Episode 92: Building a horses confidence on the trails


How do horses develop confidence on the trails? Does confidence come from riding with another confident horse? Are some horses just born confident and others will always struggle? Can confidence be trained? I answer this listener question while out riding on the trails.

Full Transcript

Episode 92-Building a horses confidence on the trails.mp3
Announcer: [00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:27] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. This is season 9 of the podcast where the focus is on trail riding, which is really appropriate because I’ve decided that since I just lost power at my house, I should just go record this podcast while out on a trail. As you can hear, I’m not quite to the trail head yet. A little bit further to go before I get off this road.

Stacy Westfall: [00:01:08] Ok, I’m up on the actual trail, I have to ride about five minutes up the road before I get on to the state park behind my house. In today’s episode, I’m going to be answering a question that came in over on my website, on the voice mail hotline. Let’s take a listen to that question.

Caller: [00:01:29] Stacy Westfall, like everyone, I love your podcast. Thank you so much for all the time and effort and work you’ve put into it. Probably like everyone, I first listen to podcasts about things I wanted to learn and skip to the things I thought I knew. And as a result, I hadn’t spent a lot of time listening to your latest season about trail riding because I trail ride all the time, I didn’t think I had anything I needed to know there. Boy, was I wrong. After listening to your latest episode about common mistakes riders make on the trail–I was literally listening to it on my way to a solo trail ride, first solo trail ride with the new mare, 6-year-old mare that I have now–And it was so helpful to have the idea of keeping her balanced between the aides on our first trail ride together. It worked brilliantly during encounters with wild turkeys, a bear, and some big trots and canters down a beautiful, shady road. So thank you. Here’s my question for you. What do you do to develop a horse’s confidence on the trail? How or what is your thinking about that? I so love your deep dives into the methodical way you have of analyzing how our horses think and how it helps and hinders us. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time and your effort and sharing how much you know. Have a wonderful week.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:54] Thank you for your question and for your confession that you skip around listening to the podcasts that intrigue you. This is a good reminder to me to make better titles, but it sounds like you had a great adventure with your horse on that first trail ride. And I hope that listening to that podcast did play a part. And let’s go ahead and take a deep dove into your question about developing confidence on the trail. So where does confidence come from? Most of the time when people are asking that question, they’re dealing or interacting with a horse that’s less confident. Some horses are naturally really bold and they bring their own unique problems to the table. We’ll discuss that a little bit further on in the podcast, because Gabby fits into that description. And the mare that I’m riding right now, Willow, for sure, falls into the naturally more insecure category. So I definitely feel like I have experience with those two extremes and many, many, many of the horses in between.

