HOW to build a horse’s confidence


Several people asked about the horse who was bracy vs relaxed going over a tarp and over jumps and although agreeing with the principles of confidence, relaxation, yielding mentally and the WHAT – wanted more ideas about HOW to do this!

If we think about approach and retreat, and repetition — HOW can we do this with a tarp — in a way that enables us to not force the issue and gives our horse the freedom to choose how brave to be?

Here is one idea:  the circling game.

With the circling game, you can apporach and leave an object – AND then you come back to it again and again — approach and retreat combined with repetition.

Set up the tarp somewhere in the arena — in fact, while you are at it, put some poles around too (some that will stay still, others that will move if your horse knocks them).    Scatter the poles at random.  Place the tarp so you know exactly where to stand so the easiest route for a circle for your horse lies right across that tarp.  Place it so your horse can choose, if they want, to go around the tarp to complete the circle — but that the easiest path is to just go right across it.

Now, ask your horse to circle, just a normal circling game — but stand where that tarp is on the easy path.  Now, you really don’t CARE whether your horse goes over the tarp or not — after all, this is not about MAKING your horse go onto the tarp.  As far as you’re concerned, you are just playing a circling game and the tarp is just lying around.  The one non negotiable is that you rhose is not allowed to come CLOSER to you to go around the tarp — after all, that is one habit we do not want to teach!  so as far as you are concerned, you are playing the circling game, just as you usually do, and that tarp is the shortest way round the circle.

See what happens.

Some horses will go on the circle, notice the tarp — and just go right across it.  Now it’s not something the human is focusing on, they will pay hardly any attention to it and just head on over it.  Continuing the circling and doing it at different gaits, doing gait changes on the tarp and ending the game while your horse is on the tarp so that becomes the stopping place works well for these horses.

Some horses will trot off on the circle — and stop when they reach the tarp.  They will probably look at you as if to say ” how can I circle when the tarp is im my way, silly human!” .  Just disengage them and send them on a circle the other way…they might stop again but eventually they will sigh and just head on over the tarp.

Some horses will trot off on the circle — see the tarp and swing WIDE around it — they are happy to continue the circle, and are poloite enough to do that, but they really don’t want to go on that tarp.  That’s ok — remember, we aren’t bothered about the tarp, we are just playing circling and the tarp happens to be there.  With these horses, we just carry on with the circling game exactly as if the tarp isn’t there.  We play change of gait, change of direction — the only rule is that our horse does not come BETWEEN us and the tarp but apart from that we don’t care — we might even laugh at the effort our horse is putting into going AROUND that tarp — if they would put that much effort into other things how much easier life would be LOL.  With this horse, keep the circling game going  until….. on one circle, our horse will forget to run around the tarp — might even touch it with two feet when not going quite so far around it as before….and some of us might think that’s the time to stop and reward — but not yet.  That was almost an accident so we don’t want to stop yet, not quite yet — we can reward with our voice, or by slowing a gait as recognition of the try (not every release has to be total…)

Then the next time, our horse will touch it again, and again….each time we say well done, but we don’t want them to be going on the tarp because WE want them to — we want them to be going on the tarp because THEY want to — as it is the easiest way round the circle, its only logical that if they are relaxed, they will WANT to go across the tarp.  We know our horse will go on the tarp is WE ask them to — what we are looking for is for them to go on the tarp because THEY want to…

So as our horse gets more and more comfortable just trotting right across that tarp, we don’t ask for anything while they are on the tarp — when they are on the tarp we are in total neutral — we watch their body and face for signs that this is becoming easier and easier….and as they soon start asking us “when can we stop the circle? have I done enough?”  we stop them while they are on the tarp and tell them how great they are.  We walk up to them, keeping them on the tarp — and then give them a treat or rub before going off to do other things during the session.

With some horse this takes two or three circles. With one I recently played with it took him over 20 circles before he sighed, lowered his head and just did the cricles, ignoring the tarp completely.

Every now and then during the session of other games, let’s come back to the circle — and every time after they go over the tarp two or three times, lets stop the circling game on that tarp and give them a long break there….

I mean a LONG break.  Not a minute, or two minutes.  I mean sit down next to them and read a book.  Make this a MEANINGFUL break — and be totally relaxed yourself.  and wait.  and wait.

If you have done this right — your horse will be confident about tarp from the repetition of the circling game. As your horse is an LBI she will be happy to stand and do nothing.  So we cause the tarp to be that place.

When you come OFF the tarp, play other games looking for energy and try.

When you do the circling game and stop on the tarp — stop and sit a while.

A real while in horse terms is longer than most of us humans think — we are ready to go again after a few seconds.  One thing I do when playing with horses where I think my own impatience might get in the way of what is best for the horse, is I will put on my ipod and make sure that I sit and rest for a whole song.

Once you have done this with the tarp — do this 7 times in a row – ie the next 7 times you play.  this consistency will make sure the motivation to be on that tarp is really embedded.  In fact, you could end up with the opposite problem that your horse is dragging you to the tarp – how great would that be! So get consistency by doing this the next 7 times — but add some variety by moving the tarp to different places in the arena each time…

Then to move to another level — start doing the travelling circling game around the arena — with all those poles scattered at random — and play the same game of letting your horse choose her path and allowing her to find her own confidence with the approach and retreat the game will provide.

I am sure there are many other ways to approach this confidence issue — and look forward to seeing other ideas here —  after all I have just used one game here, and there are MANY others,  but for now, this is one HOW to go with the WHAT of the previous blog post….


yours in confidence,




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