You may have seen many articles about how important it is to gain your horse's trust. It's even more important while you're riding. Let's face it - once you're on your horse's back, his four legs are your legs, and if you're lucky, you get to go where his body goes (!!). So the trust factor becomes really important - most especially when your horse sees a terrifying spot in the arena and wants to get out of Dodge.
But it's not only about you trusting your horse.
It's about getting your horse to trust YOU!
The funny thing about trust and horse riding is that trust is displayed through the horse's behavior. So if the horse spooks and runs off, we think the horse lacks trust in the rider.
However, if the horse carries on like nothing happened, then we feel that there is a trust dynamic in the horse-rider relationship. (*This applies to ground work as well as riding.)
So it might help you to take the focus off the emotional aspect of trust and instead, break it down into observable, reproducible physical responses that will be interpreted as trust when it all comes together.
3. Work past the scary area.
One of the best ways to develop trust is to project your confidence to the horse. You have to develop the communication and riding skills necessary to convince your horse that he is safe with you no matter where he goes.
Let's say the horse is spooking at an object and reacts with heart-thumping, sweat producing fear. To him, it's real danger. It could be something as simple as a bird suddenly flying by, or the sound of people walking and talking outside the arena. He's ready to scoot.
In this moment, you can either be forceful and aggressive, or you can choose to be the calm, confident one.
Even if he steps away from the perceived danger, or spooks suddenly underneath you, you can firmly but calmly and quickly re-establish what you were doing. Re-establish balance. Re-establish tempo. Stay tall and supple and balanced in your torso. Don't tense while your horse tenses. Don't look at the object your horse is terrified of (he knows when you're looking).
Just carry on as if there's nothing there, as if there's nothing to be concerned about. Because in reality, there is nothing to worry about because you would never put your horse in a life or death situation.
Ride away from the area, and then ride back to the area, knowing full well your horse might think about spooking again. Don't push him into the area, just ride past it as close as you can, but far enough away to help him stay calm. Show him there's nothing to fear.
As your horse relaxes the third and fourth time through, go deeper into the area until you're riding right through it calmly, without any fuss. Slowly but surely, your horse will realize that if you're not tense and tight, he won't have to be either.
One day, your horse will think about spooking, feel your confident guidance... and just carry on.
2. Stay in balance.
Balance is such a huge topic. There's left and right balance (lateral) and forward and back balance (longitudinal).
The horse can be off balance laterally when he is leaning too far in one direction. Or he might have his neck turned deeply into the direction he's going. Or if he has a twist in his poll or neck (you'll notice that his ears aren't level).
He might be drifting out or falling in on a circle. Both are indications of lack of balance.
We've talked about longitudinal balance often here in the blog. The most obvious is when the horse is travelling on the forehand.
Think about it like a teeter-totter. The horse's body is the teeter-totter and the balance should be at least level, or ideally, tilted toward the hind end. Problems arise when the horse is tilted downward on the shoulders and forelegs.
He might have to brace, scramble, move too quickly, or hollow. Lack of balance becomes a problem when the horse learns that he will be moving in discomfort or pain every time you ride him.
Unfortunately, you'll likely need an instructor to help you identify and then correct balance problems. I've written much here about the pieces - half-halt, on-the-forehand, circles and more - but the challenge is to put all these together while you ride.
What I can tell you, though, is that once you improve your ability to balance yourself and your horse, you will notice a profound difference in your horse's way of going. He might be more bold, more active, softer and lighter on his feet, more confident in his movement. Let's face it - if he feels comfortable, he will be happy in himself, you and the world around him.
1. Be consistent.
I can't emphasize this aspect enough for all things related to horses.
Consistency is the key to developing a bond with your horse. Be consistent in your general riding activities, your riding schedule and your expectations of both yourself and your horse.
Be consistent in your aids. If you send conflicting signals time and again, and your horse has to play a mental and emotional guessing game each time he interacts with you, he will soon become sour and reluctant.
The problem is that real consistency takes a lot of dedication, self-evaluation and discipline. It's so easy to let things slide and do what you feel like doing whenever. But horses remember.
Try to find a consistent rider and see what their horses are like. Are they also consistent? Are they calm? Do they know what to expect?
Trust. It's worth the effort.
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How to Ride the Stumble Out of Your Horse: Do you have a horse that seems to regularly trip or stumble, either in the front or hind end?
Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.
Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.
Finding Your Comfortable Un-Comfort in Riding: Being uncomfortable is often a good place to be in riding.