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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Gaining Confidence With Horses

Hello Franklin!

I am a new horse owner, Haflinger, gelding, just came into his 3rd year. I have had him since Dec. 9, 2003. I have been working with him getting him to trust me and used to a routine. Believe me, I am learning a lot. I am a little nervous about standing behind him to brush his tail or in the stall area. I was always told growing up never stand behind a horse, he will kick you. Although this horse, Tango, I renamed him, is wonderful!

He has his groundwork complete, I have lunged him and the people who breed these horses train all of their horses beautifully. I stand on his left side, typically. Will a horse generally lunge or kick at you if you try to put a bridle on? I just purchased a bridle and have put it on him successfully twice, But over the rail, standing on platform, I am nervous about standing next to him. I am short and feel intimidated although I am strong. I don't want to scare him or hurt him. I unbuckled the straps, he would walk and pull backward then come forward. I was patient and this went on for at least 45 minutes, I succeeded, but it's not about just getting it on him. I want to have him feel confident with me and me also, putting it on him and standing next to him. I would never force him or hurt him. I have had to nudge him in the shoulder area when we are leading when he gets in my space but not to hurt him.

Help me to gain confidence!
Thank you, Kimberly

P.S. He will be sent out to be broke in April to an Amish man.




Hi Kimberly,

I love your question. This is a big issue for people beginning their lives with horses and some who have been with horses forever but never really learned anything about their real nature. The subject of
is just as big for the horse as for the human (both need to have confidence). Confidence for the horse translates to
. The horse is always asking whoever is around it; "Can I trust you?" "Do you know what to do to help me to feel safe?" "Can I have confidence that I am safe if you lead me?" "Can I have confidence if I do as you request that I will not be hurt and will continue to be safe?" The horse has to have confidence in whoever is leading it, be they horse or human. If it does not have confidence it will be safe, the horse will instinctively begin to fend and look out for itself.

For the human, confidence means having the knowledge that you know what to do in all circumstances that will help the horse to trust and be confident it is safe. Developing this confidence is something that really does take place over time. There is no magic pill you can take that will give you the knowledge and confidence that experience over time will. However, there are few things you can do that will accelerate your development, learning and, therefore, your confidence. One of these things is to read books, look at videos and attend seminars on the topic of horse training (not riding) as much as you can. Forget about becoming a great rider for now and focus on the horse itself. If you hear of a horse trainer in your area, call them and see if you can spend some time with them watching what they do. Being able to see the process is a huge help in acquiring the knowledge you are seeking. Videos are great for that. I have several I have made, if you are interested. Any horse magazine has numerous videos advertised in them. So the first thing I would suggest is for you to find learning aids that you can view and people for you to watch. Watching the Amish fellow start the horse under saddle (as opposed to breaking the horse) would be invaluable for you.

Something you said in your email that stands out to me is that you were
with the horse. If you can really develop "great patience" in the face of a confused, fearful horse, you will gain immediate confidence in your ability to stay with the process of bringing the horse back to feelings of safety, whatever that process is. Patience just by itself would be a huge plus in your life. If you can stay calm and understand the goal and overall agenda of the horse's sense of safety as being paramount and patiently work towards that always, you will gain some confidence right away.

Learning to move appropriately around a horse is not that hard. First of all, always be thoughtful and respect the horse's personal space. The horse will tell you by its demeanor, it's posture, movements and attitude if it is comfortable with you entering its personal space. Not unlike a human having appropriate boundaries, the horse needs you to respect it. Most people do not respect the horse's right to personal space and invade the animal's boundaries constantly (reaching into a horse's face to pet its nose is a perfect example of this). Always connect first by talking to the horse before you get too close. You'll know (intuit, observe) if the horse is OK with you approaching it. If it is not, respect that and talk to it some more and move around the horse at a safe distance until the horse feels OK about you approaching it and invites you closer with its responses. You'll keep yourself a lot safer also. Do not stand directly in front of the horse. Horses are by nature claustrophobic. They also want to be able to look ahead and around for possible danger. Standing by the left or right shoulder is always the safest place for you to stand, for you as well as the horse. Most horses have been handled mainly on the left side, so they are most comfortable with the human standing on their left side (by the shoulder). Also, you are much less likely to be bitten or kicked in that position by the horse. Horses kick those behind them if that individual surprises them. So, if you want to walk behind a horse talk to him and keep one hand on him as you move around him so he knows where you are and your intention to move around him. When grooming the tail stand a bit to the side, not directly behind the horse. There is a kick zone to avoid if possible. That zone is the place where the horse can obviously nail you if it were inclined. Kicking is a defense mechanism always. As is any kind of seemingly aggressive behavior. The horse is protecting itself. This behavior does not deserve punishment; it deserves compassion and leadership to bring the horse back to a "safe place" in its mind and feelings.

