Curiosity is the key to developing a responsive (not a reactive) horse. A curious horse can learn because he is not as scared as a horse that is not curious. A horse that is scared can’t be curious and can’t learn.

The world is full of scary things, depending on how you look at them. Certainly through the eyes of the horse, they are in constant danger, from things like garbage cans that appear and disappear, unpredictable plastic bags, machinery and horse-eating mailboxes to name a few. Even a nervous hand tightly gripping the end of a lead sends terrifying messages down the rope to the horse.

Some horses spook at everything. Others spook at nothing. So, what makes the difference? Considering the horse’s individuality and using his curiosity to help him adapt to the environment around him are key to having a safe, sound horse. And that takes proper preparation. Without it, you will have a horse that resembles Swiss cheese (full of holes) rather than a nice aged cheddar (no holes). Unfortunately, horses that are full of holes end up damaged – and wasted – usually by impatient humans who wanted to have it all yesterday.

Thinking Time Tip
I want results tomorrow, so I do my best for each horse today. When I leave them in a good place today, I find them in  an even better place tomorrow.

Quite simply, it’s how you introduce your horse to something, not what you introduce. For example, I once worked with a very nervous Thoroughbred, straight off the track. He was scared of absolutely everything. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I worked to get him brave, introducing him to all sorts of new experiences and environments. He was fantastic – I could have fired a cannon from his back. So, I took him out on the trail, out in the bush. He was great…until he was ‘ambushed’ by a swarm of deadly butterflies. He just froze and stood there, shaking with fear. He didn’t bolt or buck. He understood he could cope with what he perceived to be potentially dangerous objects, as he had full trust in me and me in him.

Thinking Time Tip
Creating a responsive horse requires you both to get out of your comfort zone and work on things you’d rather avoid. The more you explore, the more you’ll build bravery, confidence and trust that will help your horse cope. And it’s always best to start on the ground until you are both ready to proceed under saddle.

Build the foundation

Last year, we looked at the importance of establishing trust, obedience and respect (March/April 2013) and some groundwork exercises to do that. Working with scary objects is an opportunity to increase the trust you have already established with your horse.

It’s never too early to start with groundwork. Many people ask me to start horses under saddle before the age of three, which is something I will not do. In fact, depending on the horse’s breed and maturity, I will wait until they are four or five. But that doesn’t mean you leave the horse in the paddock until then. It’s precious time you can use to develop the braveness and confidence on the ground that you will want under saddle. We can also introduce saddle blanket, saddle, long lining, etc. Get it right on the ground, and you will get it right under saddle.

Groundwork Exercises: Becoming Brave

I recently worked with a four-year-old Morgan gelding, who, unfortunately, had not been handled much on the ground for his first four years. Instead, he was pushed to accept a human on his back before he understood that he didn’t need to be afraid of even simple things. As such, he had become a reactive, rather than a responsive horse. In the wrong or inexperienced hands, this horse could easily end up being passed on to the next unsuspecting owner along with an ill-deserved reputation for being difficult or dangerous, all because he didn’t understand he could cope. So I needed to ‘desensitize’ him to a variety of stimuli.

This kind of work can be tedious, but I can’t emphasize how important it is, or how often I see it neglected. When you desensitize (familiarize) a horse to something, you want the horse to become comfortable with it – whether it be a tarp, umbrella, stock whip, ball, plastic bag, flag or new surface such as water or a platform – and to understand it is not a threat. To do it successfully and safely, you must establish CCKL = TOR (Confidence, Consistency, Kindness, Leadership = Trust, Obedience, Respect) and remember to:

  • Start by lightly rubbing the horse all over, making sure he doesn’t have any areas that cause him concern if rubbed or touched (i.e. ears, the sensitive part under the tail, or the area just in front of the flank).
  • Use rhythmic, relaxed strokes.
  • Be matter of fact about what you introduce – not hesitant or sneaky.
  • If there is an uncomfortable spot, focus on it. Don’t retreat (unless the horse is extremely stressed). The minute you see the slightest relaxation, stop and move to a different spot.
  • Work both sides.

Regardless of what I introduce, I start the same, letting the horse have a good look and smell of the object while it’s ‘small,’ like a folded up flag or tarp. I might even walk with it and let the horse follow. That builds his confidence. Then I’ll rub the horse all over with it. If he’s calm, I’ll make it larger and, for instance with a tarp or flag, pull it between both front and hind legs, before working it up his neck and over his head. I keep the rope loose, but if he becomes worried, I can pick up the rope and yield his hindquarters, helping him to remain calm. Eventually, I’ll work it over his head. This robs him of sight and smell and asks him to rely totally on me, something that is very difficult for head-shy or nervous horses. I may even let him paw and walk on the tarp. Then I will work with the tarp under saddle.

Good foundations give you positive results. I can’t emphasize it enough. Even a small amount of good understanding will result in accelerated learning.

Under Saddle Exercises: The World is Not Flat!

With strong foundations and a consistent human, a horse will find security and comfort in being with the human and won’t be so concerned about an ever-changing environment. It’s impossible to control the environment, so it’s essential to develop that focus on the human. Plus, it’s boring to spend all your time in the arena – for both you and your horse. Getting out, into the forest, for example, not only builds confidence, it is a chance to put into practice everything you’ve been working on.

If you’re taking your horse out for the first time, only go as far down the trail as you feel comfortable. It’s fine if that is only a few steps, or a few hundred metres. Start there and increase it slowly each time out, rather than aiming for an unrealistic goal and not completing it successfully.

You want the experiences to all be positive and build your horse’s confidence. Never reprimand the horse for being scared. If your horse has a fright – and you feel scared – there is nothing wrong in getting off and walking a bit. If you’re both scared and looking to each other for safety and comfort it’s not going to work. Wait until you feel calm and confident and can be the leader your horse needs you to be.

Take Home Message

To create a bold, confident horse that can consistently cope with a wide range of situations, keep in physical, mental and emotional needs in mind throughout his training.