Confidence-building is one of the most important things we can do for our horse. The more confidence building we do helps them be safer to work around and less likely to have panic responses in new situations.
Even if you have no desire to ride over tarps, jump ditches, or have somebody toss a teddy bear to you, these types of tasks help prepare your horse for different unexpected situations in the future.
Confidence-building can be complicated, there are many ways to build confidence, and some of them can be damaging to your horse if done improperly. That is why I have broken this series into four different parts. This is the last part in the series.
In the first part we talked about finding a calm connection which is really important to establish the “green” calm alert state.
Then in part 2 we talked about creating a yes horse and establishing patterns for your horse to become willing and excited to say yes to your new requests.
In part 3 we talked about recognizing the different types of confidence and tackling each one individually.
Now in part for we are going to learn about the all-around game.
Have you ever been riding and all of a sudden a flock of birds flies up from behind you and your horse spins around to try to look at them or bolts forward? Or have you been with your horse and there’s a loud noise and your horse spins to turn and look at it it nearly knocking you over in the process?
In this experience it is because the horse has not learned this exercise or they are conditioned to look at whatever it is that is bothering them. Often this is an overuse of the game “Touch it.”
Touch It is a game where if your horse is worried about something you get them to look at it or approach it, perhaps even touch it. This game is not a bad thing at all. It could be one of the ways that you can help your horse build confidence.
However, most people only practice this method of confidence building and in the end it can have a detrimental effect on your horse.
Just think about it for a second. If you are riding your horse and the snow falls off the arena roof making a loud noise if your horse wants to spin around to look at the snow or where the noise came from then you don’t necessarily know which way they are going to turn… so you might zig when your horse ,zags. For some of you that will be okay, but for others that don’t have a butt made of glue it might mean you become friends with the dirt that day.
This is also not a practical solution in several situations. For example if you are trail riding on a narrow Trail it is not always possible to turn around and look at something, or if you are in the competition ring you usually have a pattern that you need to follow and you can’t take the time to go over and look at something. Not to mention that if you are training your horse to always touch the thing that they are scared of, good luck if that thing is a turkey that your horse is scared of. I am not sure the turkey will want to participate in your touch it game.
Again the touch of game is still a valuable tool for helping to build confidence in horses, but if this is the only method of confidence building that you use it can set you up to fail in certain circumstances.
That is why I want to introduce you to the all-around game.
The All Around Game
One of the exercises from Harmony Horsemanship that we use for confidence building is called the all-around game. There are some other types of games that we play but the all-around game is unique to Harmony Horsemanship and usually the missing piece for many people when building confidence.
The all-around game practices having your horse have different distractions, or potentially scary things positioned around your horse that they are not allowed to look at and not allowed to touch. The idea is that the horse has to trust you that they do not have to look and that they do not have to touch. To help make sure the horse does not get overwhelmed or feel flooded, we use positive reinforcement to reward the horse when they are able to resist the urge to look or touch.
How to play
- -Start by setting up some different distractions in your arena or play area. For example you can set up a tarp, a ball, a stuffed animal on a barrel, a rain jacket on a fence, or anything funny looking.
- – Next start with the cam connection exercises to make sure that your horse is in a calm alert state. These are the exercises that were discussed in part one of this series.
- – Once your horse is in that green state ready to learn, start some of the create a yes horse exercises that are going to set your horse up in a mood where they are eager to please and excited to try. We talked about these in part 2 of this series.
- – Then you are going to start by approaching different distractions where they are at the side of your horse. You are not going to approach them straight on or head-on, you will position them such that you can almost ride past them with it right at your side. You can have the objects or distraction positioned so you can choose to practice both your left and your right side. Stop at each distraction where the object is at your side, try to position it roughly around the saddle position area. Be at a distance from the object that is comfortable for you and the horse. This might start out as 10 feet away from the object and be as close as just a few inches. Ask your horse not to look or touch the object by keeping them pointed straight and not allowing them to turn and look at the object. When they can resist the urge to look or touch give them their yes word and reward.
- – Continue this exercise with the same side and the same type of confidence until your horse can master it. Then you can progress to work the other side or a different type of confidence. If you aren’t sure about the different types of confidence then check back in with part 3 of this series.
- – After your horse is really good at experiencing distractions at their side, it is time to progress and ask them to have distractions behind them. This is where you practice stopping with things behind your horse or having a friend cause a distraction behind your horse at a safe distance and ask your horse not to turn and look. For example you could have your friend stand behind you and open an umbrella. If your horse can resist the urge to turn around and look you can use your yes word and reward.
By practicing the all-around game you help your horse better handle the unexpected surprise distractions that we often experience when working in uncontrolled environments. For example when you are trail riding or riding outdoors and you never know when a bird might fly through your path, a tumbleweed may roll by your horse’s legs, or some random garbage will be blowing in the wind.
Practicing the touch it game is still a good one for confidence-building and helps your horse when you were asking them to face objects straight on, over objects, or directly towards something that is on or very nearly on the path you want to follow.
There are more games to build confidence with but between these two types of games you can often create a horse that is very confident and very willing.
Reprogramming your horse’s Brain
Probably one of the neatest things about using this type of confidence building method is that you can actually reprogram your horse’s brain. For most horses when they see something potentially scary or distracted they go into an emotional state and they move into that red fight or flight state. However when you start practicing the all-around game your horse starts to think that distractions are your idea.
They think distractions are part of the game and they’re going to get a cookie for it. This completely changes the way they react to new distractions. Instead of being anxious about scary or new things they actually become excited about new things because they think about the reward. This can change a previously negative response into a positive one.
So I guess the rumors are true, Harmony Horsemanship does have a secret to reprogramming your horses brain and I’ve just shared it for all of you.
Set up for success
Be careful that you don’t set up anything potentially dangerous that your horse can get caught in or that will hurt them. For example stuffed toys are great because they are super soft and even if it accidentally falls on your horse it will not hurt them. Versus if you pick up a pole or a block of wood and accidentally drop it on your horse that might hurt them.