These horses are so sweet. There's not a mean bone in their body, but it's REALLY hard to get them to go anywhere or do anything when they don't feel confident. It's like their feet are stuck to the ground. If you push them you either get a "dear in the headlights" look, or their eyes start to close and they shut down into a "freeze" response. Sometimes they even alternate between freeze and explode! But when they trust you and feel connected to you, they mirror your courage and can grow to become very loyal, brave, dependable partners. This horse will do anything for you if you lay a foundation of trust and connection.
Don't worry, this kind, obedient horse can become a great partner and even an athlete with the right strategies. You just have to commit to giving them lots of time in the beginning, so that they'll blossom and kick into a more confident, normal way of being.
Give them time! Wait as long as long as it takes for them to do what you asked or to check in with you for help. I'm not kidding... as long as it takes. It's an up front investment into trust that will pay off after a few sessions. If you escalate with more pressure, they’ll FREEZE and become tense & distrustful. They may even blow up from being overstimulated. Their nervous system can’t process more pressure. They aren't choosing to be like this.
Use VERY SMALL, SLOW, SOFT cues and wait for them to process it and respond. If their brain and feet FREEZE… pause and reassure them that they’re safe. As soon as you let them know that they aren't in trouble, they'll often lick and chew and start interacting again. It's really hard to put words to just how soft and slow you need to be with your cues and communication. Just start off exaggerating the slowness to the point where you start to feel silly. That should be about right.
Keep lessons slow & simple, and repeat them until they build confidence & flow. They’re only slow when they feel unsure and vulnerable, so take their slowness as feedback for how much you should try to do at once. A good way to plan a lesson is to go through an exercise, then wait until they release tension by licking and chewing or giving a sigh or blowing out. Then repeat the same lesson, and wait again for the release. When they get brighter eyes and take less time to release, you know they're getting it. The whole process gets faster and faster, the more you put training on "their time."
Make their trust in you and your connection the priority in training. There’s nothing they won’t give you, once you have those things. This is the most obedient, loyal, and affectionate horse by nature.
Reward them with quiet, connection time. Stand back by their shoulder with your hand resting gently on their withers. Give them "low energy" space & breathe with them. Touch them slowly with your heart in your hand, like a mare would touch her foal.
Don’t make this horse do things, if they can’t look at you. When your horse turns their head away continuously, this isn't disrespect. It's their way to trying to de-escalate your energy. It's a natural piece of body language that horses use with each other, as well. People often misread it, though. This is a sign that they can’t take any more pressure. Be willing to wait longer and ask softer/slower.
Don’t ask for more than this horse is prepared to give you. Make sure that you’re choosing training exercises that they can work through with confidence. Always start your session with their best exercise. Then you can teach them a little something new or ask for a little more. Keep them confident, and they'll keep trying and saying, "Yes".
Don’t use big, fast, or firm communication. And don't push them into scary situations. They can’t think under pressure, but they notice everything. If you're a high-energy, direct person this may not be the horse for you.
Don’t mistake this horse’s behavior for being ‘lazy’. It’s not that they don’t want to work for you. Their nervous system gets overloaded easily, and it shuts down their thinking, problem-solving, and their energy. If you want to learn more about why this happens, check out my post on Polyvagal Theory.
Take on the mindset of being their HERO. They need you to create a safe space for them to build their own confidence day-by-day. They need you to be patient, protect them, and nurture their talents while they develop. Once they have developed confidence of their own, they’ll use it to actively seek harmony with YOU! This horse naturally puts the most effort into CONNECTION & HARMONY. They make amazing dressage horses, therapy horses, and kids horses, IF they have complete trust in their person. Honoring their boundaries and waiting for them is the secret sauce with this horse.