We would all like our horses to feel confident. A confident horse is open, inquisitive, and brave enough to go to unfamiliar places or try new things. A horse lacking confidence is nervous and unsure of new things, and generally not as happy and easy to be with. As part of my daily work, I have observed that confident horses are much easier to manage and learn quicker and easier than non-confident horses. To be confident a horse needs to feel safe. They need an environment that nurtures and cares for them. This includes where they live, other horses and the people they interact with. To ensure there is nothing we are doing they could feel threatened by we need to listen to them all the time and develop our relationship. By placing the value of our relationship with the horse above training and what we want them to do, we help our horses feel safe and confident with us. If a horse perceives danger, they communicate this to the rest of the herd energetically and physically, so the herd can survive. If we are with a horse and we ignore them when they communicate this to us, they may see us as unsafe and not valuable members of the herd. It may also affect how much they trust us and their willingness to communicate with us in general. When we are listening to horses, they feel safe knowing that if something bad happens, we will hear them and help them through it. A horse who lacks trust in their human is on high alert all the time. When we put halters or bridles on a horse, we restrict their ability to move freely and quickly if needed. For the horse this is different to being lose in the paddock. Horses are prey animals and hard wired to always be on the lookout for lions, tigers, and bears, regardless of where they live. Something they may have ignored when loose in the paddock, becomes frightening when in a state of restriction because they are not free to run away. Knowing our own horses and understanding equine body language and energy are our tools. If a horse shows signs of distress and we ignore it or decide ‘the horse needs to learn how to deal with this’ and push them through it, we are effectively saying to them that what we want is more important than their survival. If we let the horse know we have registered their distress, then help them through it, this grows relationship. I was recently with a client riding outside the paddock for the first time. The horse wanted to stop and look at something new and concerning. The rider immediately wanted to move him along. I explained ‘Digestion Moments.’ When a horse experiences something new, they often need to stop and look at it, think about it, and digest the information. Then they can proceed. The horse’s head was up, neck tight, eyes hard and he did a panic poo. Horses evacuate, in times of stress and potential danger, to flee better if necessary. These poos are runny as the colon has not had time to absorb the water from them. By listening to the horse, and allowing a digestion moment, he dropped his head, softened his neck and eye, then walked on confidently when asked. We could have pushed him and forced him to keep going. Then he would have had elevated stress levels, felt vulnerable and in danger and have lost his trust in us. If this happens the horse becomes less confident, less sure that their world is safe. Eventually they will become either nervous of everything or lose all hope and shut down into learned helplessness. Neither of these are desirable. It is imperative as custodians of horses that we are listening all the time. If we take positive action when our horse is worried, they will come to trust us, feel safe and confident. Confidence in horses builds slowly, with patience and gentle guidance. This is how we can support our horses to be the best they can be.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Ph: 0401 249 263
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