Winter Confidence Building: a question answered

Winter Confidence Building:  a question answered

What can I do in the winter to keep my confidence up?  In the summer when I ride every day I find it easy to stay confident, but over the winter when I can do less it seems to ebb away – any ideas?


What a timely question – and you are right – confidence isn’t so much an innate characteristic we have as a habit we develop.  Being confident is a habit – a set of behaviours we repeat so often we feel comfortable doing them.  So in the summer when we are out and about doing things with our horses most days, it is easy to build up layer after layer of successful days that add up to a thick base of confidence.

In the winter, when our interactions with our horses can end up limited to throwing the hay to them and making sure they have four legs – well it is harder to keep up that confidence habit and even when we DO have a good day, when the sun shines and the tracks or arenas are clear enough to ride on – well, there is SO much else to do that we often don’t get around to riding.

And you know, in one way it doesn’t matter.  It won’t hurt our horses to be just looked after for a few weeks, with no other interaction – one friend of mine literally turns her horses away from November to March.  It makes her life easier, takes the pressure off her – and in March she makes a plan for rebuilding her confidence by taking things step by step – and ends up having a good spring summer and autumn with her horses and a stress free winter.

Letting go is one way to handle the pressures of winter weather.

Another is finding OTHER ways to make progress that don’t mean we HAVE to ride or do formal lessons with our horses – ways to make progress that we can do with muddy horses in the field, in the stable or anywhere – that will set us up for success later in the year.

Here are three things you can work on during this wet, cold winter weeks that will help you keep your confidence AND lead to some great things later in the year.


1. Play with Bubbles:

In the field, or in the yard or stable – practice “noticing” your horse’s bubble.  When do they FIRST notice you approaching?  What do they do?  Do they come towards you?  Turn away?  If they turn away what do you do?  Can you play with the bubble using approach and retreat (eg two steps forward, one step back)  so your horse reaches out to you to greet you?

Can you touch your horse all over?  Softly, of course, with love in your hand – where are your horses “yeah, but…” spots?  Can you use approach and retreat to build up to touching your horse everywhere with them welcoming the touch?

Finding scratchy spots and taking your time will make a real difference with this.

Also keeping a journal is important for this – -sometimes the progress with horses is SO small it is easy to forget it.  Writing down that today you were able to touch an inch closer to the udders than yesterday will keep you motivated.

This game is about building TRUST:  whenever your horse expresses an opinion of not liking what you are doing – STOP IT and go back to doing the step BEFORE – and stay there for a minute or two before trying the other step again.

For example, I was working with an ear shy horse, so I rubbed his withers where he was happy to be touched.  While doing that I “accidentally” ran my hand up his neck until I saw his lips tighten – when I immediately took my hand back to his withers where he relaxed.  Then I ran my hand to an inch BEFORE the lips tightening spot, rubbing softly – TEN TIMES….making sure I had no reaction other than a relaxation.  Then I approached that spot again – and there was no tension.  I then made a NEW “base spot” about a third of the way up his neck and repeated the exercise.

In about ten minutes I was rubbing his ears.  The key was to not MAKE him accept my touch, but simply prove that I was listening to him and was doing this FOR him, not TO him.

IT was also important that I did not have a time limit – I usually plan to do an exercise for 7 sessions in a row before deciding if it’s any good or not – and usually by the fifth session things are going really well – this is where the journal helps.

Taking time with this process can make a HUGE difference to horses that are worried, nervous – or aloof and “self contained”.  Respecting their timeline for touching them shows respect for their dignity and even suggest we humans might have some intelligence.


2.  Teach “head down”:

If you have read my other articles you will know how useful it is to teach your horse how to tell you they have a problem:  my personal belief is that I would like a horse to know they can whisper “I have a problem” to me by lowering her head, rather than have to shout at me by bucking, rearing, striking, biting etc.  Teaching Head Down is a very useful way to give your horse a means to communicate to you clearly that they are not happy about something.

Now we all have our own ways of teaching things, and this can be done in many ways – but basically you would like your horse to respond to pressure on the poll by lowering  her head – -however slightly.  Use whatever reward works best for your horse – a simple release, a word, a touch – a treat.  One easy way to teach this is to have a piece of food in one hand, and while touching gently behind the poll you offer the treat under the nose so the head comes down….

As long as you have a cue for head down, then you can move on to the next step.

Start doing something your horse finds mildly annoying:  for my horse it was standing next to her and waving a rope in my far hand.  Her lips tightened and her head raised slightly – so I gave her the head down cue, she lowered her head – and I instantly stopped waving the rope.  We did this three time s—and I saw the light bulb go off.  On the fourth time, when I started waving the rope, she lowered her head without me asking – and I stopped waving the rope.  We had communication!

The reason I did this with her was she had a habit of making her feelings clear in quite aggressive ways:  bucking, kicking, striking out, biting.  By showing her that all she had to do was lower her head and I would stop WHATEVER I was doing, I gave her a much safer way (for me!)  of letting me know she had a problem.  From then on, I would KNOW if she was worried – she would lower her head and I would stop or pause in what I was doing and slow down – and she never had to shout at me again.

Giving your horse this way of communicating to you will make a HUGE difference to their confidence – and yours.  When you know your horse has this way of talking to you, you are safe – and can be much more confidence in what you ARE doing, safe in the knowledge that if you do too much, or do something wrong, your horse has a safe, polite way of letting you know.


3.  Building softness

One last thing that is very useful in all this bad weather is to simply spend time with your horse, with the halter on – doing everything in hand that you would do ridden – all in the stable or field.  Can you invite your horse to move left? Right? Forwards and back – from as little as possible?

When it works – can you do HALF as much and find the response?

Can you start with a THOUGHT?

If you start with a QUESTION:  what do you think I am asking you?  And your horse offers an answer – now you are on the road to softness.

Anything you can do in an arena, you can do in a stable.  In one winter, you can develop in hand softness in your horse that will carry over to the saddle when you ride.

How confident will you AND your horse be having spent this time clarifying your language, learning each other’s accents – and KNOWING how light and soft you can both be?



These are just three things you can do to keep your confidence ticking over during the winter and set yourself up for success when the better weather come s – I hope the blog readers will share THEIR ideas of what to do over winter in the comments and we can ALL get some ideas!!


Yours, in Confidence






4 thoughts on “Winter Confidence Building: a question answered

  1. Timely post! Thank you…I especially like the idea of the horse letting me know by lowering their head, they are uncomfortable with something I may be doing..I know that when their head is in the grazing position this relaxes the horse..if he is taught to lower it even marginally will this also relax him?

    • Yes Chris – and this is one reason it works so well – lowering the head is said to cause positive affect in horses so not only ate they communicating so we stop the pressure but they are also helping themselves feel good. I have seen horses who have learned this USE the head lowering by themselves! They get into a situation, lower their heads…relax…. And then continue on so this becomes a tool they can use for their own emotional management. Now that’s what I call training that benefits the horse AND human x


  2. You’ve read my mind – this is answering all the questions i had about working with my horse in this awful weather, and about those feelings of quilt that I’m not ‘doing’ stuff. I will now work with him in his stable where we are both more comfortable in this freezing weather.

  3. Awesome Cathy, I have been doing some things, the journal is a great idea. I have felt so guilty at times but will use the strategies above that I haven’t done. Sigh… I may soon have more time and less money but I think that will be a good thing for my boys. Thanks Cathy x

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