Building a Horse’s confidence is often a popular topic – it makes total sense. Wouldn’t it be nice if your horse didn’t spook at the plastic bag blowing across the ground, the bird that flew out of the bush behind you, or the infamous corner of the arena that all the horses seem to spook at?

Growing confidence can be tricky. Slow to fill with confidence like filling a bucket of water, and very quick to be empty if you knock it over.

In the last edition of Equestrian Ontario Magazine we looked at the finding the ‘green’ calm alert state to get our horses in a mind frame where they are ready to learn. As we try to create a yes response, it is important to get your horse into a green state first.

Once your horse is ready to learn, it’s time to Create a Yes Horse by creating a ‘yes’ response to different things.

Create a Yes Horse

Creating a ‘yes’ horse is pretty simple at the core:

I ask, you try, I reward.

Research shows that when you use rewards (also known as positive reinforcement) they try harder. Not only will horses try harder, but you can also start to override negative reactions they were having with positive ones.

The brain is pretty lazy; it likes to make automatic pathways so it doesn’t have to think too hard. These pathways can become hardwired to say yes or say no to requests.

Think of people in your life – can you think of some ‘no’ people that typically always have an excuse for not helping out, or just say no to ideas or suggestions? Do you know any ‘yes’ people that help out, listen to new ideas, and say yes to opportunities?

Part of the reason that someone (or a horse) might get stuck in a ‘no’ response is they feel the need to protect themselves. For example if they have been hurt or taken advantage of in the path, or had a bad experience when they did say yes. Sometimes it’s just because ‘no’ is the easier response, or usually works out well – maybe they haven’t experienced joy yet from saying ‘yes.’

The good news is that brain (neural) pathways can change, but it will take time and repetition. Think of it like riding around the track in the arena. If you constantly ride the same path around the arena you will create a track or indent in the footing. If you keep riding in the track it will become deeper and harder to fix, but with time and work you can smooth out the ground again – but if you aren’t careful the old track will come back.

The goal of this part of the training is to get your horse confident and happy to say yes. We are going to do this by creating lots of good experiences for doing what we want.

First off you need to figure out what type of rewards you will use.

Common Reward Types

  • Treats, grass, or other food
  • Scratches or rubs
  • Rest breaks
  • Exploring new things

Benefits to Using Treats/ Food

  • Most horses like them
  • They are fast to use
  • Encourages the horse to chew which helps release tension
  • You can cause the horse to stretch/bend more often by choosing where to give the treat – for example give the treat holding your hand low to encourage the horse to lower their head

Once you have rewards that your horse enjoys and will motivate them, and your horse is in a ‘green’ state it is time to start some training exercises.

Easy Wins

The goal is to present challenges in small tasks so that the horse has a chance to say ‘yes’ and receive a reward. This is important because we want to override any ‘no’ response that your horse may have and replace it with feeling like saying ‘yes’ is a good option.

To do this we need to start with some easy wins to get your horse in the habit of saying ‘yes.’ To figure out what is an easy win for your horse, we need to understand there are many types of confidences.

Types of Confidence

  • Sounds
  • Moving objects
  • Scary looking objects
  • Going over things
  • Going between things
  • Going under things
  • Smells
  • Other animals
  • Environment
  • Herd (other horses)

It is important to build your horse’s confidence for each type and not assume that just because your horse can walk over a tarp that they can handle the sound of a got shot. Sounds and going over things are two different types of confidence and we need to start with easy wins for each type to slowly build up the horse’s trust and confidence.

Start with some really simple and easy wins for each type of confidence you want to work on and reward your horse. As your horse starts saying ‘yes’ you can make it more difficult.

For example if you want to train your horse to be confident walking over a bridge with running water it, you could try this sequence of easy wins:

  1. Walk over a pole
  2. Walk over a piece of plywood
  3. Walk over a piece of plywood with poles at either end (so they have to step over something at the start and end)
  4. Walk over a bridge on dry land
  5. Work with your horse in an area near running water
  6. Walk over a bridge in an area near running water
  7. Walk over a bridge with water underneath

You raise the level of easy for each success that you have.

Your challenge is to figure out how you can break each request of your horse down into easy to understand pieces like the example with the bridge above. The goal is to create an automatic pathway where your horse says ‘yes.’ This means you have to be careful not to ask for too much too soon.

Every time you try new things and your horse says ‘yes’, you build both you and your horse’s confidence.

What if your horse says ‘no’?

Along the way your horse might say no to one of your requests. When that happens do a quick reflection to see if:

  • Does your horse look really scared?
  • Does your horse look confused?
  • Is your horse physically able to do the task?
  • Is what you are asking reasonable based on the horse’s fitness, training, experience, and environment?

Depending on what you observe will help you know what to do next.

  • Wait and be patient with the horse while they figure it out
  • Clarify to horse what you want by changing the way you ask
  • Motivate your horse by causing the right thing to be more rewarding and not trying to be annoying
  • Adjust the task to something that is within your horse’s capabilities

One piece of the puzzle

Remember that using rewards with easy wins to create a ‘yes’ horse is just one piece of the puzzle. Having a calm alert state, playing the confidence games (Touch it, All around Game, Boomerang, and Calm Connection exercises during distractions), and reconditioning are all important to building trust and confidence.

Stay tuned for the next article on building confidence and have fun with your easy wins and creating a ‘yes’ horse.

Learn more about using positive reinforcement without making a cookie monster by checking out the free video series on the Harmony Horsemanship website.