The best thing you can give a horse


The best thing you can give a horse

What’s the best thing you can give a horse? Apples? Carrots? Mints?

No, it’s not food. The best thing you can give a horse is CONFIDENCE.

No matter what job a horse is asked to do, he will do it best if he his prepared, understands his role, and has confidence in himself and his rider. Not all horses are destined to be brave, calm in unfamiliar situations, successful at the highest levels. But all horses can improve their performance when they trust their rider and believe in themselves.

Some horses are born with a mountain of confidence, and they make wonderful mounts for timid, less-experienced riders. Other horses are giant chickens covered in horsehair, and need daily hand-holding, prodding, and encouragement from a steady, experienced rider.

In my exercise riding career, I get on a lot of chicken-hearted spooky racehorses and ask them to trot past cows, cross-country fences, tractors, piles of sand, and spreads of flowers. A couple of the horses simply don’t care and will go anywhere you point them. Most of them have minor heart-attacks the first couple days, dodging sideways, needing a lot of opening reins and pony-club kicks to get through the gauntlet of Scary Things. Hopefully after a few weeks of the same routine, they get braver about it. But then there are others, who just never seem to get over it, and always give a peek at invisible monsters in the same old shadows. Still, the spooking does get less intense and less frequent as the horses become more focused and learn to trust that I’ll never put them in danger.

How do you earn this trust and build confidence? You must have it yourself. You have to prove to the horse that YOU aren’t scared of (insert terrifying object here), and he better not be, either. It’s delicate balance of understanding reasonable fear and respecting life-saving instincts, while boredly rolling your eyes, kicking forward and saying “C’mon, Horse, we don’t have time for this, you’re being silly.” Beating a truly-terrified animal isn’t going to win his trust…he’ll transfer his (perfectly-reasonable, in his mind) fear to you, and be less likely to believe you when you promise he’ll be okay. Somehow, through your leg, seat, and soft hands, you have to communicate that you’re protecting him, and if he just gets to the other side of That Scary Thing life will be a lot better.

What do horses like? An escape from pressure. Fear is a form of pressure: mental pressure telling a horse Do Not Go There Or You’ll Certainly Die. You can’t fight instincts, you can only hope to replace them with a focused, thinking brain who is practiced at looking to his rider for leadership. A spooking horse is behind the leg, distracted, and disrespectful (untrusting) of his rider. As a rider, I have to increase my pressure (go forward!) beyond the level of That Scary Thing. However, it’s very important that the horse has a clear release of my pressure: the rider must allow the horse to go freely forward, not pulling on the reins, trying to keep the horse “round” or perfectly straight. Once the horse learns that Forward is safe, you can gently guide that pressure escape into a more desirable direction (forward with balance, forward with contact, forward and straight, piece by piece).

For several weeks, two of the racehorses started under a different rider. Horse A learned to balk passing the trees, plant-n-spin passing the jumps, and do whatever he felt like so long as he kinda sorta followed the horse in front of him. His rider was very passive, and the behavior escalated. Horse B was nervous, scared of everything, and spent his whole exercise ride either running away from fear (taking off with his rider) or screeching to a halt when he found himself in front of his workmate, all alone, facing the wide open world on his own.



When I started riding them, it was clear Horse A was a spoiled brat, and his poor work ethic presented itself as “fear” and spooking. The first day he trotted calmly to his “daily spot,” propped his front end, threw his head in my chin, bloodied my lip, spun for home. Day 2, I brought a whip, and when he tried to stop, he got a little spanking. How did I know this wasn’t true fear? Because after galloping, he jogged home past ALL those scary things without batting an eye. His spooking was related to motivation; once I proved myself to be sufficiently more “motivating” than his desire to go home, and demonstrated I wasn’t going to take his BS, the naughty spooking went away.

Horse B was a little different. His fear was more genuine, stemming from worry, concern, and insecurity. At 10 years old, all his working life was spent on the racetrack on plain dirt footing surrounded by the safety of white rails. Now, he was being asked to trot and gallop in wide open space, through tall grass and weeds, over patches of sand, past giant wooden jumps, alongside fences lined with cows, and dozens of other hazards his poor brain couldn’t process. He either panicked and tried to bolt away, or slid to a stop with his eyes bugging out, scrambling sideways. My solution was still the same– Go Forward, horse!– but I helped him gain confidence by remaining behind, or alongside his (much braver) workmate. Knowing the horse next to him would “protect” him from the Bad Meanies, he was better able to relax and settle into his gallop. I still gave him lots of big kicks, but maintained a soft rein to gently guide him straight and allow him to go forward as I asked.

Now, some two weeks later, Horse B is relaxed and quiet galloping in front through the wide open fields, He still grows 2 hands and wants to drop behind my leg when he sees the cows, but he trusts me now, and bravely goes on with just a cluck and shake of the reins. He jogs past the big cross-country jumps with just a peek, because he now understands that I won’t put him in harm’s way. He’s become so much happier with his job, because he doesn’t have to be the leader anymore– he is relieved to let me call the shots,and he takes security from being told what to do.

Starting a young, green horse in eventing is much the same. On a first cross-country school, it’s important to fill the horse with confidence and trust. If you believe jumping cross-country is The Best Thing Ever!! chances are good he will pick up on that attitude, as he looks to you for support. Asking your horse to go forward– something most horses naturally love to do– and allowing him to take you there, with praise and support for a job well done is the key to developing a happy, trusting horse who wants to try for you.

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