Confidence can be a tricky thing for both you and your horse. It can take a long time to develop, but so easy for it to disappear in the blink of an eye. But why is confidence so hard to achieve? And when we have a knock to our confidence how can we overcome it?
The interesting thing is that building confidence for ourselves or for our horse is really not that different. A lot of the same principles still apply.
A lot of people know me as the Thoroughbred makeover trainer or Canada’s Horse Whisperer. But what a lot of people do not know is that I am also a public health nurse, with a bachelor in Health Sciences and my area of research is in mental health. Specifically I look a lot at resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from stress and life’s challenges. Because I work in public health the research I do is upstream and preventative work, so when you hear mental health you might be thinking mental illness but that is not actually the case. We all have mental health.
What I discovered during my research is the techniques and strategies I use with horses, were the evidence based recommendations being promoted for humans. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising because animals, whether it be horses, dogs, etc have emotions similar to our own like fear, joy, sadness, frustration, and more.
Over the years I have become a master at building confidence in horses by applying the psychology I’ve learned through my public health nursing. I think it is a big part of what led to my success and having one of my horses win the Trail division at the international Thoroughbred makeover run by the Retired Racehorse Project over the last three years.
What was really interesting for me when I teamed up with a therapist and a veteran of equine-assisted therapy, Ãsa Woodman, I realized that it is not just the confidence of the horse that we need to consider when training, we also need to consider the rider.
You may have heard the saying that you can fake it until you make it. But I don’t think this is true with horses. Horses are so in tune with our energy and body language, that they can smell your fear from a mile away. Perhaps not literally, but if you are in an anxious state that will definitely affect your horse.
When we talk about self regulation which is the ability to recognize and control your emotions, we often refer to the colors of red, yellow and green.
Red is a highly anxious or high energy state, yellow is a low energy or to press estate, and green is the call mother to state.
It is important to know that we can only learn when we are in a green state. Therefore it is really important when we’re with a scared or stubborn horse that we be careful not to push them into a red state from being to a certain for demanding.
Training becomes a bit of a juggling act of pushing the horse to threshold in asking them to learn and grow, but peeing careful to recognize when they’re starting to go read and not pushing them to the point of fight or flight.
I knew this about horses, but Ãsa shared with me the importance of recognizing this I’m ourselves too. Because of this I think it is really important that coaches be careful not to overwhelm their students, and that we ourselves as Riders be kind to ourselves when we are scared or feeling anxious and allow ourselves the time to get back to green in that calm Alert state before continuing.
It reminds me of a memory I have when I was learning to jump. My horse refused a barrel jump and my coach instructed me to hit the horse. I half heartedly hit the horse with the crop. Repeatedly he refused the jump and I continued to smack the horse as instructed. On the outside I probably just looked stoic, but on the inside I was scared. I never ended up jumping the barrels during the lesson. In the end I lost confidence in my coach and stopped taking lessons from them. I continued to be terrified of barrel jumps for an entire year before I found a different coach that approached the situation with encouragement and positive thinking.
Looking back, I can see the big difference so clearly. The first time I was learning to jump girls, I had been pushed into a red zone. With too much force. The horse probably was reading that energy and even though physically he was capable of doing the jump but was responding to my body and therefore we were not successful. Where is the second coach that was able to help me get over the barrels with able to keep me in a, alert state. Although I was being asked to step outside of my comfort zone, I was not pushed beyond my limits. I was allowed the time to breathe, think, and work my way through the situation.
Be a Source of Trust not Fear
If you can imagine yourself scared of something. Then imagine somebody dragging you towards it while you were kicking and screaming because you’re literally scared. Can you see how you would become scared of that person? You would begin not to trust their intentions and you may even try to avoid them? Being around that person in new situations may cause you to get anxious right away simply because you do not trust being around them, but with somebody else that same situation might be okay.
This is why it is so important to respect a horse’s fear and limitations. You can carefully nudge them to continue trying and thinking about it, but we really need to respect what causes then to go red. Because when they go red, they cannot learn and process information.
Often we can help prevent our horse or ourselves from going red by simply giving ourselves more time to breathe and process information. This is why the method of ask, tell, demand can be really harmful to certain types of horses that are genuinely scared.
It can be useful to start and finish sessions with the calm connection exercises from the harmony training continuum. Also anytime you or your horse start to feel like you are going red you can do the calm connection exercises to help you get back to green.
Sometimes we can avoid thresholds (something that pushes our comfort zone) because we don’t want to upset the horse. However, our comfort zones can become smaller and smaller.
It is healthy to grow our boundaries and to challenge our thresholds. I love the saying that you cannot have courage and comfort at the same time. The challenge for you is to have courage but not instill fear in either you or your horse.
For more about the Harmony Energy Scale and how to find ‘green’ check out the Free Video Series on the Harmony Horsemanship website.