First... face your fear. Then... learn to ignore it.
When you're teaching a horse to be brave, the first thing you would naturally do, if you're on the ground, is to put yourself between the scary object and the horse and cause the horse to face you and the object and to not run away. The second thing you'd do, if you understand natural horsemanship, is to place yourself off to the side and invite the horse to investigate the scary object. Naturally he or she would lean toward you and you'd have to push them back into that scary space to learn independent confidence. When they start to show confidence and curiosity the next natural step is to... What? Why haven't we been taught the next step? Many trainers know the next step, but few horse owners know the next step, and it just so happens to be the most important next step in building the horse's total confidence.
Have you ever heard of a "bomb proof" horse? The term "bomb proof" describes a level of confidence that most horse owners dream of having in their horse. It means nothing will spook or bother the horse beyond control. It doesn't mean the horse isn't aware of scary things, it means they always remain within control of your aids. Your reins and leg cues. When they spook, it's small, easy to manage and doesn't last long. Kids need bomb proof horses and so do most adults. But how do you get that kind of confidence in a horse?
As it turns out. You get that kind of confidence by understanding that next step that most horse trainers fail to talk about. It's understanding how to teach the horse to ignore the fearful situation.
Image a windstorm. What do horses do in the windstorm? If you've been around horses, you know that they always prefer to face away from the storm. They like to put that big hind quarter into the wind and rain and protect those delicate facial features like eyes and ears. When I see a horse stand like this in a storm, it makes me think there's a better way to explain that next natural step of teaching horses to ignore the fearful situation. In other words... if I want my horse to be bombproof, I imagine the scary thing, the very thing he's afraid of, as a windstorm. And I teach him to put his big brown butt, or white butt, or painted butt, or whatever color butt, toward the windstorm. Toward the scary thing.
At first, he won't be able to handle being in that vulnerable position and he'll want to turn toward it. Naturally, because we've already been through that important first step. But now it's time for him to grow his confidence and place his confidence in my suggestions, rather than his own assessment of the situation. I, at this stage, am quite literally asking him to ignore what he's afraid of and focus on me instead. By placing his hind quarters toward the scary thing and asking him to stand still, I am beginning to teach him to listen to me, in spite of the scary thing. I prefer to teach this kind of thing on the ground, but I also get to the same stage in the saddle.
To be clear, I don't always turn my horse's butt to scary things. Once they learn to put their tail to the windstorm, so to speak, I can stand in any position. Because what they're really learning to do is ignore the windstorm. Naturally, this next step is harder to do than the earlier confidence building steps. It takes patience and timing and balance, and feel. It takes persistence and firmness coupled with kindness and rewards. It takes setting strong personal space boundaries and constantly re-sensitizing your horse to your signals. But in the end... you'll have your bombproof horse.
I like to tackle any scary thing in that way. First, face the fear, then learn to engage with the obstacles, then learn to ignore them. The last part takes the longest, but it's the most rewarding. When you're riding a horse that doesn't care about what's going on around him, it's most likely because someone in his history taught him to ignore things that scare him, not to run from them or engage fully without consideration of you, but to simply ignore the fear and listen to the leader. That's a fun horse to ride. It's a safe horse to ride. Everybody loves that horse.
Now you know that next step. You can do it too. All you need is a lead rope, a stick and string to help set boundaries and ask the horse to stand still. Oh... and you need a scary situation. Don't avoid scary situations. Devour them! Create them. Tackle them. Teach your horse to listen to you in spite of them. Before you know it, you'll have your bomb proof horse.
A couple of safety tips: Go at your speed and distance. Teach your horse to ignore scary things from a distance at first, then ultimately, up close. Start small and progress to bigger things. Also, find a friend to help with the whole "scary thing" thing. It makes it fun when a partner is out there doing silly things while you're helping your horse ignore them.
Inspiration: Check out this video of a horse that's truly learned to ignore his fears and listen to his partner instead.
If you'd like to learn more. Comment below and request an early-start "how to" video. The more comments I get, the sooner I'll make that video for you.
Thanks for reading and please share with your friends. Our horses deserve the very best we can bring.