I have a 15-year old gelding – appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, Copper. My problem is that I am not confident enough to follow through with things that I ask him to do. This happens mainly when I ride him – he’s lazy and doesn't want to go, or doesn't want to go in the direction I want to go. That is partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but mostly because I saw Copper buck someone off that he didn't like, and I don’t want that to happen to me! I know that he knows that I am fearful and not the dominant one. I just don’t know how to turn myself into the leader in our relationship, and get that confidence so that he will listen to me, and do what I ask. He is also generally a spooky, jumpy horse, which doesn't help. Do you have any kind of step-by-step ideas that I can use with him to have him listen to me when I ride, without compromising my safety?
The problems you are having with your horse are not at all uncommon—I see them in every clinic I do. There are two issues to consider here: raising your confidence level and becoming a respected leader for your horse. While they are clearly related, I think you’ll have to deal with them as separate issues.
As for the confidence issue, you need to do some introspection and come up with a plan to control your thoughts and develop more confidence. I know hundreds of people that have followed the recipe and had great success in overcoming their fear. Once you have your emotions in check, you’ll be able to work through the issues with your horse.
Because of the herd nature of horses and the linear hierarchy that exists within the herd, horses are very keen to your level of confidence and intention. He knows, probably better than you, that you aren't willing to reinforce your commands and discipline him if needed. Therefore, he cannot possible see you as his leader.
Once you have issued a command to a horse, it is imperative that you enforce it. Otherwise, you are training him to be disobedient. If you are incapable of enforcing your commands, it is better that you do not ask your horse to do it to begin with because every time you ask and fail, you are further convincing him you are not in charge and his opinion of you worsens.
You need to examine all of your interactions with your horse to discover the less obvious things you are probably doing on a daily basis to undermine your own authority with your horse. Remember, horses gain dominance by controlling resources (food and water) and by controlling the space of subordinates and controlling their actions. If you look at your interactions closely, you’ll find many instances in which you are giving away your authority.
The most effective way to establish leadership over any horse and to gain his respect is through ground work. I hear lots of people say, "But I've done that and I still have problems," and what I know is that they've done it inconsistently, not systematically or ineffectively. It is not enough to just run a horse around the round pen; you have to know what behavior you are trying to affect, what the desired response is and how to get it.
If you work through these obedience issues on the ground first, it will give you greater confidence in the saddle and also your horse will be less challenging, since he will come to respect you as his leader and to respect your authority. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have some expert help along the way—a trainer or instructor that can help you discipline this horse and guide you through this process.
Good luck and stay safe!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host