Confidence and relaxation are very important if you and your horse are to present a happy and harmonious partnership in the dressage arena.
Unfortunately, some horses are naturally nervy types that lack confidence when ridden away from the familiar environment of their home setting.
This can manifest itself in spooking and napping or your horse may simply sit behind your leg and not work forward into the bridle.
So, what can you do to improve your horse’s confidence?
Get a grip!
Sensitive horses are very adept at picking up stressy vibes from their riders, so it’s essential that you get a grip on your own nerves before you try to help your horse.
Remember that competing is supposed to be fun; it’s your opportunity to show off what you and your horse can do, otherwise, why bother?
You can improve your own confidence by making sure that you and your horse are well-prepared and only entering classes of a level that is easily within your ability.
Allow plenty of time to arrive at the competition venue, so that your horse has plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and have a good look around before you ask him to settle down to work.
Fear → curiosity → confidence
As prey animals, horses are naturally inclined to be fearful of unfamiliar objects and sounds.
Once you have removed the fear element of a situation, it is quickly replaced by curiosity, and then by confidence as the horse realizes that the perceived ‘monster’ is in fact harmless.
It’s often the unexpected that causes anxiety.
For example, placing a pot of brightly-colored flowers next to one of the letters in your previously bare arena can cause an uproar, until your horse realizes that the scary interloper is just a bunch of daffodils.
Even background music and crowd noise can be unnerving for some horses, and it can be helpful to practice schooling at home sometimes with music playing.
Conditioning your horse to accept unfamiliar objects has much to do with his confidence in you as his herd leader.
Practice at home by placing strange objects around the arena or in his field and allowing your horse to investigate them in-hand. Reassure him with your voice, and show him that there’s nothing to be afraid of by walking up to the offending articles yourself in order to give him a lead.
Move on to long-reining your horse around the arena or field, so that he still has the reassurance of your voice, but has to face the hazards himself. You can turn the whole exercise into a game by building an obstacle course of pots, flags, balloons tied to the fence, tarpaulins to walk over, and anything else you can think of that might challenge your horse.
Repeat the exercise under saddle, moving the items around the arena so that your horse sees them from different angles until he strides past confidently without resistance or hesitation.
Never try to force curiosity
If your horse backs away and is clearly afraid, allow him more time to investigate, offering him reassurance until he gets braver.
Rather than walking him straight up to the object that he is afraid of, try walking him past it instead. First at a safe distance, and then each time edging a little bit closer.
Depending on the individual horse, this conditioning process can take weeks, so be prepared to be patient and don’t try to hurry things.
Although horses don’t have a huge understanding of vocabulary, they do understand the emotions transmitted through a combination of sounds and physical contact.
As you ride towards something potentially scary, ease your rein contact and talk quietly to your horse, keeping your tone low and even. Reinforce your verbal reassurance with a gentle neck rub or wither scratch.
Breathe deeply and slowly to encourage your own body to relax, and free-up any tension that your horse might detect through your legs, arms, or hands.
Make sure that your seat and back continue to follow the horse’s movement without stiffening and bracing yourself against him.
Horses that are stabled for much of their lives and only ever see the inside of their own home arena can be forgiven for lacking confidence when taken out to a dressage ‘party’ at an unfamiliar location, so another good way of educating your horse and building his confidence in his rider and in his surroundings is to include hacking in his work repertoire.
If your horse is not good on the roads or hacking near your yard is poor, try boxing him to a farm ride or just hire an arena.
You can improve your horse’s confidence through patient, systematic conditioning work.
You may not see an improvement overnight, but the end result will be well worth the effort when you and your super-brave equine can finally enter at ‘A’ without quaking in fear at the flower arrangements or the judge’s box.
- How to Deal with a Spooky Horse
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax at Competitions
- How to Prepare for a Competition
- How to Manage Competition Nerves
- How to Manage at a Dressage Competition on Your Own