The confidence you feel with your horse can be tied directly to how well you know your horse. So what can you do to get to know your horse and strengthen that bond? In general, spending time with your horse, even if all you have is 20 minutes per day, is a start. Without that time, you’re not going to know him—whether he’s goofy when the wind blows, or if a thunderstorm bothers him. You need to know what disturbs him, what comforts him, and how much pressure he’ll allow you to put on him. You’ve got to know your horse.
Getting to Know Him
If you don’t really know your horse, start by asking questions with your cues. For example, when you sit down and say “whoa,” does he stop, or not? When you guide him to the left, does he turn immediately, or take a couple of seconds to turn? Depending on his level of skill, this will tell you what you need to work on. If he doesn’t respond correctly, he either doesn’t know how, hasn’t been asked correctly, or chose to say no. Then you choose what direction you want to go with your training. When you figure that out, how hard can you push for a response?
I recommend working with your horse every day—but I know that’s not the real world in all training situations. We try to get horses out every day and do something with them—turn them out, work them in the round pen, groom them. They don’t need to stand in a stall.
Shorter sessions with your horse more frequently are better than longer sessions infrequently. If you’ve got 15 minutes, go for 15 minutes. Just make it count. You also need to know when to quit. If you ask your horse to do something and he does it right a dozen times, he’s going to get frustrated if you continue
to ask him.
Here are some ways you can incorporate this conversation you’re having with you riding that will help you get to know each other better and strengthen your communication.
The Stopping Drill
You’ve got to stay safe, no matter what you’re asking your horse to do. Safety needs to be a top priority. So having good brakes is important.
With the stop drill, you don’t need to go very far at a time, just a few steps. Set off at a walk, and walk a few feet, in a straight line. Say “whoa,” stretch your heels down gently, and test your horse’s response. If he doesn’t stop, go to your hand to ask him to stop, and back him off your reins for a few steps. Sit for a moment, then walk forward another few feet, and repeat. Your voice commands and body cues need to be nearly simultaneous. You must stop riding with your body when you say “whoa.”
Once your horse is better at listening to your cues and stopping, you can test out his stopping skills at a trot or lope. However, it’s important not to overdo it. If your horse is continuing to listen to your cues when you ask him to stop, reward him by going on to practice something else.
With enough practice, you’re going to have confidence in your horse’s ability to respond to your voice, seat, and hand cues.
Steering Around Cones
Another drill you can do to build confidence involves riding around a set of cones at the walk and jog. Going around the cones, your horse will tell you what he knows. This will test his steering ability, and how he handles different cues.
Start by placing eight to 10 cones in the arena, leaving 10 to 12 feet apart from each one. Then ask your horse to walk or jog. Attempt to guide him around the cones that are scattered throughout the arena. It’s normal for a horse to be softer on one side of his body, and then stiffer on the other side. Just like people, horses usually have a dominant side. Address that stiffness by asking him to bend side to side.
If your horse wants to stay soft in his body when you ride him two-handed, begin to test his neck-reining ability. When you lay your outside rein on the neck, and press with your inside leg, see how he responds. If he doesn’t respond to the pressure, apply pressure to your inside rein to help reinforce the cue.
Once your horse can guide through the cones successfully at a walk, you can pick up a trot. As you trot through the cones, make sure to use your inside leg and rein to ask him to wrap around it. If you only use your outside leg, your horse may end up initiating a pivot.
Timing is everything. When you ask your horse to neck rein, you need to make sure that you’re following through with your inside hand and leg cues, as needed. If your timing is off, even the slightest bit, he’s not going to understand what you’re asking.
If your horse is stiff in his body, or not comfortable neck reining, it might take some time before you can master this drill. Don’t try to rush it. Even if you’re just 5% better than you were the previous day, those small victories add up. Take your time and continue to build on it like you would any other exercise.