Make your horse more confident

By Sarah Kreutzer

Riding advice

24 May 2012 11:31

Coping with a nervous horse can take the fun out of riding, but with a little know-how and patience you can teach your horse to cope with once-scary situations, says Yorkshire-based behaviour specialist Sarah Kreutzer

If your normally calm horse suddenly starts spooking, Sarah recommends a medical, including back, tack and teeth, as the problem could be an underlying issue you’re not aware of. Once you’re sure nothing’s wrong, try Sarah’s “teach, practise, test” concept, which is split 15%, 80%, 5% time-wise.

Horses respond to pressure by returning it. This is why, when your horse treads on your toe and you try and push him away, he leans on you more.

The teaching phase uses this natural response to build confidence – for example if your horse is scared of plastic, work on him very closely with a plastic bag, rubbing him with it somewhere like the withers where other horses would groom him, and progress to the rest of his body when he gets used to it.

Sarah says: “When he gets it wrong and moves away, stay with him and maintain pressure, and when he does what you want you can move it away as a reward.”

The key is teaching your horse there’s nothing to be afraid of, without making it worse by pushing him too far.

Once your horse has learnt not to be scared in close proximity, you can begin to move the offending item away, for example shaking the plastic bag nearby. The trick is to start gently using the pressure-and-release system.

For the practise stage, surround your horse with the problem – hang bags in his stable, attach them to his buckets, the field fence and around the school. Sarah says: “You want him to get used to seeing it and to know it’s not a threat. If he’s still frightened, you haven’t taught him enough, so go back
a stage.”

The final phase is just 5% of the work – placing him in a challenging environment to test his new knowledge. Don’t move on too soon though or you risk undermining all your hard work.

Sarah says: “If you haven’t taught your horse not to be scared and he’s put straight into a test situation they’ve got little chance of dealing with it.”