Confidence building is a big topic – there are many pieces to think about.
In the first article we learned about having a calm connection with our horse and establishing a “green” state. Meaning the horse is calm, alert and are ready to learn.
Then the second we learned about creating a yes horse and establishing a pattern where the horse is willing and excited to say yes. These are two very key pieces that set you up for success when you head into this next set of exercises.
Now we start to expose horses to different things that may trigger fear responses in your horse.
If you do not have a relationship based on trust, calmness, togetherness, willingness, or motivation it is going to make confidence-building very difficult. You can make the experience a lot more enjoyable and easier by following the steps outlined in the other two articles before starting this set.
Types of Confidence
Time to dig in on this article’s focus which is the different types of confidences and how we can start exposing our horse to different things.
We want to remember that there are many different types of confidence and that just because your horse is really brave in one type, your horse could still be a chicken in another type.
For example your horse might be very brave going across bridges and pools, but if snow slides off of the roof of the arena they might get scared because that is a different type of confidence.
First off we have to recognize the different types of confidences that we can build in our horses. Once we know different tasks for each type of confidence we can begin training our horse in a way that sets them up for success rather than overwhelming them. Horses get overwhelmed when we assume they will be okay with one thing just because they did another.
Here is a list of some of the different types of confidence in horses:
- Herd confidence, which means their comfort level around other horses. For example a horse passing you while riding or another horse getting close to you.
- Auditory confidence, which means comfort level with noises.
- Smell confidence, which has to do with your horse being comfortable with different types of smells. For example fire versus different smells of other animals.
- Moving objects, which could include dragging obstacles or a rolling plastic bag going through the arena.
- Other animals, which is comfort level with other types of animals whether it be deer that you see in the forest or cows that you see in a barnyard.
- Stationary objects, which has to do with scary looking things that do not move and could be something like a mailbox.
- Squeeze confidences, which involves your horse going into tight spaces which include trailer loading, going between trees on a trail ride, or going through Gates.
- Lighting, which has to do with shadows or light that can have an effect on a horse’s ability to see depth or judge what an object really is. Some horses have low confidence level with this and it could be related to poor eyesight.
- Environment confidence which has to do with confidence in new environments or new places.
Some tasks that we ask our horse to handle involve more than one type of confidence. These things make it much more difficult because they are combining more than one type of confidence.
- Going through a metal gate because you may have a squeeze and auditory confidence if there is a metal chain clanking up against the gate.
- A trailer is another good example because there is the squeeze, followed by smells potentially of other horses or other animals that have been in the trailer, followed by the noise of stepping into the trailer, also the moving aspect of confidence because the trailer may rock underneath them, plus there may be shadows.
- Competing at a festival or fair deals with an environment confidence, along with auditory confidence (the crowd and noise), both moving and stationary objects (rides and objects that look scary), smells (other animals and the different types of food being made), and seeing other animals at the fair is another type of confidence.
When you think about the different tasks that you ask your horse to do, think about the ones that are challenging or easy for them, try to figure out which types of confidence your horse is successful at in which types of confidence your horse struggles with.
A lot of people consider tarps to be scary objects for horses. The reason why a tarp is more scary than walking over a bridge is because a tarp can both be scary looking and a moving object. It can have an auditory factor because it can crinkle and make noise, it can also be something that has lighting challenges because it can create shadows depending on how it is positioned. If you’re asking your horse to walk over a tarp there’s another type of confidence being challenged which is your horses ability to go over something, as well as your horses ability to handle different textures.
Handling different textures can be a reason why your horse might find it difficult to go from a paved road to a gravel road or from a barn aisle to a rubber mat.
There are many more types of confidence including confidence with water which could be going into a pond, through a puddle, or through water box. Part of the reason why horses find water boxes challenging is because they find it hard to determine the depth perception and if something is hiding inside the water.
