Jonathan Field - Building a Horse’s Confidence with Tarps, Part 1
By Jonathan Field
This is the first of a two-part article about a special horse of mine named Bellagio (barn name Geo), a nine-year-old Warmblood gelding I’ve had for about three years. He is super sensitive and doesn’t have a lot of natural confidence. When he came to me he was very explosive, would react at the slightest thing, and was becoming very dangerous to ride. Over the past few years, I have done a lot of different exercises to help build his confidence with anything that is “out of the norm” for him.
Over the past three years, Geo has made remarkable changes and now allows me to ask new things of him without all the fight or flight responses he had in the past. Although he still becomes worried, he allows me to have the conversation rather than violently bolting away. In other words, he will now listen to me even when he is scared, which is a huge step forward for him.
Geo is a very friendly horse; he likes people and is often the first one to meet you in the pasture. However, if he sees something that is slightly out of the norm in any way, even if it’s 100 yards away, his head goes up and he’s gone.
Just as each horse is an individual with his own unique characteristics, Geo’s story and the way I approached his training offer some valuable lessons for others who have horses with similar issues. The training principles I employed to build his confidence are the keys to why he is doing so well. He now chases cows, jumps confidently, helps me push colts around, and has even performed riding and liberty demos at major American horse expos.
To provide some insight into my approach, I’ll start by explaining what I’m not interested in. I’m not into using a strategy I call “forcemanship” and panic to over-face horses. My horses can all do amazing things that have wowed crowds and left people impressed by their confidence, but it took time. I do not use the break or force method, mainly because my horses are my buddies and I don’t agree with that method. The risk taken when the horse is pushed too hard is that the trainer may think one issue has been dealt with, without realizing that mistrust has been created and the next thing down the line may be a time bomb waiting to explode.
Horsemanship is key – the true feel, timing, and sensitivity with a horse. With good feel and timing you can observe when to ask the horse for that inch more of try, when to retreat and allow him to think, and when he’s had enough for today.
There are two common approaches that I believe are mistakes. The first one is force. People of old school thinking force and flood a horse, thinking that if they just get right at it, they will win and the horse will be shown who is boss. Most horses in this situation become more distrustful of humans and consequently more explosive and hard to read. At best they become “horse-bots.” And with a horse as strong and as fast with a kick as Geo, well, good luck with that approach!
The second approach that doesn’t work is going super slow and being lovingly kind. This method sounds good of course, but creates a horse that constantly out-positions the person, as he simply learns all the ways to evade anything. This person seems to sneak around the horse, and will likely get badly hurt one day.
I am not at all interested in confining the horse to make him stand still as if frozen while he barely tolerates what I’m doing, or the opposite, which is allowing the horse to simply opt out and not focus on what we are doing and making no forward progress as a result. Rather, I am a proponent of deliberate steps with leadership in mind, to keep the horse thinking about what I’m asking while progressing towards the goal. I want my horse paying attention to what I’m doing while I remain sensitive to his level of worry and flight.
Success in the area of foreign object confidence building happens inch-by-inch, with breaks for thought and processing in between. The timing of the release is key for the horse to be willing to try the next time. If a horse gets the opportunity to realize that something like a tarp will come and go without hurting him, he will most likely be willing to give more of a try next time because things worked out well last time.
This article includes a series of photos we captured awhile back when Geo had his first training session with a tarp. The goal was for him to walk over it and eventually stand on it. In part two I will share how I went about getting him to carry it, and also allowing me to rub the tarp over his body.
You may be wondering why you should bother doing this. If you are asking that question you haven’t experienced a horse that is scared of everything. Helping horses like Geo realize that large, moving, unpredictable things like tarps are okay can help resolve many other issues he may have as well.
Keep in mind that the horse does not always make direct connections. If the horse learns to confidently cross over a blue tarp, it doesn’t mean he will now confidently cross over all plastic objects such as plastic bags, but having a positive experience can help him face the next challenge. If you approach each challenge like it’s an opportunity to build enough trust and leadership with your horse that he will still hear you when he feels the need to go into flight mode, you’ll have a safer and more predictable horse – or at least as safe and predictable as a horse can be (which isn’t very)!
