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We talk a lot about confident riders, about losing our own confidence with horses and about strategies to re-gain confidence, but what about the horse’s confidence? Surely that’s just as important. After all, our horse is the other half of the partnership.

The Confident Horse

What is confidence?

For riders, confidence is about knowing what might happen next. We talked about this in more detail in the previous article ‘Skyrocket your Confidence’.

Does our horse understand and obey our cues? If something unexpected happens, will our horse spook or bolt?

Of course, we can never be 100% sure of what our horse will do, but if we have trained them ourselves, then we will have a much clearer idea of the possibilities and outcomes.

For horses, I believe, it’s much the same. The horse wants to know whenever they find the correct answer to our requests, the pressure will be released, because their rider is predictable and consistent, and the patterns that have been established will continue to provide reward and release of pressure.

So, why do horses lose confidence and become anxious? 

I think the biggest reason is a lack of consistency, when:

  • The horse gets surprised by cues,
  • Isn’t working in the Engagement Zone (their attention is elsewhere),
  • Has poor, but well-established, patterns of behaviour set up,
  • Has been subjected to positive punishment (either intentionally or unintentionally, as the result of poorly timed negative reinforcement),
  • Has been chased (again intentionally or unintentionally in the round yard or at liberty), or
  • Has been successful in obtaining a release of pressure by offering a flight response.

Knowing this, how can we tell if a horse is indeed confident or lacking confidence?

A confident horse lacks anxiety, is relaxed and calm, appears keen to come in to work and makes it easy for you to feel all of these things.

Consistency 

Taking responsibility for your horse’s welfare encompasses their training. By training your horse yourself, you will automatically build their confidence.

Of course, you need to be consistent with your training. By this, I don’t mean you need to train your horse every day or even every week. I find horses have excellent memories for well-learned lessons and a recent study I conducted suggested working a horse regularly did not improve learning efficiency. This means horses in regular work are not necessarily learning any faster than those rarely worked.

That’s worth remembering, because people often think they have to ‘start at the beginning’ when a horse has been out of work for an extended period and I don’t think anything could be further from the truth.

Rather than approaching it as starting from the beginning, think about it as giving the horse a quick refresher course – perhaps your first lesson or two, and then continuing on from where you left off. Obviously remain mindful of your horse’s physical fitness level and ability to concentrate after a lengthy spell.

Probably the most important aspect of training is to have the horse relaxed and engaged with you. I call this working in The Engagement Zone.

To recap on The Engagement Zone article, see the March 2017 issue of Horses and People.

The Engagement Zone relates to your horse’s arousal level – the physiological parameters, such as heart rate, that reflect your horse’s emotional state – and this needs to be higher than it would be when resting, but not so high as to cause anxiety or stress in the horse. I’ve found this (while training with a heart rate monitor on the horse) to be only about 15% above resting, so not hugely high.

If you’d like to learn even more about The Engagement Zone and some of the first scientific attempts to test it, you can download the following article: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174313.

Timing 

We talk about pressure-release, but when do you release? The quicker your release, the faster your horse will learn.

With trailer loading, for example, as soon as you see the foot begin to move forward, stop tapping and reward the horse. Sometimes, and especially in the first attempts, you can even release on the ‘thought of forward movement’, when you see the horse moving their weight forward when asked.

This is called ‘shaping’. It involves rewarding an approximation of the behaviour. In the trailer loading example, moving the weight forward, but not the feet, in order to make the request really clear for the horse.

Once the horse learns where the release comes from, you can begin working on increasing the level of the response.

Have a look back at the trailer loading article we printed in the May 2017 issue of Horses and People to see how that behaviour was shaped. You can also find it online here.

I think one of the best lessons for you to teach when you want to improve and practice your timing is ‘Give to the Bit’.

The two-part series we titled ‘Learning to Give’ appeared in the July and August 2017 issues of Horses and People.

This lesson starts on the ground and, because you’re only asking for a small movement to begin with, the horse gets many of releases and a lot of praise, making it fun, plus you get tons of opportunities to practice your timing!

