How do I cause my horse to become confident in the wind and rain? With all this bad weather keeping my horse with me mentally is proving challenging and going out is out of the question. Is it possible that my horse is scared of this natural phenomenon?
Great question — and your last sentence gives a clue. This is a natural phenomenon — so how does he behave in the wind when you are NOT playing with him? Take a windy day and watch him outside…then look at him when you are with him….
What does wind do? It messes up the way sound and smells travel. On a windy day, a horse might not smell the predator approaching; might not hear the hunter’s steps.
In a herd, this is less important as one horse can look at the others and everyone takes a turn watching, listening and scenting the air — notice in a herd how some horses will position themselves so the wind blows any scent and sound towards them….
Now take a horse out of his herd – and ask him to concentrate on us — and what happens? for some horses, this is fine, as they trust us, know WE will take care of them — so they can relax and not worry. For others, we are asking them to focus on us when for all they know, a lion could be hiding round that next corner, or under that bush and by asking them to pay attention to us we are asking them to risk their own safety.
The first time I took my horse up to the Ridgeway to ride with friends on a really windy day, my friends asked me if I was bothered by the wind. I looked over at my horse standing, leg cocked, by the lorry. And realised that she felt totally safe in that environment, with me and my friends. She trusted us to take care of her.
Now there are many ways to approach this — you can think of the more traditional approach and retreat, and play with your horse on a slightly breezy day and gradually build up confidence.
You can take a direct approach and play in the wind — and make yourself more important than anything your horse might be worried about — this can take a LOT of energy and savvy…
One key here is to remember that for a good working relationship with your horse, your horse needs to believe in the “herd of two”.
What does this really mean?
For me, looking at developing hacking with confidence, it means that you are his herd leader and mentor and partner all rolled into one. That if he see anything scary, you will fix it; that if he gets worried, you will sort it out — that if he doesn’t understand something, you will take the time to clarify it, that honest effort and try will be recognised and rewarded, and that lack of effort and try will be noticed and turned into a game…
How do we build the herd of two? Well a lot of things I have already written about will contribute — proving yourself trustworthy, removing brace…
When I was lucky enough to spend some time on Brent Graef’s Young Horse Handling course, where we take yearlings fresh off the range and halter start them, one thing we were constantly reminded to do — was to put ourselves between our horse and the scary thing.
Now in a way this seems to go against the use of the squeeze game as approach and retreat when our horse is bothered by something – but it depends what your objective is. Sometimes your objective is for your horse to gain confidence in an object or thing — get used to plastic bags, or dustbins or whatever. But sometimes your objective is for your horse to build confidence in YOU.
This leads to an interesting distinction between playing games mechanically — and playing them for a purpose. WHY are we playing the friendly game, the circling game, the squeeze game? What is the objective of THIS game right NOW?
Sometimes the purpose can be straightforward — I want to play the circling game to develop my horse’s ability to bend on a circle —
The key about having the PURPOSE clear, is that it tells us HOW to play the game effectively. It tells us WHAT to look for and WHEN to release.
If I am circling to develop my horse’s bend and suppleness, then I will look for softness in the bend, use spiralling in and out and RELEASE when my horse bends.
If I am circling to develop my horse’s ability to maintain gait and direction, then I will look for softness in his body and mind as he circles — watch for that moment when he stops trying to find his own answers and get me to bring him in — and wait until he goes “I guess I will just keep circling until she asks me to do something else” — until I get that mental yield — THEN I will bring him in and he will find his release.
If my objective is to build my horse’s confidence in ME, then I might play some games differently to how I would play them when I have other objectives. I might even play some different games.
One great game for building a horse’s confidence in me is the “watch this space” game — which needs a few other riders around to really work. One person does a passenger lesson in the arena or field — while the other riders get on with whatever they want to do — and protect their space form the horse doing the passenger lesson using the driving game to move the “loose” horse away from their own herd of two.
This builds a horse’s confidence that you will take care of them, that they can relax and trust you to keep their bubble safe from other horses and humans….
What other games can you come up with that will build this herd of two — and take the wind out or your horse’s sails on those blustery days?
There is another particular game that can really help to increase a horse’s calmness when online – and their focus on the human. As a side effect it also increases their suppleness — physically, emotionally and mentally.
I will outline the game here — it is a simple game to explain, but takes a fair amount of practice to do well, so try it out when there are no distractions, practice it when there are no distractions — and then it will be in your toolkit when you want or need it.
Have your horse on the lead line, lunge line or 12 ft line – you need to be using about 8 feet of line for this to work, and ask him to walk in a circle. Position yourself at the centre of that circle, with your belly button just behind the drive line (ie on the shoulder) so that your energy is asking him to keep going forwards.
Keep your belly button on his shoulder — so you are turning WITH your horse as he walks around you.
As with any circling game, once he is moving, go to neutral — ie make sure the hand with the rope in is lowered and relaxed, your energy is low — but keep turning with him — so this can be called an “active neutral”.
If you use a carrot stick and string or lunge whip when playing, this would be a good time to introduce your horse to the concept of the “moving friendly” game — so practice friendlying your horse with the string while he is walking the circle. At first most horses will stop or speed up when you move the stick and string — so just passively persist until they “get” that you can friendly them while they are walking around. This is important so when you use this tool later to ask your horse to move his shoulder or his hindquarters, he is comfortable with you using the tool, and if he gets worried, you can simply do the moving friendly to reassure him.
Of course, finding active neutral while friendlying and moving with the horse can take some practice — so allow yourself time to get comfy with this before moving on.
Now, we know that disengaging a horse (causing them to step under with their inside hind leg in a small circle) calms them down, right? So let’s add this into our repertoire on the ground — not as a full “disengage and game over” move (ie do a small circle and stop) – but as a series of partial disengages that will calm our horse down and relax him WHILE he is moving.
If you think about how you ask for a disengage when riding — you use your indirect rein. You lift the rein, then turn your fingernails up. No pulling back, or pulling the rope across your body — just lift and turn, with enough feel on the rope that your horse can sense this movement. If you need to clarify, then look at the hind end or support with your stick — the key is to be VERY soft in this request as you want ONE STEP of a hind leg stepping under, NOT a complete stop…
So as your horse walks around you, lift your rope hand, turn the fingernails up — and watch that inside hind leg. When it steps a bit further under than before — release and go back to your active neutral and friendly your horse (either use your voice to tell him he got it right, or friendly him with the string which he knows means the same thing).
Teach this on both sides. And practice it.
Eventually you will be able to do this at walk and trot (later you can do it at canter too — but that will be later on)
Now once you have your horse responding from the lift and turn of the rein, you are ready to use this as a tool in different situations.
Remember, disengaging CALMS a horse — and a calm horse is one that can focus and pay attention to you.
So, the next time you think there are going to be distractions –play this game. As you repeatedly ask, with softness and lightness yourself, for that step under, and another one, and another one – your horse will calm down just a little bit more after each step…ending up with a horse that CAN focus on you without any dust being stirred up by either of you.
So here are just a couple of ideas for building that Herd of Two – there are lots more that can work, but this article gives the key concepts
Have a go at these – and let me know what other games work for you to build your herd of two!
Yours, in confidence