One final important point: When you reach any given point in your horse’s training, never make the mistake of thinking that your horse will be the same tomorrow. I’ve heard it said countless times: “He did it just fine yesterday – what’s up with my horse today?” Remember: Horses are different from one day to the next, and some will take much more time than others to gain a high level of confidence in a variety of situations.
On his own schedule and when he is ready, the horse will put the tarp or other object in the “good/safe” category. Much of that schedule depends on the trainer who is helping the horse work through it. Remember that many horses are “wired up” like Geo and will always look at things and be a little bit jumpy. I love this about Geo – it keeps me on my toes!
Once I get a horse going in the right direction with me, I imagine how much better he could learn to pay attention to the slightest movement I make. Over time, I become more and more subtle as I challenge him to stay closely tuned in.
STEP-BY-STEP - Build a Horse's Confidence with Tarps
FIGURE 1 (above): The first step is to pick up the tarp. I want Geo to hear it and see it move around. If I start out with the tarp lying still on the ground, the horse will spend more time staring at it, worried it’s going to jump at him. On the other hand, if I move it and pull it away, he may have an initial shock but in a moment or two, I’ll slowly move it around and he’ll realize it’s not as big a deal as he first thought.
Note: Remember, never wrap the rope tight around your hand. You will also need to let the rope slip to allow the horse some drift back if he needs it. At the same time you may need to drop the tarp. If the horse jumps back, you don’t want to be jerked forward while holding a tarp that the horse will think is chasing him. You can see how quickly this could go wrong and become very dangerous.
FIGURE 2 (above): The next step is to ask Geo to come towards the tarp. This will help him with his confidence by following it and then eventually he’ll feel like he is pushing it away. On the contrary, if you go forward at the horse, he may feel it is coming to get him and that he needs to escape.
Here you can see Geo is looking for his way out, so I let the rope slip to the end as I go back and give him more space away from the tarp. When he steps slightly forward I will release and allow him to stand and think for a moment. Don’t continually ask for more. Each step a horse makes and whenever he shows a try of confidence, stop asking to allow time for those ‘tries’ to sink in. For Geo to be willing to try more the next time, he mustn’t feel that I’m asking more, more, more!
FIGURE 3 (above): Keeping things changing. Here I pull the tarp away, which helps Geo see the tarp do different movements. I don’t want him to be okay with it only doing one thing, like dragging away. If I don’t change it a bit he will quickly make a deal with me that as long as it stays the same, he won’t explode away. Changing movements will also help him when I go back to dragging it because he will realize he knows what this is all about.
FIGURE 4 (above): Geo is becoming more confident. He is getting closer and has a softer look. Recognize that a horse communicates with body language. What we might try to say with words, a horse says with expression and posture.
FIGURE 5 (above): Now I have set the tarp on the ground and will ask Geo to cross it. You can see Geo going up for a sniff. Notice how I stand to the side and send him over. I don’t lead him over it towards me. This avoids having him jump on top of me if he bolts across it. Always remember that none of this works if you don’t have good personal space established with your horse. The horse must know he cannot simply run you over to make this lesson end. Respect for your personal space needs to be established in prior training sessions.
FIGURE 6 (above): “I touched it, I’m out!” After a sniff you can expect that the first touch with his hoof will cause a reaction. Allowing Geo to jump back and take another approach will slowly increase his try to risk it again.
A safety note about shoes: Barefoot is the best option. If a shoe hooks on to the tarp it can turn into a big wreck quickly. Geo’s shoes are quite tight to his heals and I know Geo well enough by now to handle a reaction if one came.
FIGURES 7 and 8 (above): On another try Geo is passing right over. I won’t ask him to pause on it until he confidently goes over it both ways. Both ways are important so he sees it from different angles.
I hope the information in this article will help you when your horse becomes worried. Helping horses become confident can be a lot of fun and very rewarding because when you get it right, you have a whole new horse who expresses himself differently and allows you a closer connection. That’s when you know you’ve really earned it.
Be safe and stay Inspired by Horses!
This article was originally published in the November-December 2015 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Photos: Andrea Hecimovic