How to build self-confidence in a horse?
It’s a concept to be discussed at next month’s Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, led by Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters.
Here’s what a horse challenge (jumping a log, crossing a creek, loading into a strange trailer, learning the feel of spurs) might look like on the neurological level:
Sensations or neural inputs travel up to the thalamus, a part of the brain that’s like a telephone switchboard, routing nerve messages. If you’ve presented the experience in a positive manner, the horse’s reaction will be one of curiosity but not fear. It will likely proceed with your request. The neural message will head from the thalamus to the motor strip, a section of the horse’s brain dedicated to movement.
However, if the sensation is accompanied by pain or fear, the route from the thalamus will lead to the hypothalamic pituitary, adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central response system to psychological or physical stress.
“You never want responses to be routed to that pathway,” said Peters. The more consistently you can run sensations through the thalamus and toward where they need to go (usually the motor strip), rather than towards a stress-related response, the better off you’ll be.”
When the horse is able to predict this positive outcome, despite the novelty of each experience, it becomes more confident.
Confidence is not to be confused with trust and joining up. As in, “He’ll go anywhere with me. That’s how much he trusts me.”
When working with a horse, we do not want a horse that relies on our leadership in a toddler-ish, hand-holding manner. Teaching a horse to stick with us like that, says Black, can perpetuate a needy dependency. Women, especially, are prone to nurturing a warm and fuzzy relationship in which the horse does indeed stick with us, he said. But when things get dicey (a horn blares, a ceiling falls, a door slams), the horse will look to the rider as an island of safety and it will want to be ON that island (when the rider is on the ground).
“I see it all the time. Students have developed a “trusting” relationship, but then are run over by their horses. It’s dangerous,” said Black.
“The self confidence I am talking about is when they are very sure of their decision making and their ability to judge and handle difficult situations. This comes from giving them experience in difficult situations, giving them choices, and helping them learn the avenues to success. If they run into more discomfort with the wrong choices, then they learn to make the right decisions without us nurturing them to the right answer.”