Now that you understand there are many different types of confidence and you’ve taken the time to think about what your horse is confident with and where your horse lacks confident, we want to figure out little tasks that we can build up their success.
Relate to your Horse
Let’s think about yourself, can you relate to the different types of confidence and think of an area where you lack confidence?
Me for example I am scared of spiders. As well as a bunch of different types of creepy crawly bugs. If you were to assume that I would be brave with bugs just because I have a passion for horses and can be around big animals you would be wrong. I can’t handle the creepy crawly small ones.
If you were to handle the situation by throwing me in a room full of spiders (in psychology that is called flooding), I would probably freak the heck out. Even though I may eventually realize that I’m not going to die and I might settle down, my trust in the person that locked me in the room would be severely damaged. I would forever be skeptical of them and I would question their motives. Even if I survive that particular scenario, in the future I may have huge anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder related to seeing spiders because of my experience of being locked in the room with the spiders that I fear so much.
Now if we take an example of something that does not scare me as much as spiders, I probably would not have as severe a reaction but I would still be skeptical.
So let’s translate this back to your horse. Have you ever seen a horse scared of getting on a trailer, and then the horse finally gets on and the first thing the handler does is lock the horse inside?
Can you relate to how that horse must be feeling? And how they may have huge mistrust for that handler the next time?
It certainly depends on why the horse was not getting on the trailer; if the horse was simply saying I do not want to get on the trailer that is different from the horse saying I am scared of the trailer.
The four reasons why a horse says no is a whole topic in itself and there are four different ways to respond to a horse depending on the reason why they say no. If you are interested to learn more about that there is a free video series that you can find on my website with a free video on this topic.
Another example would be when somebody is trying to get their horse to cross a tarp or a bridge. I see it happen all the time that the person tries to stop the horse on the bridge or on the tarp. Sometimes this works okay if the horse is not truly panicked by the situation, but if the horse is really upset and you do this you run the risk of making it much worse. It is much better to just allow your horse to cross the object and when they are more relaxed ask them to try stopping on it.
When I am working with my horses, I want the horse to think of me as the answer to their problems and the source of comfort for them when they are worried. Because if my horse is looking to me when times get tough or they get scared then I know when we go to competitions or when we are going to try something new we are much safer and a lot more likely to have success.
With that type of partnership in mind, if I think about the qualities that I want in a teacher for myself to build confidence I can realize that it is not so different for horses. Horses have a lot of the same emotions as people do. They experience pain, joy, fear, playfulness and many other emotions.
So although horses and humans are different it can be helpful to think of yourself in the situation to better understand how your horse is going to react and what they need to be successful.
If we take the example of me with my fear of spiders. If instead my teacher would take me to the room of spiders and leave the door open and allow me the time to look inside but retreat to safety if I needed to. I would build trust with that person. Now I’m not saying to become a pushover and not challenge me to conquer my fear. But what I’m saying is to be respectful of the fact that my fear is very real. Just because you are not scared of spiders does not make my fear any less valid.
If my teacher would reward me when I try to conquer my fear when I’m legitimately trying my best then I would be encouraged to try harder. Not only would I be motivated or to try to succeed, but I would do it more confidently. The whole experience would be way less stressful on me, and after I conquer the situation I would have so much more trust and respect for my teacher.
If you think about it, the best teachers in life are the ones that challenge you out of your comfort zone and are able to teach you something new. So as a teacher for your horse you are not trying to never “rock the boat” so to speak, or push them into a threshold. Instead you want to find the areas where they lack confidence and encourage them to grow their confidence by asking them to try and realizing that they can – but without pushing them into a truly panicked state.
Avoiding the panic state
Trust and confidence is best built through gaining patience and understanding. If I know that you understand and respect my fear for spiders – that you will not make fun of me or torment me by throwing a spider on me, then it is easier for me to trust you. Even if I know that you want to work on my fear of spiders, if I know that you will not push me into a panic state I will be able to stay in a thinking frame of mind around you.
