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Building Confidence in Horses

Let’s get real here, we are riding an animal that weighs approximately half a tonne and has a completely different idea of reasonable behaviour than you do! You can be happily enjoying a chilled hack out or a nice schooling session then 🐎💨

You don’t really need me to tell you that horses are wired differently to humans and that they see things very differently too! The question is what do we do about it? 🧐

Domestication has done it’s part to help our horses be less spooky and less challenged by the life we ask them to live but even so.

Did you know that all horses have a degree of claustrophobia? Some more, some less.Did you know that horses are designed to be sensitive both by hearing and visually to movement? That’s why they don’t like wind!! 🌬

Successfully building confidence in a horse follows these 5 distinct steps:-

  1. Advance

  2. Retreat

  3. Reward

  4. Rest

  5. Repeat

If you watch horses look at something they are scared of in a pasture, they will all look, then the bravest of the bunch will take a few steps towards it, stop and re-examine the situation. If it’s really scary they might all run away then start to advance again, until eventually they are having a good old look at whatever it is.

We can use this exact process in training our horse to be OK about something they’re scared of. Whether you are riding or on the ground depends on your confidence but it really doesn’t matter, the process is the same...

1. Advance

This is your first step and is also where you find out how reactive your horse is likely to be to the thing he’s scared of so go carefully!! If you are not confident in the saddle, start on the ground.

Assuming it’s safe to do so (!) allow your horse to see whatever it is, give them some time to look then test how close he is happy to get before he gets worried. Don’t try to push him closer, let him look then take hm away again (this is the retreat bit) 😇

2. Retreat

This is what actually builds your horses confidence, it’s the act of retreating that mimics what he would do in real life and helps take the pressure off.

Make sure you go far enough away that your horse doesn’t feel under any pressure and that he has enough time to relax, lower his head, lick and chew and process the situation. The relaxation bit is really important otherwise you will be building tension on top of tension.

3. Reward & 4. Rest

Reward your horse for his effort in your usual way (for more on types of reward see my last blog). In this case Reward and Rest might be the same thing but I’ve put them as two distinct steps as it never hurts to give them a bit of praise in a way they enjoy. It doesn’t have to be long, just take a breath then advance again.

5. Repeat

Repeat as many times as necessary until your horse is calmly walking past or touching the item. It’s not necessary that your horse touches it, and in the case of machinery I’d advise that you don’t let your horse touch it!!

But with toys like unbrellas, tarps, flags etc sometimes touching the item can help them put to bed and fears they have of them.

If it’s a moving object like a lorry or someone on a bicycle, you can also follow it. I used to do this a lot with one of my horses who was really afraid of tractors. At the time I was lucky enough to keep her at a farm, so whenever the tractor went past we would follow it for a short way 🚜

Occasionally you will have a horse that gets scared again, or you try the same thing again a different day and it’s back to square 1 😩

If this happens don’t despair, go through the steps again and try to notice if your horse is not relaxing. If that’s the case, go a little slower and see if you can wait until his adrenaline comes down, this should make him both calmer and more confident 😊🦄💕


Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.

If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on


Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.

Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.

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All training techniques discussed are from experience only, it is impossible for to accurately advise on horse/rider combinations without seeing them live. Lyla Cansfield & Equine Mind & Body Training strongly advise anyone considering using any of the techniques discussed to get live help and can take no responsibility for the outcome of applying any of the techniques discussed without supervision. Riding is a high risk sport.

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