How Do I Instill Confidence in My Horse?

Kristin Hardin explains how to develop confidence in a horse who is nervous when ridden on the trail or without a standing martingale.

Q: I have owned a 13-year-old Arabian gelding for two years. I need help on two issues. The first is that he is afraid of trail-riding. The second is that when I ride him without a standing martingale, he puts his head way up in the air. I ride him in a copper-mouth broken snaffle. With the martingale, which is very loose and barely there, his head position is great even though it is not holding his head in place. My vet has checked him and there are no soreness issues, and I have his teeth done yearly. I think he may have never been ridden without it and it’s his “security blanket.” I would like to show him but his head comes up without the martingale. How can I help him?

Ride your horse on the trails with a braver horse to help him gain confidence. © Arnd Bronkhorst

Even though your two questions seem to address different situations, I suspect they stem from the same thing—that your horse wants to feel more secure. That’s good because you can help him with this issue by being more of the leader it sounds like he wants and needs. I think that supporting him with firm leg pressure and steady rein contact will help him become more comfortable both on the trails and working with his head in the right place without his familiar standing martingale.

Firstly, trail riding can be intimidating for horses who have spent their lives in the confines of stalls, organized paddocks and arenas. The feeling of not being supported by fences can cause insecurity about the unknown.

Begin the process of helping him gain confidence on the trail by riding out with one or more seasoned, brave horses. You can even pony him off such a horse. Anytime your horse can see another horse being nonreactive is helpful.

When you are on the trail, help him feel secure and protected by riding him between your leg, seat and a solid but gentle hand. Ride him in a workmanlike manner in a frame that you usually use in the arena. Maintaining rein, leg and seat contact enough to keep him in this frame will give your horse the sense that you are in charge and protecting him. Giving him a loose rein and no leg or seat aids may make him feel as if he’s being sent out on his own. As riders, we need to have the mentality of a leader.

As your horse’s leader on the trail, you want to be aware of your surroundings and stay a step ahead of them. If you see something that may seem startling or hazardous to him—a rabbit running out from a bush, for example—turn his head gently in the other direction, which will seem to him like you’re protecting him, and speak to him in a calm, reassuring voice.

At the same time, be realistic and know that every horse is different and not all of them are meant to go out on trails. Horses are flight animals, and some of them can be desensitized and some can’t. That doesn’t mean you have to accept all of their behaviors, but you may need to alter your program to fit who your horse is.

Regarding your second question about your horse carrying his head nicely only in a loose standing martingale, I think the solution is similar: riding him in more of a controlled frame. The reliance on a standing martingale sounds as if it simply offers him the stability, security and pressure, albeit light, he wants. You can begin weaning him off of it by opting for a German martingale to assist you in creating a frame you are both comfortable with.

Keep in mind that every horse has a different frame, a natural balance point. It is more of a feeling than an appearance. A frame is created when your leg is applied and your horse moves forward into contact with the reins and then releases the pressure himself. Then the rider’s hands can soften as a reward. Usually when the horse’s neck and poll relax, his salivary glands release and foam appears in his mouth. Often his nose comes down but never beyond being perpendicular to the ground. This would be an overflexion caused by too much hand pressure.

As you know, a standing martingale has a single strap that is attached to the girth and runs through the horse’s front legs and through a breastplate where it is fixed under his chin to the noseband. With a German martingale, the strap passes through the breastplate and splits into two. Each strap runs through the bit ring on each side and connects (usually via a clip) to a point on the reins. It adds leverage to the bit action but is less restrictive to a horse’s head position than the standing martingale.

Adjust the German martingale so that when your horse is traveling from your leg into your hand with his head carriage in the proper place, the martingale straps have plenty of slack. They should go into effect only if he starts to raise his head. If you are unsure how to use them, have your trainer or another qualified professional show you how. They are a good tool for retraining your horse to ride with connection.

Remember, though, that a German martingale should be considered only as a backup aid that goes into effect if your horse comes out of the frame. It is not a means to help you pull down his head, which creates a false frame and doesn’t offer any long-term training advantage.

With these caveats, you can ride your horse in the German martingale out on the trail, too. Once he accepts the connection, you should be able to ride him without needing to use any kind of martingale.

Even though your horse is 13, you are training and retraining him, which is usually more difficult than training a youngster. Be patient, use common sense, think like a horse and in time you should be reaping the benefits.

Kristin Hardin is based in East Santa Barbara County, California. A top hunter/jumper star as a Junior and through her early professional years, Kristin is known for getting the best of horses of various breeds, backgrounds and training challenges. Owners around the country send their horses to her for starting or retraining and she runs a thriving sales business and competes successfully with her horses and students.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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