With horses it is so important that we stay in a calm and thinking frame of mind because if we push a horse into fight or flight then it can be really dangerous because they are such strong animals. Not to mention that if you push your horse into a panic state several times, then you are going to create an automatic response to become an extremely fearful and panicky horse.
Real Life Example
I just recently had a conversation with somebody that had a horrible trailer accident with her horse that is now blind. The series of events seems pretty innocent, but it was probably very avoidable. Note that I’m not picking on these people at all I’m just trying to share a real life example for you so you can see the importance of why this matters.
What happened is the horse was good at trailer loading, so when they were putting the horse on the trailer and they arrived at the new destination they were going to take the horse off the trailer. They made a mistake and somebody opened the butt bar before undoing the tie to the horse’s halter at the front.
If you didn’t already know this, putting down the butt bar before undoing the halter tie in a trailer is a big No-No. Because often when horses start to back up and then they feel the pressure of the halter inside the trailer they will pop their head up. Because they are in a trailer they often hit their head off of the trailer and they really scare themselves. They often go shooting backwards and break the trailer tie. This leaves the horse feeling very panicked.
Now if this happens to you, it’s not the end of the world. But it is important to not leave this on such a negative awful experience for your horse. Take the time to reload your horse back onto the trailer offer them some positive reinforcement and make it a better experience so they can breathe and come off of the negative energy.
Unfortunately in this example there was nothing done about the negative experience. They counted the blessing that the horse was not injured and carried on with whatever they were doing. The next time they loaded the horse on the trailer it took a little while but eventually they got the horse on and they quickly shut the door behind it. This is another big No-No. Now we’ve got a horse that had a bad experience, a legitimate excuse to get upset, followed by being scared and now locked into the trailer).
Let’s put this into the same example of me with the room full of spiders. It would be the equivalent of me being locked in the room full of spiders and getting bitten by a spider and having a painful and scary experience. Followed by the next time being locked into the spider room. It is completely reasonable that I would be terrified that I’m going to get bitten again. The entire time in the room I would be fretting about getting bitten because that was my most recent experience.
So essentially this horse is trapped inside this box while they are driving to the destination. There is no relief, there is no comfort, there is no reward, there is just internal panic. You can imagine how upsetting the horse is when they get off the trailer. Even though they get off the trailer safely they still remember the horrible anxiety that they felt inside the trailer and they probably leave thinking oh my gosh I’m so thankful that I survived this time. But that felt awful and I never want to do it again.
So the next time they go to load the horse on the trailer it is now even worse and the horse is taking forever to load is starting to rear up and be very fear stricken. To the point that the horse flips over falls on its head and is now blind.
It is such a sad and unfortunate incident, and I know these people love their horse dearly and did not mean for this to happen at all. I myself have had incidences in the past where I have accidentally hurt an animal because I just didn’t know better. The only thing that I felt comfort in was to say sorry and thank the animal for teaching me to be a better human so in the future I would not do that again.
So I am in no means picking on those individuals for what happened, but instead saying let’s learn from the situation and see how that could have been prevented.
When you look at this example can you imagine yourself in the same situation and realize why the horse became so panic-stricken? Can you see how a horse that originally was really good for loading became so traumatized that they ended up making themselves go blind?
So there are a couple tips that I’m going to give you to help set you on a path of success with your horse when it comes to building confidence.
- Recognize which type of confidence you are working on. If you realize that you are working on a task that involves more than one type of confidence, and during the process you realize that it is too much for your horse or your horse is getting panicked, be prepared to break that object or task into separate pieces. So for example with trailer loading if your horse is finding that too difficult there are a few ways that you can break that into different steps. For example you can set up a shoot to practice walking your horse in between 2 barrels, or a narrow stall or something like that that is a smaller space but that doesn’t involve the auditory, or moving aspects.