Pressure 

One of the most common questions I get asked is: “How much pressure should I use [to reward my horse]?”

There’s no single answer to this, because it will depend on your horse, their history, whether or not they’ve been habituated to pressure, whether they’re relaxed or anxious, and many other factors, including their education and previous experience with the application of negative reinforcement.

However, you horse will tell you! Pressure is your motivator, which means you will require as much pressure as it takes to motivate your horse to make the movement you are requesting.

Let’s take the example of ‘Hips to the Fence’ for mounting, which we published in the April 2017 issue of Horses and People.

With some horses, all you will need to do is raise the whip in the direction of the hindquarter, and the horse will start moving and looking for answers. If, with this horse, you then went on to tap the hip, their emotional level would likely increase well above The Engagement Zone (the optimum learning state) – and that would be too much pressure.

Another horse may be desensitised to the whip and require tapping on the hip and, if that didn’t produce a response, perhaps tapping a little faster will.

Remaining mindful of the horse’s emotional level the first few times you apply pressure will tell you the baseline amount required to motivate your horse.

The thing to remember is the horse is learning a pattern, so the pressure itself is not nearly as important as the timing of the release, which must be immediately the behaviour is performed.

With each request, as the pattern establishes in your horse’s mind, you should require less and less pressure to get the same result.

Have a look at the ‘Hips to the Fence’ video on my free training page and see how the horse, after just a few minutes and getting the emotional level correct, responds by moving his hips to the fence with just a click of the fingers and no whip at all. Check it out at: https://www.kandooequine.com/products/free-training-tips/categories/229716/posts/697015!

Breaking it down 

Breaking it down means knowing what you’re going to teach, each individual step and having a lesson plan.

Remember when that teacher at school told you that you were good at something? Perhaps you were, but perhaps you weren’t and they just wanted to encourage you. You can do the same thing for your horse.

If your horse starts to get anxious, take them back to something they know and reward that behaviour. Make a big fuss, with lots of scratches and telling them how clever they are.

Often, when we’re concentrating on getting something right, be it a flying change or just riding a 20 metre circle, we hold our breath, tense up and completely forget to praise the horse.

That’s why I particularly like the scratch on the wither as a reward. I teach it early on, when a lot of people might be using a food treat, because I know when I’m working on my flying changes later, I can reach down and scratch my horse, but I can’t pop a carrot in his mouth.

When I do reach down, I am still holding the rein but, because I’ve moved my hand, the horse gets an automatic release of pressure. The movement also relaxes me, as I remember it is the horse that is learning and I want him to be relaxed too.

If you’re working on creating a confident horse and you want to practice breaking a lesson down, then I suggest you have a go with ‘Long-Reining’.

The two-part series on long-reining appeared in the October and November 2017 issues of Horses and People.

As part of breaking the lesson down for your horse, you’ll need to start with ‘Give to the Bit’, and then get to work on the habituation to the lines before your horse is ready to long-rein.

If you’re interested in doing more habituation work with your horse and learning more about breaking lessons down into manageable chunks, there’s a free video on the subject on my website. You’ll find it at: https://www.kandooequine.com/p/premier-free-stuff.

Relaxation

Relaxation is paramount. It is essential the horse is relaxed before, during and after the lesson to optimise training.

A nervous or anxious horse is unlikely to be learning the things you are teaching. A further problem with the anxious horse is one possible response to anxiety is flight. If the horse successfully manages to release pressure by escaping with flight, they then learn an incorrect response.

It can be difficult to un-train that flight response as fear is such a powerful motivator. To check for relaxation, go back and have a look at The Engagement Zone article and then apply this when teaching one of the other lessons, such as trailer loading.

If you’re right at the beginning of your training journey or you have a new horse, pop along to the ‘Head Down’ article and teach this simple lesson to your horse.

Not only will it help you learn about how much pressure your horse requires and show you when to release that pressure, but you’ll also be setting your horse up for a great bridling session.

Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons)

Kate is an Equine Scientist (Charles Sturt University), PhD Candidate (Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney), equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in dressage, jumping, western and polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

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