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Building your horse’s confidence

During the past year, I learned first-hand how difficult it is to train a young horse. I asked Leslie Laing, owner of Falcon Creek Farm, to write a column about how one determines when he or she is ready to handle an untrained horse. Laing is a Level 4 Certified Horsemanship Association instructor and a Level 3 Parelli Natural Horsemanship student (she has completed Level 2). – Erica WhitcombeI recently went on a trail ride in the mountains with several friends. One woman was on a young horse that had been on several previous rides and was content to follow behind the other horses wherever they went: up hills, across streams, under low branches and over rough terrain. The trail, however, was strewn with fallen trees from the past winter, and the horses had to step and sometimes jump over the logs across the trail. At the first log, the young horse came to a dead stop.The log was just a little too big for him to jump over – or so he thought. It wasn’t too big; he just lacked the confidence to jump it.The dictionary defines confidence as the “belief in oneself and one’s powers or abilities; full trust, assurance.” Many people think horses are big, tough, fearless animals that can do anything we ask of them, and these people become irritated by a horse that won’t jump over a silly little log or cross a tiny creek. These horses are often labeled as “bad.” But such reluctance doesn’t equate to bad, lazy or stubborn – it comes from a lack of confidence.Horses are genetically wired with primitive survival mechanisms that have worked for thousands of years to keep them alive. A horse’s No. 1 need is safety, and when a horse feels safe, he is confident. If a horse does not feel safe or trust his handler to keep him from harm; he will be tense, anxious and difficult to handle.For example, many horses are afraid of loading into a trailer. From a horse’s point of view; a trailer is small, dark and confining. It looks suspiciously like a cave that could trap a horse and make him vulnerable to predators. A horse that loads easily has gained trust and confidence in his handler and through experience has learned that no harm will come to him in the trailer.A horse that tosses his head during bridling fears that his rider will hurt him with the bit, either while having it put in his mouth or while being ridden. He has lost confidence with the whole bridling process.A horse that balks at a small creek or puddle is saying, “I can’t go in there – an alligator or snake might get me!”Creating confidence is much easier than restoring it. If a horse hasn’t been given the chance to build confidence in relation to a task, humans increase the horse’s tension and anxiety by asking for too much, too soon. Too much pressure can cause reactive and explosive behavior, and, once a horse has been frightened by a situation, rebuilding confidence is difficult.The best way to teach a horse how to confidently jump logs on the trail is to start at home in the arena, walking and trotting over ground poles and then graduating to low jumps. A horse that is scared of crossing creeks may need to start out with shallow puddles. I always tell my students to think of horses as 1,000-pound chickens. Of course, they aren’t, but thinking of them in this way helps us to understand their seemingly irrational behavior.While too much pressure can destroy confidence, curiosity can help build it. Sniffing, pawing, tasting and looking are all signs of curiosity. I encourage my horses to investigate things they are afraid of until they almost seem to grow bored of them. It is crucially important to give a horse time so he can be assured that no harm will come to him through curiosity.Timing expectations also can affect confidence. If we expect a horse to suddenly lose his fear of crossing water or jumping into a trailer, we are asking for too much. It may take hours, days, weeks or even months for a horse to build enough confidence to willingly and trustfully do what you want.The next time you see your horse exhibit what you think is silly, over-reactive fear or plain stubbornness; ask yourself if he lacks the confidence to try. You may think he can do it, but it’s what he thinks that really matters.Next month: “Building the rider’s confidence”Editor’s note: Leslie Laing is writing this column while Erica Whitcombe is on a hiatus.

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