- Recognize when your horse is going into the red zone and be careful not to push your horse into the fight-or-flight number 10 on the energy scale. We talked about this in the last article on confidence-building. It is helpful to push your horse out of the comfort zone a little bit, but the goal is to avoid the Panic “red” Zone. Because if you are consistently panicking your horse you are going to terrify them and create a lot of anxiety and potentially post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Be patient with your horse and always repeat a task until your horse is relaxed with the task. The idea is not to leave your horse thinking that they survived the task, but instead to have your horse thinking that they conquered it.
So now it’s time to get creative about thinking of some smaller steps within each type of confidence to build your horse up successfully. I’m going to give you a couple examples from common types of confidences where horses struggle.
Exercise to try:
Auditory confidence can be challenging for a lot of different horses. This is the ability to handle different types of noises. One simple option is to use the radio. However your horse can get used to one type of music so I recommend playing different songs throughout your sessions switching from heavy metal, to Country, to classical, to pop music. This will expose your horse to many different types of sound and pitches. This can actually be something that you can use to help soothe your horse if they are scared of a noisy arena from wind or snow falling off the roof. Sometimes if you play the radio and you have already conditioned your horse to be comfortable to the radio they can actually find it comforting.
You can progress to having a friend go on the outside of the arena and tap the wall with something to create noise you can progress to having a friend go on the outside of the arena and tax the wall with something to create noise. By having a friend have the wall to create noise you can start with a soft top noise and eyes your horse doesn’t react you can reward them, and then increase the rhythm or the intensity of the top to make it more challenging.
For environment confidence which is the ability of your horse to be in new places, you can start by going to places where they can still see their comfort zone. So for example if your horse is scared of leaving the barn but you want to go on a trail ride you can first start by practicing leaving the barn but still keeping it in sight and returning to the barn. You practice leaving and coming back to the barn without ever having the barn leave the horse’s site. Then you practice leaving and going just out of sight of the barn but then turning around and coming back to where they can see it again and turning around and leaving again. You continue to progress this as your horse gets more comfortable until you can completely leave the barn and it is out of sight and out of mind. This is less traumatizing than forcing your horse to leave.
Warning it is usually a very bad idea to lead your horse away from the barn and when you are far enough away get on your horse to complete the ride. This is a bad idea because they are so incredibly anxious that they can be dangerous, or when they realize where the barn is again they might actually bolt towards home. Even though it can take more time in the beginning, it is much safer to progressively and safely build up your horses trust and confidence.
Another common type of confidence that horses lack is with moving objects. One of the easy ways to progress this is by having a friend walk around the arena constantly waving a flag around or kicking a ball or some other type of moving object. Have them not focused on you at all but just simply walk around the arena randomly moving the object around. It is best if they are not to rhythmic but instead if they are sporadic with how they move the object around. As your horse gains confidence and realizes that the moving object is not going to bother them, they can then handle bigger movements or bigger objects. So for example in the beginning you might do gentle swirls with the flag and as they get comfortable you progressed to being able to flap the flag around really big and instead of walking around the arena slowly doing a little bit of running around and working up the confidence level.
Remember the goal is to start with something that’s going to challenge your horse’s confidence a little bit but not throw them into a panic zone.
Sometimes it happens where we accidentally put our horse into a panic situation. If that happens try to lessen the stimulus a little bit so your horse can regain a thinking frame of mind but don’t stop altogether if you can help it. This is because we want to help the horse get back to a relaxation state with whatever it was that scared them otherwise they will be extremely scared the next time they experience it. As long as you leave the situation better than what it was, it should be able to be better the next time you start with it.
Addressing the different types of confidence is really key to creating a really confident horse that can handle many different types of distractions. The more you do with your horse in the different types of confidence the better they will be able to handle surprises. And ultimately the safer they will be to be around. But perhaps the most rewarding part is that when something upsets your horse in the future they will learn to look to you for direction rather than wanting to run away.