Stacy Westfall: [00:04:11] So when I look at where confidence on the trail comes from, I want to take a look at three different places that it can come from in this podcast. The first one is it can come from the horse. So you could have a really naturally confident horse. Another one we’re going to discuss is that it can come from the rider, and yet another is the idea that it can come from another horse. So let’s go ahead and take a look at each one of these. So the first one I want to talk about is the idea that it can sometimes look like confidence can come from another horse. And what I mean by that is that if you follow a seasoned horse while you’re riding a less experienced horse, it can feel like the less experienced horse is picking up confidence from the other horse. And in a way that kind of does work. This is exactly why I’ve talked about ponying Presto out on the trails from Willow and it’s a nice bridge to use if you have access to a good pony horse. But…ponying a horse is…really only works really well if it’s building up the insecure horse. What I mean by that is that it could be actually hiding or accentuating a problem. And so this is why I’ve talked a little bit about ponying Presto out on the trails. I posted a video recently on Facebook and YouTube. You can also find all of those on my blog. I always embed them on the blog, over on my website. And, you know, it’s nice that they can pick up some confidence, but it’s only beneficial, in my opinion, if the less confident horse is learning how to be more confident during the process. Because if the horse that you’re learning–that you’re training–like the less confident horse, like Presto in this example. If the less confident horse is purely getting their confidence from the other horse like Willow, then you’re going to be dependent on riding with another confident horse. And not even necessarily just another confident horse, but it has to be a confident horse that your horse also registers or agrees with as confidence. For example, I might go ride Presto with a horse that’s confident, but if that horse intimidates Presto, meaning it gives off a lot of energy, let’s just pretend it’s a bold stallion. Well, that horse might radiate confidence, but it might also radiate something else that would drive Presto away from it. So if we’re going to use the pony horse, then I want to make sure that we’re also building the horse’s confidence in either itself or in you. I think the best way to tell if that’s happening is that on any ride you go on using a more confident horse to help build up your inexperienced horse, you should be seeing little glimpses of increased confidence along the ride.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:40] So the way that I view the pony horse or Willow in this example, if I’m riding Presto and Willow as the more experienced horse, the way that I view Willow’s role in this is that she is a mobile comfort zone. And what that means to me is it’s almost like training wheels on a bike. So just like training wheels on a little kid’s bike can be used to reduce falling. Have you ever seen a child that was learning how to ride a bike? But they just leaned over to one side and totally relied on that extra set of training wheels? I’ve seen that a couple of times. And if you stop and think about it, they’re actually practicing leaning on the training wheel and the muscle memory that they develop is actually completely wrong for riding the bike independently. And so it doesn’t help if they ride it for a very long time wrong. You know, it’s OK if it’s there and it’s touched and it’s used, but at some point there has to be a moving away from it for the correct muscle memory to be there to ride the bike without the training wheels. And that’s kind of the same thing that I think of when I’m out riding Presto behind a horse that has more confidence.

