How to Build Confidence in Your Horse
By Jonathan Field
Every year I hold a special camp at my James Creek Ranch called Purpose Camp. The saying goes, “variety is the spice of life,” and that is the thought behind this camp. By incorporating lots of variety into our lives with horses, we create purpose. Purpose gives meaning to the everyday exercises that, if overdone, can make a horse sour. But with variety and purpose, we and our horses can both build confidence and have a lot of fun!
At Purpose Camp we do everything from cow work to trail savvy, from dressage patterns to cross country courses. The idea is to expose the horses to lots of different things. This not only creates purpose, but also prepares the horses for things we might run into when we are out in the world.
You never know what you will encounter when you ride, and it never ceases to amaze me what horses choose to worry about – a rock on the trail, a bag hanging on a post, or maybe a dog. But by setting up situations for our horses, we can help raise their confidence in themselves and in our leadership, and therefore lessen the chance that they will get nervous when something new or strange comes up at a show or on the trail.
Following are a few exercises we have used to add purpose and variety at Purpose Camp. Try them with your horse, and then use your imagination to come up with new ways to add variety, purpose, and fun to your horse time.
Exercise #1: One Step at a Time
Some horses get quite worried when they are crossing over logs on the trail and want to jump or burst over the log. One of the reasons horses often do this is because they can be worried about the log touching their legs, especially when they are straddling it.
A great exercise I always do with my horses is to see if they can take one step over the log and stop, so they are halted with just one front leg over the log. Then I ask them to take one more step and halt so the log is between their front and back legs, then between their back legs, and so on until they can stop at any point over the log, and even back up.
This exercise is great for improving your technical skills because you have to focus on the exact placement of your horse’s legs. At the same time, your horse learns to wait even when things around him – whether a log, a bush, or anything else – might be close to touching his legs.
Exercise #2: Cone on a Barrel
This is a fun, simple exercise with a lot of purpose. While riding, see if you can place a cone on a barrel and if you can retrieve the cone from the barrel. Then try picking the cone up, circling around, and putting it back on. Pick up and drop off the cone at the walk, at the trot, and at the canter. Finally, do laps so that you pick the cone up, do a lap, drop off the cone, do another lap, and so on.
This is a great exercise to build balance because it gets you leaning out of position toward the barrel. It also makes you really focus on riding an exact path that will get you close enough to the barrel to drop off the cone without running into it. The horse learns to really pay attention to you, and this builds his confidence in you and objects moving around on his back.
Exercise #3: Through Scary Objects
This exercise is less about purpose and more about desensitization and confidence building. The idea is to get your horse used to strange things he wouldn’t normally experience and have him walk through the objects calmly. At Purpose Camp, we stuck two coloured fans in the ground for the horses to walk between, and we also made a scary gate with coloured streamers and balloons that the horses had to walk under. Photos: Robin Duncan Photography
I took Jack, one of my ranch horses, through these exercises. Seeing all the objects in the gate was a really big deal for him. But what surprised me the most was that, after making it through the gate, Jack was even more nervous about the two tiny spinning fans on the ground — it never even occurred to me that the fans would be an issue. It took me approximately 30 minutes to get Jack to walk through the two fans calmly and quietly, without any tension. The method I used was approach and retreat, asking Jack to move a bit closer each time, then backing away, and then moving closer again. Each time we would back up he would be a bit more confident to take a step forward the next time.
When I present my horse with challenges and obstacles like these, I make sure I’m in the mindset to build confidence in my horse as we complete them. That is why I came back to the fans many times over the half hour with Jack. For me, it was not about the fans, but about building his confidence so that he could trust me when he might be leery of something. Our mindset is key. Go into challenges like these with a mindset that recognizes that it is not about the obstacle itself. There will be plenty of situations where the purpose will be real and there won’t be extra time, and that is why it is important to set up these situations when there is time. Creating artificial situations is a special time I dedicate to each horse to build him up, so that when it is “for real,” he will be ready to say: “Yes, sir! How fast?”
Thanks for reading and Stay Inspired by Horses!
All photos in this article by Robin Duncan Photography
Main article photo: Working with cows is a fantastic way to add purpose and build confidence in your horse.
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.