Cultivating Confidence for Horseback Riding, Part 2

Learn how to help an unsure horse find fearlessness with these tips from Clinton Anderson.

America's Horse

Take the training wheels off and help your nervous horse gain some confidence of his own. Journal photo.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on increasing confidence. Here, learn how experienced riders can help unconfident horses. Last week, Clinton offered tips for riders who need a confidence boost.

A lot of horses have a lack of confidence, especially outside the arena. But many of us want to enjoy our horses on the trails, so it’s important to help them over their fears.

Every time a horse is scared, he’s using the reactive side of his brain. That’s the instinct he gets from Mother Nature that keeps him from becoming a predator’s meal. But I want to teach him to use the thinking side of his brain. The only way I know to get him to go from the reactive side to the thinking side is to redirect his feet.

Let’s say my horse is scared of a puddle on the ground. I’m going to ride in a circle around that puddle, and every one and a half circles, I’m going to turn him toward the puddle and go the other direction. Circle-turn, circle-turn, circle-turn. By turning the horse into the puddle, I’m gradually getting him closer to the water every time I turn him. And eventually, he’ll step into the water without even knowing it. Every time he steps into the water and doesn’t get killed, he gains a little confidence. The next time I turn him, he might take two steps in the puddle and so on. I might have to do that for five to 10 minutes, but eventually he’ll use the thinking side of his brain and will just go through the puddle, like a figure 8.

I’ll keep going through that puddle like a figure 8, and when my horse is totally relaxed and listening to me, I’ll let him rest inside the puddle. If he wants to paw or sniff the puddle, I let him. Allowing a horse to perform his own “safety check” is a great way to build his confidence.

Basically, every time my horse spooks or gets nervous, I’ll redirect that negative energy to do something constructive. In this example, it’s like I’m saying to the horse: “We’re just practicing circles and turns around this puddle. What are the odds of that?” A horse can only think about one thing at a time - he’s either concentrating on how you’re asking him to move his feet or he’s focusing on his fear. If he’s focusing on you, he doesn’t have time to be worried about whatever he’s scared of.

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Another exercise would be using rollbacks, a 180-degree turn over the hocks. Let’s say there is a sign on the fence, and the horse is scared of this sign. Instead of walking straight up to it and forcing the horse to confront it like a predator would, I’ll ride in a circle, and every time I come around to the fence, to the sign, I’ll roll him back toward the sign. Circle-rollback, circle-rollback. Now in the beginning, depending on how frightened my horse is of the sign, I might start out farther away from it. But as my horse gets calmer, and he starts using the thinking side of his brain, the rollbacks get closer to the sign. Eventually, I’ll be able to roll him back right beside the sign.

Remember to always roll toward the scary object. Circle right, turn left. Never turn away from the scary object, because when you turn away from it, the scariness of the object drives the horse farther away. When you turn into it, it helps them roll back. The fear of that object makes the horse move his front end.

Once the horse is listening to me and is calm, then I’ll let him rest beside the sign. If at any point he gets worried about the sign again, I go straight back to moving his feet next to it and then let him rest beside it when he’s calm. If you’re consistent about following that theory, it doesn’t take long for the horse to associate the sign with getting to rest and relax, and he’ll actually look forward to going near it.

If I’m riding on the trail, I never let my horse just walk down the trail doing nothing. I train my horse on the trail. If I keep him busy and keep his feet doing different maneuvers, he’ll have to pay attention to me. If I went down the trail, letting my horse do whatever he wants, he might be looking for objects to spook at. I’ll give him a job to do and put his feet to work so that he has to stay focused on me.

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In helping a horse with confidence issues, the most important thing is that, as a rider, you have to give your horse a reason to have confidence. If your horse doesn’t have confidence and you don’t have confidence, he has nothing to build on. That’s why a green horse-green rider combination is a recipe for disaster.

Imagine a family that’s going through a horrible storm. It’s hard for the children to have confidence if the parents are crying.

Even if you’re half scared to death and there are tornadoes coming, you’ve got to pretend there’s no problem: “It’s all right, honey, just a little bit of wind, a little bit of rain, we’re perfectly safe.”

The parent might know there’s a good chance he’s going to die, but he’s not going to tell the kid that. You fake it. You act confident.

When it comes to horses, we all need to analyze if we’re the right rider to help a horse who’s having issues.

There’s a saying, “Horses for courses and people for horses.” That means that you’ve got to have the right horse for the right course and the right person for the right horse. So if you’re green, don’t get a green horse that lacks confidence. That type of horse needs an experienced rider who can be a good leader for him.

Remember the bicycle analogy from the last story? Your first bike wasn’t a 10-speed, it was more than likely something with training wheels. Just like that, there are different horses for different stages of your riding career, and you’ve got to have the horse that suits your needs now - not your needs three or four years from now.

If you’re honestly not confident enough to help a horse through his own confidence issues, then make sure you’re riding a safe, dependable trail horse who can help you build your own confidence. As your skills grow, then perhaps you’ll be ready to help a less-confident horse.