What if it’s my HORSE who is unconfident?

“ok here’s something a bit different for you — *I* am a very confident rider – it’s my HORSE who is scared!! My previous horse was a go anywhere do anything gelding — we hacked everywhere. I had to retire him, so he is having a great time in the field now with his friends. I bought a younger horse — he was backed and ridden away and is 7 — I was told he was a happy hacker and enjoyed going out by himself. But from the moment I got him, he has been a complete wimp! I gave him time to settle in — I have had him the whole winter — but he STILL gets worried leaving the yard, and riding him is like riding a horse who is just waiting for something to frighten him — he is tense the whole time and spooks at things I can’t even see! in the indoor school we have he is fine — goes like a dream, in the outdoor he is really spooky, especially on a loose rein — and I really am not enjoying hacking out because it feels like I am just pushing him through his fear the whole time. so what can you do for a HORSE’S confidence?”

Wonderful question and I met a person the other day who said a very similar thing. The good news is that you CAN build a horse’s confidence. The bad news is that, just like with people, you can also make it WORSE if you push too far too fast or if you don’t make sure you have a solid foundation before asking for more.

It is wonderful that you have a solid base of confidence and had such a lovely horse previously – that means you are in a great place to help your current horse.

There are three basic principles when working to build horse’s confidence: one is thresholds, the second is approach and retreat (or more accurately, retreat and approach!), and the third is your leadership

Thresholds: this is a very useful way to think about your horse’s fear – when he is worried by something, he has reached a threshold.

If you push your horse through a threshold, then you are “pushing him into the water” as in an earlier answer – if your horse is usually confident and relaxed, then pushing him past might work – if your horse is NOT confident and relaxed, by pushing him past you are teaching him that when he gets worried you will not listen to him, and you will force him to go past whatever worries him…and the next time he meets a threshold he will be even MORE worried.

When your horse reaches a threshold, you will get that feeling from him of “I CANT go past this”—that is your cue to shift to threshold management. Interestingly, the FIRST thing to do is to ask your horse to take a step BACK. Although this seems counter-intuitive, what you are actually doing is saying to your horse “it’s ok, I am not going to force you through, in fact, let’s take the pressure OFF you so we can both think clearly”. You will usually feel your horse’s tension lessen a bit as you ask him back a step or two. By acknowledging his threshold, and showing you listen, his trust in you strengthens.

Now you have a choice of actions:

• Wait. Just wait – keeping your horse facing the scary object or forwards so he doesn’t think he can turn around or run away from it – but just sit there and wait for your horse to relax. One horse I rode up a strange driveway stopped at the second tree – I backed her up a step then sat there – I stopped her from turning round but otherwise just sat there with her. After a few minutes (it seemed much longer as I sat there – have a watch to help you realise it is not really THAT long) she sighed, licked her lips (signs of relaxation) and lowered her head. At this point I gently asked her with my seat “can you move forward?” and she said – yes but only a step. After a few steps like this she suddenly totally relaxed and we walked up the whole drive. The next day, she walked up the drive with just a few hesitations – so the time I had invested paid off.

So you wait – look for signs of relaxation – -head lowering, sighing – head looking around at other things – and then invite your horse to move forward. Even if you only get the slightest movement – reward your horse as if he has won the grand national. Taking this time proves to the horse that you are not going to force him – -and develops his trust in you for future thresholds.

Now you are probably thinking – if I do this I will be waiting my whole life! Be reassured that if you spend a week or so doing this, your horse will worry less and less about his thresholds, trusting that you will give him time to work things out – and, like with the horse I rode, very quickly your horse will be relaxing and riding past everything he was previously worried by.

