Empowering Your Horse

Leonara is a spooky mare. And once she gets a fright, she is highly reluctant to try again at that place or with the thing that scared her. She does take a lot of comfort from people, though, and can be helped to work through her fears. Claire Waldron, Manager of the Connection Training Centre, has done a lot of work to build their connection  and now  wants to help her to develop more self-confidence so that she can face objects by herself without human guidance. In short, to empower her so that life in general is less worrying.

So, we introduced some equine enrichment exercises which we learned from Rachaël Draaisma. She is a world expert on Equine Calming Signals and recently visited us in Spain, when we filmed this video. Here’s what happened in Leonara’s fourth session:

The bits we couldn’t show you

As you watch the video, it’s important to understand that we had to trim the full 30-minute session down. Much of what we trimmed was Leonara standing still. These episodes lasted for about half the session and were highly informative. Rachaël explains:

“People tend to think when there is no movement from the horse nothing is happening. In relation to getting to know unfamiliar objects the opposite sometimes is true. When a horse stands still and turns the hindquarters towards the object, this can be seen as a calming signal meant to appease the object. The horse might also eat in this position. Or sometimes flick an ear toward the object or look at it without turning the head.”

Then  Leonara turns around, flank-side to the objects.

As Rachaël explains in the video, this position can often be seen as a follow up to the showing of the hindquarter: “The showing of the flank is also a calming signal towards the object. The horse may eat and can, from this position, easily look at the object. A showing flank is often followed by an approach towards the object. With a horse that is self-confident with many objects, you would not see these long calming signals. They would get skipped or in time would be very short. “

Towards the end of this session, after she had eaten both apples, Leonara wanted to get to the pear. After a little direct exploration of the pear, but without eating it, she stood side on to the objects for about 5 minutes. “It’s important for us to learn just how much time horses need when fear or caution is involved,” said Rachaël.  “We tend to rush them, which causes them to get anxious again. Learning to leave them to work it out on their own can be the hardest thing we need to learn”

A Confident and Independent Leonara

The enrichment exercise proved to be a great success as you see with the last clip. This was the session next day and Leonara went straight to the objects with no-one present in the arena.

In this session, we had introduced a new surface, the towel, and it was interesting that she was happy to eat off that with little hesitation. Something about the grey blanket had obviously worried her right from the start. But, after all the support we gave her, she finally went to the blanket and ate quite happily from it without Claire’s support. We were thrilled that she showed such an increase in confidence over these sessions. We’ll do lots more with her in the next few months so that exploring new things becomes her favourite game. Whilst connection is everything to us, we don’t want to create dependency in our horses. A self-confident horse will be happier and safer and we want to develop that too.

If you’d like to know more about this deeply emotional and informative side of communicating with your horse, please come along to one of Rachaël and my weekend Seminars next year. We’re starting off in Manchester in February and then going to Poland, Austria and Sweden. See you there!

Rachel Bedingfield, Co-Founder, Connection Training


2-day Seminar “Equine Emotions and Calming Signals”, Manchester, 17th-18th February 2018

With Rachel Bedingfield and Rachaël Draaisma

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5 thoughts on “Empowering Your Horse”

  1. Really interesting example. A couple of questions:
    1. Did Claire walk on the blanket and bounce around on it with Leonara observing before putting the food on it?
    2. Is it possible that the larger blanket had an unusual smell to it? Did it have a fluffy texture?
    So wonderful that you are going out and about teaching people about these things. :-).
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Rachel Bedingfield

      Hi Hertha, yes the blanket was both fliffy and smelly! It is the dog blanket and, as Leonara knows the dogs and is not scared of them, we thought she would be fine with it. I think she was, but definitely the texture was the problrm for her.
      No-one walked on the blanket for her, but, when we realised that she didn’t want to touch it, Meadhbh sat beside it and picked up the apples for her, gradually moving her hand lower and lower. Leo went from that in one session to rolling the apples off the blanket the next session.
      I knew Leo was concerned about flappy things but I must say, her aversion to texture was a real surprise to me. And I didn’t expect her to be so happy about the towel. So it is a fascinating exercise isn’t it?

  2. Nice work! At first I’m thinking just go in and help her!! 🙂 But I understand your goal. Now I’m going to go out and put some foreign/scary/new objects in my horses paddock then turn them loose and I’m going to hide to see how brave they are without me. I think I am always helping them with anything scary and never thought that they could become dependent on that help.

  3. Hi Lyndsey, thank you! It is just as you say. Helping a horse who needs help iswhat you should do. However setting up a plan to help your horses build confiidence without human help is very helpful for them. As you say the goal of this exercise is to have Leonara conquer her own treshholds without help. Doing this right needs some planning though. You do not want your horses to associate a new stimuli with an anxious feeling. The curiosity must win. Even if it takes some sessions. So I would advise to start with one obstacle, which resembles one they already now and go from there. Food is not per se needed. It is the exploration of the objects that will get your horses happy. It is not a search game for food. However if you think you need it, please do so and make a combination of both. Because touching the texture with her chin and mouth seemed a problem for Leonara we did use the food as a planned treshhold she could overcome, which she did. Rachel and I will give more info on how to assess your horse’s body language so to be continued.

  4. Just caught up with this video. Thanks for sharing. I loved seeing her progress and the way you explained her subtle body language. I could really see how this process had built up her confidence to explore objects on her own. As suggested I have shared this very informative video. looking forward to seeing more.

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