As far as the horse lunging or kicking at you when bridling, that is not typical behavior. Only if the horse is made very uncomfortable by how you are trying to put the bridle on will he move towards you or away. There is an appropriate way to ask a horse to accept the bridle (and saddle). It is somewhat detailed and while I could take a page or two on it, perhaps best to see if there is someone nearby who is very good with horses and knows something about training them to show you the process. If you make the horse nervous by inappropriately trying to get him to take the bridle, it will set up a situation where he has no confidence on your ability to ask him to accept the bridle. It will get harder and harder to bridle him. Horses get habitual (take on habits) very fast and, as you probably know, habits are hard to change.

When bridling a horse it is best to first get the horse comfortable with lowering his head when asked to. Try this; with a halter and lead rope on the horse, stand on the horse's left side half way up his neck. Hold the lead rope about 18 inches under his chin and just allow the weight of your arm to come on to the rope. Do not try to pull the horse's head down. Just let the weight of your arm be there. The horse will, at some point, lower his head just a bit to get away from the weight of your arm. The instant you feel that horse lower his head, even a fraction of an inch, remove the weight of your arm completely by lifting your arm just a tiny bit up. Then, do it again. You are asking the horse to lower his head by doing this. You might also bend forward with your body just a bit to encourage him to follow your body language down. You should be able to get him to lower his head as low as you want. He'll just about put his nose on the ground for you. A horse with a lowered head is a relaxed horse. I ask horses to lower their heads sometimes if they get a little nervous. So it is always a good skill to have. You may want to get really good at his one as it will help you ask the horse to accept the bridle by lowering his head. It is important not to hit the horse's teeth with the bit as well. Anyway, if you practice this it will help you gain confidence and skill. It will also help you to begin to "read" a horse.

"Reading" a horse means being able to ascertain what is going on for the horse in any one moment. Is the horse calm, nervous, upset, anxious, trusting, afraid, in pain or whatever? This is a very important skill to development. It will also develop your confidence, even if you do not know all the "moves" yet. If you can look at a horse and begin to "feel" what is going on for it, you will have a skill that is priceless. The way to develop this skill is through patience, kindness and the desire to help the horse feel safe first and foremost, and not just grab him and use the horse for something. It means you will move slowly observing the horse's responses to whatever you do. It means not approaching too fast and connecting first. It means showing respect. It also means using your intuition. Intuition and "feel" have similar meanings when applied to horses. You intuit what a horse is feeling. You do this kind of thing all the time. When you meet someone new or go to a new place or try something new, it either feels OK or not. It can feel "right or wrong". You head (your intellect) may say something is OK to do, but your heart says it is not. You will be following your intuition when you follow your heart. Horses have a very developed intuitive side. They intuit if you want to "eat them for dinner". They intuit if you are a predator long before you get there. They have to because it is their survival. I connect with horses a long ways away from them. By the time I get up to them we are connected and feeling good about each other (unless the horse has some abuse issues and is fearful of humans in general). I can intuit that quickly and respond accordingly to help the horse to know I am no threat to it. Developing your intuition will help develop your confidence.

If a horse moves into my space while being led or if I am in close quarters with it (the stall), I do not want to get physical with it to ask it to move away. Many times pushing a horse will prompt the horse to push back and they will always win a test of strength. Rather I have gotten very good at shaking (snaking) the lead rope under the horse's chin which is annoying to the horse and will prompt the horse to move away from the shaking rope. I will also face the horse, shake the rope and move towards the horse confidently asking it to back a step or two. This will generally allow you to begin to set a boundary with the horse as to how close you want it to be to you. If there is no lead rope and halter on the horse, such as in the stall, I will wave my hand quickly right under the horse's chin or at his nose. This will generally get him to lift his head and take a step away. I have developed a "feel" for what is too much pressure or energy in the shaking or waving so as to not scare the horse. I can also shake a rope at the horse as well (or my glove). It is important to be able to set a boundary with a horse. This one skill will give you tremendous confidence, as you will understand how to get your boundaries respected. Once you get this one you will begin to feel safe much of the time.

I have begun to take on a few students that I am coaching on the telephone. Perhaps this may be something your folks would allow you to do. It is about the same cost as piano lessons or dance lessons, convenient, and provides a system to learn and practice skills that it would take you a long time to get without the coaching. Please consider this option. I hope I have been able to help you. I can tell you love horses. Congratulations on your new horse and please keep me informed on how it goes and if you are able to use any of my suggestions.

Sincerely, Franklin

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