• Play “retreat and approach”: if you are a confident rider, and there is room to do this, you can play the squeeze game to build your horse’s confidence with the object or space. This involves finding and retreating to he distance away from the threshold or scary object where your horse just begins to tense up – and riding PAST the object at that distance in a sort of half circle, going past and then turning your horse to face the object when you are well past it. Repeat this – and you will feel your horse starting to relax about the object, and even go closer and closer to it until he is hardly noticing it. The key is to let the HORSE be the one who chooses how close he goes – this is a confidence building exercise so if you force him to go closer than he wants, you will damage his confidence in himself and you as a leader.

This works because each time you go past the object and turn your horse to face it, he is “disengaging” his HQ – which calms a horse down and gets him thinking. Also, it is a form of desensitisation as he gets used to the object.

• Get off!!! If your horse is getting more worried, wants to run away, and you don’t feel safe riding him past the scary object – you probably don’t have enough leadership in his eyes to keep him safe. Then, for any of us who do ground work with our horses, the safest thing is to go to where we DO have leadership – to the ground!! By getting off, and moving yourself up to his head – -and putting yourself BETWEEN him and the scary object, you are being a good leader (you are also staying safe as if he spooks he will spook AWAY from the object and therefore away from you!)

Once on the ground, you can use your leadership to play retreat and approach with the object to build his confidence. If you have the space you can use the squeeze game, if not, then you can ask your horse to move forwards a step and backwards as a reward until his nose is touching the object – remember, take your TIME On this! Your objective is not to just get past the object – it is to build your horse’s confidence so that in a week’s time he doesn’t WORRY about an object like this.

As you can see a lot of this is about your horse’s confidence in YOU. After all, we might SAY a horse is hacking out alone – but he isn’t, YOU are with him. If he sees you as a trustworthy leader, then he is going to be much more confident when hacking out.

There are many things you can do to build and develop leadership with your horse –ground work is a good place to start, proving to your horse that you reward a try and will never force the issue. Then you can transfer this to the saddle.

You can also go along to despooking days – confidence building clinics and so on  you could practice this leadership in an arena and field so you can build this relationship before taking it out on the trail!

yours in confidence,



3 thoughts on “What if it’s my HORSE who is unconfident?

  1. A very useful repsonse Cathy. I think determining that moment when the horse is just complying in ‘coping’ mode is so important. My horse is so willing, he will go ahead and do things he’s completely uncomfortable doing, but it’s just feeds the fear if he is not allowed to digest the information in front of him and think for a beat. Some of these types I feel need re-training on a regular basis, as they do seem to slip back if the groundwork is just left for years on end.

    • Hi Kya — I think you are absolutely right — there are some horses who need constant refreshing — at least for the first few hundred hours

      A western horseman I respect once told me that up to 50 hours a horse should be considered unstarted,
      up to 150 hours they are really green
      150-350 they are still green
      over 350 you should see a change in mindset, and a positive reflex to work
      over 500 — now you have a horse with a foundation ready to do some specialised work

      so up to the 500 hours mark — constant focus is needed — and of course, one of his hours was probably worth a few of mine!!

      some things to think about!


  2. Hi Cathy – very interesting blog about spooking. Now I have a problem! You suggest backing up a few steps to take the pressure off and allowing them time to look, but my mare goes suddenly and very rapidly into reverse and the only way I can stop her is to turn her round so her backend is towards the “spook”. I can then get off and lead her past and when she calms down I get back on. I have tried turning her round in a circle, ending up a little further away in the hope she will stand and look, but she just backs up and she can go very fast, we nearly ended up on a car bonnet once! Now this doesn’t happen very often but, sod’s law, it’s usually on the road in situations very difficult to reproduce. i.e. herd of young bullocks galloping across a field, I allowed her to watch but then they galloped towards her and some galloped up behind on the other side of the hedge – horses can trot backwards! Her default setting seems to be run backwards, she’s never attempted to run off forwards. Her groundwork is good and she can be lead in hand past anything (touch wood) but no amount of disengaging her feet will stop the reversing. She is also almost impossible to ride in the lead when out with other horses. She was a rescue tb, abandoned by her owner so we have no idea of her history. She is a very gentle, kind girl. Any suggestions, please?

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