Horses are flight animals. In unfamiliar and scary situations, their first reaction is to want to flee. If you never confront the horse with things it finds exciting and you suddenly come across something unexpected, this can create unsafe situations. There is nothing wrong with horses experiencing some stress, as long as the stress is manageable. It may even contribute to the learning process. It is therefore very useful (and fun!) to teach your horse how to deal with stress effectively. Read on for 10 tips to make your horse a little braver.
1. Start with basic groundwork
If you are going to confront the horse with scary things, it is important that you as a trainerare able toguide the horse properly and safely. First, do groundwork with your horse without any scary objects and try to understand what the horse is showing you. Making your horse braver does not immediately mean that you have to pull out all the flags and umbrellas. Cones or poles are a very good starting point, allowing you to practice your groundwork. There are plenty of horses who may also find this quite challenging. So build this up calmly if that is what the horse needs.
2. Use everyday objects
Think creatively about objects that you can use in your training. An umbrella, bicycle or balloon are some things you often have at home and which you can use very well in your training. Or, for example, jump stands and poles that you can use to practice narrow passages. Another option is to place a wooden board in the arena to walk over, to simulate walking over the ramp of a trailer. Or use a blue tarp to mimic water.
3. Build it up step by step
Slowly build up each new exercise you start. If you want to teach a horse certain newbehaviour, choose to divide the end goal into different steps and always reward these small steps in the right direction. To give an example: in the case of the tarp, we always work in a setup with two tarps: one narrow strip and one large tarp. This way you can practice a little bit first and position yourself safely. You then gradually make the strip wider and if this goes well, you can move on to the larger tarp.
4. Work with approach and retreat
You can reward your horse for the desired behaviour by removing the scary object when the horse relaxes. Timing is extremely important here. The horse has a ‘reward window’ of only 3 seconds. So first train yourself to recognize signals of relaxation and tension very well.
5. Train both left and right
If a horse accepts something on the left, it does not mean that it automatically no longer finds that same object scary on the right. So always train both sides equally.
6. Be mindful of your own position
Always stand between the horse and the scary object. If the horse spooks, it will want to move away from the scary object. So if you are on the wrong side, you may create an unsafe situation. After all, the chances are greater that the horse will jump into you. If someone is helping you by holding the horse, always have them stand on the same side as you are, for the same reason.
7. Use a buddy horse
It may feel counterproductive to make a horse braver by using a support horse or buddy. But it could help a lot in the learning process. Are you going on a hack out for the first time or are you introducing your horse to something new? Then you can use a buddy of your horse to help him get used to it. Horses learn from each other. If your horse sees that the other horse remains calm, he will be more inclined to relax himself.
8. Rest is the greatest reward
Is your horse doing well? Is he walking over the tarp well aftera number oftries? Take your horse for a walk, away from the strange object. Because a horse is a prey and flight animal, rest is very important to them. By giving the horse a moment when you are not asking anything, you can reward it.
9. Take your time
Short training sessions that end on a good note work better than a long training session where you cross your horse’s limit. Build the training sessions up slowly, do not set unattainable goals and always try to end the training positively.
10. Always work safely
Safety is extremely important. Horses are flight animals and could always react unexpectedly, no matter how well you know your horse. So always work with a long line to be able to handle a startle reaction safely. You would quickly have to let go of a short lead rope if the horse runs away or rears unexpectedly. Always wear a hard hat and possibly gloves. In addition, make sure that you can work in a safe, closed environment, should your horse bolt.