Building confidence in a young horse

Reposted from 2018


My young mare has been going well under saddle.   She is smart and athletic, and really enjoys the interactions we have while working.   She is 5 this year, and our focus is physically and mentally building the athlete that can perform at a top level.  This is key in keeping them relaxed and engaged in the work as you move up through the level of complexity in whatever style of riding you do.  When a horse is physically and mentally able to perform, they are less inclined to become resistant, or sour.  To work with a horse that has good work ethic, and enjoys their job is the ultimate goal.

A large part of her training is not about riding perfect circles or flying changes.   It is about being out in the world, away from the white bordered confines of the dressage ring.  Whether wide open spaces, or a wooded bridle path, the benefits of this type of riding far surpass just the fitness aspect.  There are many other major benefits as well.

Stella and I headed out early this morning. The weather has been excessively hot lately, but we had a nice rain overnight, so temperature was cooler.  My young mare is not yet confident enough to head out into the wooded trails by herself, so I opted to hack around the property.  I am lucky that the fencing was all built with paths between the paddocks, so it is sort of like riding through an urban neighborhood with roads that connect like a labyrinth, turning this way and that. Because the horses are on nighttime turnout during the heat of the summer, there were no horses turned out  and she will have to handle being on her own away from the herd.   This is a big deal to many horses.   But she and I have developed a good rapport and she trusts and respects me so I know I can make it a good experience.

While this may seem like a small feat to some, I see it as a big step in building her confidence.  Exposing her to working up and down hills, through areas with obstacles, trees, water tubs turned upside-down, and neighboring properties with interesting things to look at.  Each potential spooky spot is an opportunity to either build confidence or create tension.   How you handle it is what makes the difference.  

I start at the space closest to the arena; a place that she has grown comfortable in.   Just across the driveway is a group of 4 smaller paddocks with paths around and between them big enough to drive a car through.   We head down the path that she is led down every day towards her turnout space.   This way it is nothing out of the ordinary, except that I am astride, not leading.   As we pass her paddock, I can feel her energy increase, part nerves, part excitement.   While we walk along the path I ask her to repeat some of the exercises we had worked on in the arena yesterday – Softness and suppleness off an inside leg.   After a few minutes I can easily ask her to move left or right off my leg.  This has a relaxing effect.   Things that are familiar can sometimes ease any stress that may be building when you step outside of your horse’s comfort zone. 

After repeating the path around her paddock a couple of times I branch out to those adjoining it.   Up and down hills, left and right off my leg, and asking her to reach over her topline into a longer frame.   She occasionally shows moments of nervous energy, as we moved further and further away, and each time I hold that distance, make a loop around the same paddock so that she sees the same thing a few times, and once I can feel her relax we venture further out.  

At one point we round a corner into a path that is tree lined, and up ahead see a wooden bridge.  She immediately stops, snorts, and backs up.   This is where things can go wrong with a young horse.   Where some will want to force the issue and drive the horse towards this unknown object, I opt to stop and stand. We stood for what felt like 10 minutes, but in reality, was less than 2.  I do not let her turn away from it, but I also do not ask her to move forward.  She stands frozen, not breathing, nostrils twitching, ears pointing straight at it.  I take a deep breath, stay centered and calm, not reactive or anticipatory in my posture, and not clutching her face for control.   My sense of being calm or grounded relays to her that I am not afraid of the object, and pretty soon she takes a deep breath and starts to relax.  At this point I ask her to step forward towards it.  We move a few feet closer, until she stops again, and repeat the exercise.   Breathe, center, wait, ask. Within a few minutes she is sniffing it and I am telling her not to climb on it (normally I would let her, but it is wet and most likely slippery) We proceed down the path, making 2 more laps around the bridge, without so much as a sideways look.  

The last path we ride down has 3 large plastic barrels hanging from a tree (part of an obstacle course the barn owner had set up) We have been out 45 minutes by now, walking and trotting up and down hills, and she is feeling a little tired.   I approach this last obstacle with an open mind.  I am acutely aware that there could potentially be a large spook, but I do not let that translate into my body or demeanor.  She glances sideways at it, but not with a spooky feel, just curiosity.  We turn the corner next to it and head back to the barn.  Feeling successful with the day.

In my mind, aside from building fitness, using her hindquarters as we work up and down hills, we also successfully worked on obedience to aids, working over her topline, stopping and going when asked, staying soft supple and connected in the bridle, and most importantly, building trust and confidence.  Going forward, I know the mileage I will get from this day will be incredibly valuable. I will continue to build her physical and mental strength and my mare will hit the show scene with a hardworking and relaxed mindset.   That is huge!