[00:09:04] So the thing that I want the horse learning to do is to rely on my aides, my cues, and basically kind of me. And so when I’m out there riding, if you watch the most recent video that I posted of trail riding Presto, it shows you that at the beginning of the ride I was very close to Willow and Willow was kind of radiating confidence and Presto knows her, has been around her. And I would say he was kind of looking to and leaning on that confidence and so was I. What that means when I say, so was I, is that probably one of the most common things that you see with young horses that are insecure on the trail is that they get kind of rush-y or worked up. And so one of the really nice things about using a horse like Willow is that I have this mobile safety spot that I can also kind of ride up to a little bit like a wall. So it’s almost like I have a mobile wall, like a round pen wall or an arena wall. And so I actually aim for it and use it. But then I start to develop the ability to use all the cues that I’ve been working on in the arena. So like the active inside rein, the active outside rein, how those balance out together, the hug, the way that I use my legs, the way that I bring all those together to quiet the horse down and to bring them back into balance on all the aides, that’s what else I’m doing behind there.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:34] And even if you watch the short video that I put out on YouTube and Facebook, you’ll see where I’m bending Presto. You’ll see where I’m asking him to fall behind a little bit more. You’ll see where I’m allowing him to catch up. And so that’s all that communication. And so if you watch to the end, he looks very different than he did at the beginning because I was practicing bringing him into balance and focusing on our communication and basically building his confidence in us as a team. Now, I think it’s interesting to note that Presto is not a naturally confident horse, but let’s stop and talk for just a minute about the idea that you could just buy a confident horse and avoid a lot of these problems. So, as I mentioned earlier, Gabby is a very naturally bold horse. And so when you have a naturally confident horse, it tends to fall into two categories. Let’s just say you go out and you buy a 10-year-old horse and it seems really naturally confident. Maybe that was a naturally bold horse, or maybe that’s a horse that has gained a lot of experience and has the training to understand. And now it appears to be a very confident horse. Now, when I say appears to be, they really can be. Like right now I’m riding Willow and I’m holding a recorder in my hand and my focus is not here. And three years ago, she was jumping at every leaf that blew across the trail and every chipmunk. And there are a lot of chipmunks out here. But now if you see her, she looks like a very confident horse. And it would look like that came naturally, but it was developed through the training. So let’s rewind for just a minute and go back to that. Just plain naturally bold horse like Gabby. It sounds like on the surface, having a really bold horse like that would be awesome. And in places it kind of is. But the problem with naturally bold horses is that if they don’t have very much training, they can really be a challenge because that boldness that can work for you on the trail when something startles them also can work against you when they’re like, yeah…I don’t think so. So in a way, Gabby was very different than Willow in that Willow’s insecurity made her doubtful. But when she saw the pattern of the training, she was kind of eager to get on board because it gave her confidence to know that somebody else was leading where Gabby was more like, yeah…but I don’t really need you. So that’s a whole different thing to deal with because that naturally confident horse also very similarly needs to be convinced to be a team member. It just happens to be a different way than when you’re working with the naturally insecure horse like Willow. And so this kind of brings us around to the idea that maybe confidence on the trail comes from the rider.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:05] Let’s go back to something that I mentioned earlier in the podcast, which was the idea that horses can become confident through experience, and I think that sounds like a lovely sentence until you think, yeah, but what if the horse’s experience is bad or negative? And I think that’s why it ultimately circles back around to being the idea that confidence comes from the rider. But more specifically, when I see that confidence comes from the rider, what I actually mean is that confidence can be produced by your team work. And I think that’s especially evident when I go out and ride on the trails alone like I am right now. So Willow and Gabby have opposite temperaments, but they’re equally fun to ride out on the trail. They still have differences. Gabby likes to go slow and kind of steady and she has no need to rush. And Willow really enjoys the places where I let her go fast. But one thing that remains the same is that to experience the really awesome trail ride, especially when I go out alone, is that both the insecure horse and the confident horse need to agree to be on my team. And for me, what that means is that the horses need to understand your cue system and they need to understand their role and your role. And here’s a big one–they need to see the benefit in being on your team. And what that means to me is that what do I have to offer the horse if it agrees to play by my rules, to join my team, to go along with the things that I structure and set up to me? What that means is that when they understand my role, the biggest benefit that they experience is that they get to rely on my experience. Now, that sounds kind of circular and it is. But what that means is that they can learn to relax into my guidance. I think that’s why it at first looks really, you know, kind of when you see a horse that’s insecure and they begin to rely on the human’s perspective, you can really see them relax. And what’s interesting is the same thing happens with the bold horse. But one thing that I could talk about more in the future is that bold horses often don’t give up their leadership easily. And so sometimes that bold horse, while you are trying to develop that teamwork, they question a lot more what value your experience brings to the table. But in a lot of instances, you really do bring a lot to the table because of, you know, where you’re trying to navigate and keeping them safe. But they don’t always view it like that. So when you do get the horses working as part of your team, that’s when things get really fun. That’s how the horses become this amazing team member in a way that the communication starts to feel magical. I don’t like the idea of drilling horses to the point where they don’t feel like they have a voice in the conversation. To me, the best illustration that I have of riding is that it is a constant communication with the horse. It just happens to be a constantly non-verbal communication. So right now I’m verbally communicating to you on the podcast. I’m still communicating to Willow this entire time with my leg aides, with my seat aides, and even with some minimal rein aides. And so she picks up not just on the confidence that might radiate from me as a more confident rider, but she also has a confidence in the cue system, in the aides, and importantly in the situations that I have or have not put her into over the period of time that we’ve known each other. And at the end of the day, those are some of the components that go into creating awesome trail rides. Conveniently, these are also the components that go into what made it possible for Roxy to agree to perform brideless and bareback with me at home and in the show pen and on the stage at Ellen DeGeneres Show, I’m not here to say that there’s a shortcut to this process. What I am here to say is that when you commit to the journey, when you commit to building that language, that communication, that understanding, that system of cues with your horse, it’s really amazing what can happen. Some horses are a little easier to agree to become team members, but it’s also very common to find riders that are very famous Olympians that will tell you some of the best horses they’ve ever ridden were the complicated ones that took them extra time to unlock or agree to become a team member. Because sometimes those very bold or very complex horses have a lot to offer. They just take more dedication to train and unlock that potential. It’s actually the reason why I love training. I love the process of starting again with a horse like Presto and seeing how much confidence I can build in him through this process so that he can become the best version of himself that he has to offer to the world.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:48] So let’s circle back to one last thing that I’ve brought up and mentioned in a few different ways. I’ve said that you can build a horse’s confidence through experience and specifically through good experiences. So how does that work? How do we maximize the good experiences and minimize the less useful experiences? Well, for me, that’s where having a plan and having a system really comes into play. Because what I know is that if you have a consistent system that teaches the horses how to respond appropriately to each individual aid and then together when that is hardwired in your body, because that’s where it starts first and when it is hardwired in their body, that’s when you can then take it to places like the trail and you can help the horse through a tough situation. But the challenge that I see people face is that when tough situations arrive, they’re lacking the magic ingredient. And that’s what I’m going to talk about in next week’s podcast. Sorry for the cliffhanger, but I really think it divides well into another question that was left on the voicemail hotline.

