Building your horse’s confidence — how do you play with your horse?

Building your horse's confidence -- how do you play with your horse?

I have been down and out with flu and laryngitis this week — so here is a question someone sent me – and an answer some of you may have seen before:

How do I cause my horse to become confident in the wind? Living where I do we get a lot of high winds. Keeping my horse with me mentally while we play is proving challenging and going out is out of the question. Is it possible that in all his years he has not become used to 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 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 from 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….


Another game to play is “just try….

When I took Gracie out for her first walk with me, my aim was purely and simply to prove to her that I was trustworthy.  I wanted to prove to her that I would never ask anything of her she wasn’t able to give.

And that all I asked from her really, was to try…

I found a large puddle, and asked her if she could go through it.

She said, ok, you want me to cross this?  I have to walk around it…

I let her.  Why would I correct her?  she was trying…

I simply brought her back to where we started and said again — can you go through the puddle?

She went around it again, I said thanks for the try — and set her up again.

Now like most horses, Gracie is smart, and she realised that her answer wasn’t what I was looking for.  She looked at me.  Looked at the puddle.  Then very slowly and carefully extended her right front hoof — and touched the water…

I said “Thank you!” and turned her AWAY from the puddle to some grass nearby and let her graze.

She was very interested in this.

We spent about half an hour at this puddle – -each time to tried a bit harder bu stretching a bit further, putting a hoof in the water, or even two — I would make it clear that THIS effort was what I was looking for by taking her away and giving her a break.  The more effort, the longer the break.

Once or twice she worried herself and ran round the puddle again — I just laughed and set her up at the start again, and let her relax before asking for another try.

By doing this she learned that anything she offered was fine by me — and also that thinking and trying were the key things I was looking for.

Forty minutes – -and she slowly, thoughtfully and carefully walked through the puddle…..


This wasn’t just about puddle crossing – this was about her building trust in me — that I will be a fair, consistent leader — and will only ever ask her to do things I know she can do.  And I will allow her the time it takes for her to do them.

How much does THIS do for our herd of two?


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?

yours, in confidence


3 thoughts on “Building your horse’s confidence — how do you play with your horse?

  1. Excellent article. I have no imagination and would appreciate some more examples. I have a coming 10 yr old Arab gelding that I’ve had since he was 8 months and have been doing Parelli with him but have yet won his complete trust. Any more examples would be so helpful.

  2. Amigo’s lack of confidence in me as a leader is why I started with Parelli (though I did not know it was me that was the problem). I’m still working at it, he is a very bright LBE Paso Fino, full of play and fun, but he needs a herd, and my herd of two does not yet make the grade. Maybe this year I will come up to the mark 🙂

  3. I love this! I think it is so important for soooo many people to give this a try with their horses. I do this with my boy everyday before I ride; different variations of it. Unfortunately we don’t have any grazing areas, but he loves to go around the arena and smell poops! So when he gets over the scary cattle gates or the new tractor positions, we go and sniff around for awhile. He’s become so responsive and generally attentive to me at all times. Motivation! It’s so possible with positive reinforcement. 🙂

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