How to Build Your Horse's Self Esteem
Does it matter? Of course it does! Horses are just like people in that their self confidence and belief in who they are has everything to do with how they respond to us. Their self esteem will affect how much trust they have in us and how willing they are to do whatever it is we ask of them or even give to them.
Let me illustrate such a concept by telling of an experience I had recently with my neighbor's horses. She has two, both rescued. One was a lovely older Arabian whose owner passed away. She was very shy, timid, scared and fearful, hard to approach or put a halter on and had never been taught to go undersaddle. The other was a young Pinto Nat'l Showhorse, similar breeding but this horse was outgoing to the point of being gregarious, willing to follow and although quite rambunctious anyone could sit on him. It was sad watching the Arab skulking around afraid of her own shadow but exhilarating to watch the Pinto, tail and head high prancing around as though he owned the place with a joyful demeanor always up for a romp and with an attitude of excitement to meet each day.
What was the difference between the two? Self esteem! It was made clearly evident to me that day when I had an extra apple and thought I'd offer it to the Arab. (I've always been one to try to boost up the underdog) I was surprised when she actually stepped over to me because she often stood quietly over in a corner under a tree and as far away as she could be from civilization but today she made the leap of faith and came to see what I offered. I held the apple out as far as I could to get her near enough to it as she sniffed, baulked, blowed, sniffed again. This routine seemed to go on for hours as I continued to coax and assure her it was edible and a good thing. Finally just when it seemed she would get close enough to investigate here came the Pinto bouncing gleefully over and without so much as a pause, all in one swoop stepped right into her space and gulped up the apple in passing saying a big "thank you!" with batting his eyes and skipped on about his business.
I couldn't help but notice this life's lesson as I mused over the difference in the two of them and how we look at the world. As Dr. Wayne Dyer states in "The Power of Intention", we either look at this Universe as something to fear or as something good and for us to enjoy. To the Arabian the apple was something to fear because she had poor self esteem and expected everything in her life to be a threat. To the Pinto and without any investigation he simply knew the apple had to be a good thing because it was coming from my hand and because of his high self esteem he knew he could trust me and expected everything in his life to be good.
Can you begin to understand how this concept could have an effect on your horse's training? Which horse would you rather ride? Go to a show with? Go on a trail ride on? Jump? Rope a cow off of?
So now you'll want to know how do I get my horse to this place? How can I build his self esteem?
To be fair it seems some horses are born that way but I'm thinking it's not so much their DNA as much as it is their mother or their early experiences but there are still things you can do. First off it has to be a mindset and you have to be determined to prove to your horse that his life is a good thing that he can trust you and life is not only fair but fun. You do this by always being kind to your horse and by knowing and speaking his language and if you want him to trust you, you must never let him down.
That being said of course you don't let him literally walk all over you. Remember the part about "speaking his language"? If you don't know about horse behavior or what people label as "horse whispering" you might want to study that for awhile and become more confident in your horse communication skills.
When you teach new concepts and your horse is getting frustrated don't hesitate to go back to something they can do well. Asking him to do something that's already in his repertoire and then praising him and telling him how great he is can lift his spirit and bring his focus back. Come on, we do that for our other pets, do you think your horse is less intelligent than them?
I once worked with a Thoughbred that was having issues but if I took a break and went to doing awesome turns on the haunches (which he could do even at a canter) his mood lifted immediately. We made it a game and as he excelled at this very difficult maneuver I would shower him with endless praise and in no time we could go back to what he had found to be difficult and I would find little or no resistance whatsoever almost as though he was a completely different horse and in a way he was.
So my advice to you when you hit a wall with your horse in his training is to find and go back to that one thing you know he can do well. Spend as much time on it as is fun and affords you the opportunity to convince him of his worth and then try your challenging work again. If the task is still too much for your horse to cope with them finish with something he can conqueror. Call it a day and assure him he's the greatest and you appreciate his efforts.
Remember, building self esteem takes some time, perhaps the lifetime of your horse but I can assure you being more aware of his need to feel worthy can greatly change your attitude toward him and his work causing you to be a more mindful rider and thoughtful trainer.