Winterize Your Horse: Winter Exercises to Help Develop Trust, Confidence and Respect Between You and Your Horse

By Mary Ann Simonds

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Winter can cause boredom and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for both horses and humans. Particularly, those used to long trail rides on sunny days can find themselves in a gloomy depression. Horses, like people, need adequate sunlight, exercise and nutritional support during the long gray months of winter. Horses are active all day and night and do not sleep like humans. They spend most of their time eating, inter-mixed with short periods of sleep. Horses in pasture still need stimulation and those in stalls require even more activities in the winter than in summer. So instead of just feeding your horse and heading up to the house to get warm by the fire, think about how you can spend "quality time" with your horse this winter.

Horses gain respect and self-awareness through "spacing games" they play with other horses in the herd. Many domestic horses did not learn "Horse 101" if they were brought up with people or with other horses that were not skilled in horse language. Horses gain confidence and respect for their herd mates by learning how to act like a well-adjusted horse. Whether your horse has a strong sense of horse knowledge or not, the following exercises will help to build confidence, trust and respect between you and your horse.

In the wild, when a foal is a just a few hours old, he learns about space. This lesson is the basis for all other horse herd dynamics, both for social structure and safety. The foal's mother and the other mares will gently push a wandering foal back to his mother's side. This is the first lesson in "My Space, Your Space". As the foal grows up this lesson is reinforced over and over again by all other horses in the herd until the horse is mature, and then the space issue becomes a challenge for leadership. Domestic horses sometimes never get this lesson and it can cause problems for horse and rider. People are already rather confusing, from a horse's point of view. We are predators that feed them and groom them and then ride on their backs. Depending upon your horse's intelligence and ability to have deductive reasoning, your horse may or may not ever come to understand and trust a rider as much as he trusts and understands another horse. Usually humans are tolerated and somewhat liked for their entertaining and social value to a horse, but rarely will a horse choose to be with a human over another horse. Although these relationships of trust and cooperation between horse and rider do exist, they have to be developed.

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Since most horse behavior is learned, it is wise to teach your horse spacing and confidence at an early age. Horses learn much of their attitudes about life in the early years - up to two years old. Most everything to a foal and yearling is fun while curiosity is at its peak. However, as horses mature, their curiosity turns to fear and wariness. If a young horse never experienced any fun horse games of "see how close to something scary you can get", then when he is older, the scary objects or sounds are amplified. However, there are exercises you can do with your horse called "Safe-Space Training" that will help to build confidence and trust between you and your horse and make your horse much more courageous than he would normally ever want to become.

Evaluate Your Horse

Even if your horse has nice manners, take a moment and observe how your horse interacts with other horses and people. Does your horse readily step out of the way of other people or horses? Will your horse ever walk into your space without permission? Will your horse push past you to get to food? Will your horse stand still and let you walk up to him in pasture or when turned loose? If your horse does not totally respect you and your space then he will push past you to get to food, he may run you over when frightened trying to get out of the way, or he will run away from you when you want to catch him. Also, horses that cannot be turned out with other horses because they get kicked or injured will benefit from these exercises. Remember, most horse behavior is learned and if your horse did not grow up in a functional herd with good role models, then it is likely your horse may not know how to be a totally functional healthy horse. This can lead to stress and often neither horse nor human can understand the cause until they go back to basic horse etiquette.

Leadership is important to a horse. Luckily for us, most horses are happy to be followers as long as they have a good leader. By nature, very few horses really want to be leaders. If they do, most are mares and most will have a "challenge-you" kind of temperament. It is important to first identify your horse's temperament or "Horsenality" before you start. Dominant or "Who-cares-about-you" temperament horses or those who do not understand space, need to start with 'my space, your space" training. However, very shy timid horses that always shrink away from people and could use a boost of confidence could start with the "safe-space" training first.