Stacy Westfall: [00:22:34] What I really want you to think about from this podcast is the idea that you need to really identify your belief system around where confidence comes from when you’re working with your horse. Do you believe that that confidence comes internally from them, generated? Do you believe that confidence comes from another horse that you ride with? Do you believe that confidence comes from a trainer that you send the horse to and that that trainer can instill confidence in the horse? Do you believe that that confidence comes from just a confident rider getting on, or do you believe that it’s a mix of these things? And if you do believe it’s a mix of these things, it would be worth taking the time to tease apart and think about how you think all of those pieces play together in your specific situation with your specific horse and with your specific knowledge level. Willow and I are walking down a little hill and we’re about to cross a stream. So it’ll be interesting to see if you can hear this well, on the audio. For those of you who are interested in taking a deeper dive into the topics that I discuss here on the podcast, I offer online courses. Because I truly do believe that clear communication between the horse and the rider is what increases the confidence in both the horse and the rider. My improving steering and teaching neck training course is open for enrollment right now through August 20th. And the goal of this course is to teach you to understand the role of each rein, during the horses training as well as the use of your legs. I believe that understanding the role of the inside rein and the outside rein independently will help improve your timing and your feel. And that is what leads to being able to use both reins together really effectively, and that is what leads to solid neck reining. But guess what? It also teaches horses and riders to have more confidence in each other. So clear communication and understanding increases confidence. Do you see that with people? Do you see that in the rest of the world? Good principles like that are true inside and outside of the horse world. Inside of the course, I’m actually going to add a longer and more detailed version of Presto’s first trail ride, and I will be using specific references to the techniques that I show inside the course and how I’m applying them on that first trail ride. This is the last podcast that will go out before the online course closes on August 20th. It will be available again later in the fall, but at that time, the price will double. Thanks again for listening, for leaving your questions, and I will talk to you again in the next episode. OK, Willow. We did a lot of walking during that episode. I want to go for a little run.

[00:26:58] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Video of Presto’s first trail ride

Stacy’s Online Course: The Complete Guide to Improving Steering and Teaching Neck Reining


  1. Kimberly Pashak on December 17, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    love this episode with you live on the trail, feel like I’m out there too! This episode helps me with my confidence to help my horse with theirs. I get something out of each of your episodes and listening to your podcasts motivates me and gives me confidence to work with my own horses to get out there and do it. Its hard to just pick one LOL, I go back and listen over and over different episodes depending on what I’m working on. Thank you for these podcasts! love them

  2. marie mcphee on December 17, 2020 at 2:58 pm

    I really enjoyed this podcast. I trail ride alone a lot of times but after listening to this episode, I realized that I could give my horse more confidence by riding with another rider with a well seasoned trail horse. It has made a world of difference in both my horse’s confidence and mine.

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