bag in the trees blowing in the wind. By desensitizing these horses to bags, the rustling sound, and the movement of the bag in the wind, they would feel much more confident to pass this obstacle.
When you can remove your horse’s fear of certain things from the equation, it helps them to be much more confident. This is what desensitizing is all about and why it’s considered a step to making your horse more confident.
Get Your Horse Used to The Scary Object
The next and most obvious thing you’ll want to do when it comes to desensitizing is to get your horse used to the scary object/situation. This will require patience, persistence, and praise for your horse.
When you introduce your horse to the object, keep their feet moving by using groundwork. This will take their focus from the object and put it onto you. Whenever your horse is acting scared of something, make them move their feet rather than stand and stare at it.
When you notice your horse relax even the slightest amount, let them rest. Remember, praise and reward is how the horse learns it’s doing the right thing. Gradually increase the use or the proximity of the object until your horse is completely comfortable with it.
If you’d like a step-by-step guide to desensitizing your horse to pressure, foreign objects, things touching them, certain noises, tight spaces, and other activity, read our article, Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.
In Order for Your Horse to Be Confident, You Need to Be Confident!
One of the best ways to help your horse be more confident is by you being more confident! Believe it or not, body language often communicates your confidence; if you lack confidence while riding your horse, subconsciously you may tug on the reins, look down at the ground, tense up with your seat, and avoid applying leg pressure. I’ve been there and I’ve done it!
There are ways you can communicate confidence to your horse while under saddle. Here are some things to be aware of:
Ride Your Horse Forward
The first thing a timid rider will do is shrink back when it comes to getting the horse to go forward. They won’t use their cues, but rather hang on the horse’s mouth. The horse quickly picks up that the rider is nervous; this will make the horse more apprehensive to go forward.
The perfect example is a rider approaching an intimidating jump. Upon seeing the scary jump, the rider becomes nervous and subconsciously leans forward and pulls on the horse’s mouth. There is no momentum for the horse to go off of now, so they’ll probably refuse or run out.
When a bold rider sees the jump, they’ll sit back, push with their seat, and add pressure with their legs. If the horse falters, the rider will widen their hands to encourage the horse forward. In this situation, the horse will probably go over the jump.
You can feel nervous and timid yet still ride your horse forward. In order to do this, you’ll have to examine yourself and see what you’re doing to hold your horse back and correct it.
Communicate With Your Horse Decisively
Another thing a timid rider will do is fail to communicate with their horse decisively. They’ll use aids to tell the horse what the horse is supposed to do, yet they’ll also use aids to tell the horse what they personally want to do. This leaves a confusing mess for the horse to figure out.
If you’re feeling nervous on your horse, focus on your aids and on communicating with your horse effectively. This will take your mind off of why you’re nervous and it will communicate confidence to your horse.
For more tips on how you can be more confident in the saddle, check out my video:
Don’t Tense Up
Horses can feel your slightest body movement when you’re on them. They feel when your body tenses and relaxes. A tense rider equals a tense horse, and a relaxed rider equals a relaxed horse.
I used to have a horse that would get worked up very easily. When I would feel her start to get anxious, I would subconsciously start to tense up, lean forward, and shorten my reins.
One day someone pointed out to me that I did this. So the next time I started to feel this horse start to get worked up, I simply took a deep breath and relaxed my weight back into my seat and sat tall in the saddle. Sure enough, the horse calmed right down.
Repeatedly Put Your Horse in Situations to Build Confidence
Horses learn by repetition. If you want your horse to be confident in a certain situation, the best thing you can do is to keep putting your horse in similar situations. For example: if your horse lacks confidence on trail rides, keep practicing going on the trails and introduce them to a variety of different paths. Sooner or later, the horse will get used to the situation and become more confident.
Here’s how I would go about doing this:
Include the Situation in Your Daily Routine
Like with anything, familiarity helps horses to be more confident. In order for a horse to feel comfortable in a situation, they’re going to have to be put in that situation frequently enough that they can accept it.
I had a horse that I used to fox hunt. At our first hunt, she was wide-eyed and terrified at the amount of chaos involved in the chase.
Despite her initial reaction, I continued to take her hunting twice a week. Soon, she settled down, became more confident, and turned out to be the best foxhunter a rider could ask for.
Horses are creatures of routine; like humans, they easily fall into the rhythm of a routine. Anything outside of the norm of the routine they’re used to can throw them for a loop. If your horse is having trouble being confident in a specific area, add that area into your routine.
Introduce Your Horse to a Variety of Like-Situations
One way to help your horse be more confident is by introducing them to a variety of like-situations in which they need to be confident in.
For example: if I have a horse that needs to be bolder on the cross country course, I’ll go and set up some more intimidating jumps in the riding ring to help them get used to jumping these types of jumps. This will help prepare the horse for the cross country field.
Likewise, if I have a horse that I’ll be taking fox hunting, I’ll first introduce the horse to riding in a large group. I’ll also work on riding in wide-open fields. That way, when the hunt comes along, the horse isn’t completely new to everything happening in the hunt.
As the rider, you have to think ahead of time how can I help my horse be prepared and confident for that? Always have this in mind when introducing your horse to new activities or events.
If Your Horse Gets Frustrated, Go Back to the Beginning
The worst thing you can do to deter your horse’s confidence is to rush them and push them too hard before they’re ready.
I once had a pony I had practiced loading in an out of the trailer. Someone came along and pushed her too far when it came to unloading and made her fall out of the trailer. The pony’s confidence was completely shattered, and it took me a while to build it back up.
When working with your horse, don’t move on to the next thing until you see your horse confident at the level you’re at. If you push your horse before they’re ready, you’ll dig yourself in a deeper hole that is harder to climb out of.
Patience is important when it comes to anything to do with horse training, and it shouldn’t be forgotten when helping your horse become more confident. If you notice your horse starting to get frustrated, go back to the basics that you know your horse is confident in.
If you and your horse are looking for a challenge when it comes to confidence-building, check out our article, Riding a Horse in the City: What You Need to Know.
(P.S. Did you know I’m on Youtube? Subscribe to my channel here for weekly horse videos!)
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.