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Exercise 1 - "My Space, Your Space" for Developing Trust and Respect

Depending upon the facility, there are several variations that will work for this exercise. If you do not have a confined space such as a small paddock about 20 ft. by 40 ft. to work with, then you can do this exercise with a halter and lead rope. Lead your horse around (Photo 1), never allowing your horse's eye to pass your shoulder. In horse terms, this means that your horse is now the leader if your position has moved behind his line of sight. If the horse starts to pass in front of you, stop and back the horse up to the desired distance. It is a little like playing "Red Light, Green Light" or "Mother May I." The horse should be paying attention to you and stopping on a dime behind you. If the horse ignores you, then you need to get the horse's attention by increasing your energy. Your energy needs to be assertive and focused in order to keep the horse's attention on you. Walk around going both directions, stopping at different places. When the horse does stop and pay attention, make sure you reward and praise the horse, making a big deal out of his understanding and cooperation by talking to him and gently stroking over the withers. Often horses get frustrated and confused, because they never know when they do something right. Look for signs of understanding from the horse like licking his lips, dropping his head or yawning to release held-in stress. Allow the horse time to process what you are teaching. Take frequent time outs for a few seconds, both when the horse does something right and if the horse does not seem to understand and becomes frustrated. Time outs allow you to regroup, relax the horse, take a deep breath and start over if the horse is making mistakes. Or if the horse has done what you asked, then the time out allows the horse's brain the opportunity to understand the action that he performed appropriately, while you reinforce with comforting behaviors.

Exercise 2 - "Safe Space Training" for Increasing Confidence

The "flight distance" for a horse is the distance at which he feels that something is unsafe and he needs to leave. By teaching the horse to stand still and be calm during visual or auditory stimulus that could trigger flight, the horse learns to override the sensory stimulus with a physical relaxation response. This is done by standing in a defined space with your horse. The horse should already know "my space, your space" and respect your space by not entering without asking permission.

While stroking the horse over the withers to relax him, have someone else that you can talk to (so you can control the exercise) walk into the arena with something that may be perceived as scary for the horse (Photo 2). Watch the horse's behavior carefully. When the horse raises his head, points his ears forward, expands his nostrils and his heartbeat elevates, you know he is being stressed. The objective of the exercise is to remove the stressor just before your horse wants to take flight. As the stressor is removed, talk gently with the horse telling him how brave he is and how the two of you made the scary thing go away, while stroking over the withers. You are overriding the sensory stimulus of sight or sound with a relaxation stimulus to the body. Continue with this exercise until you can define your horse's safe space down to about a 10 foot diameter. Horses often will allow an object much closer to their front end than their hind end, particularly geldings because they are not as "spatially aware" behind as mares. It is important to have the object or sound be able to be brought all the way around the horse without the horse leaving his defined space. The horse may not be sure whether you or he made the scary thing go away, but he learns that when you are there, he feels safe. This exercise can then be transferred when you are riding. Every horse may respond differently to these exercises and each one tells you when he is ready to move on. Always quit on a POSITIVE note and never work the horse too long. Frequent and short (15 - 20 minute) sessions help the horse learn more easily than longer sessions. Remember to keep it fun for you and your horse.

Exercise 3 - Free Training: More "Space" Games

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If you are working the horse free in a small paddock, the object of the game is to move the horse around from one corner to another or from one half of the paddock to the other using body language and establishing the space you want. You can play with whatever size of space you want. If the horse is having fun, he will try to run past you with his tail up in the air to show you he can escape. Your job is to not let the horse run past you unless you want him to. The human should be controlling the game rules. If the horse has his tail tucked and turns away from you and hides in the corner, he is not having fun and you need to stop and go to the horse. Relax and comfort the horse until he understands the game you are playing. These exercises should be done with a sense of humor, making it fun for both you and the horse. When the horse can honor whatever size of space you want, then you can add food as a motivator. Using hay or grain, with you in the middle, keep the horse away from "your food" by shooing him away (Photo 3). You can use body language, voice and the squirt gun with water to help establish your space. The horse will soon learn that when you are around, you are the leader and you can have as big a space as you want. Remember, the leader can always enter the space of a less-dominant horse, but the less dominant horse may not enter the space of the leader without permission (Photo 4). Teaching the horse these simple horse social skills will not only help reduce stress in the performance horse but assist in creating performance champions.

About the author:

Mary Ann Simonds has been teaching horse behavior, communication and healing for over 25 years. Her teaching weaves scientific knowledge with intuitive wisdom integrating her background as a wildlife ecologist, equine behaviorist, and holistic health consultant. Through her Enlightened Horsemanship and Enchanted Riding programs Mary Ann has taught thousands of people from veterinarians and trainers to backyard horsemen. Her philosophy and teaching is available through videos, articles and television. As a researcher she has developed a line of magnetic therapy products called Natural Vibrations. To find out more about Mary Ann Simonds and her enchanting products, please visit her website or email us at Mary Ann's direct email is