Monday, May 25, 2009

The Confident Horse

By Laura Crum

Someone asked how to make a confident horse on Janet’s mugwump chronicles blog the other day, and it got me thinking. That phrase, “confident horse” means something different to me than it might mean to others. I’ve trained quite a few horses in my life, some for myself, some for others. I’ve never made a horse that I consider a truly confident horse. On the other hand, I have owned three horses that were very confident horses. I asked myself what the difference was.

Of the horses I trained for myself, there were three, Burt, Gunner and Plumber, that I owned all their lives. (Burt is dead, Gunner is retired, I’m still riding Plumber at twenty years old.) I bought Burt and Gunner with thirty days on them, Plumber I broke myself. I did all the training on all three horses. All three of them won at various events, both with me and for others. All three were cowhorses. Burt won money at low level cutting and reined cowhorse, team penning, barrel racing and goat tying, Gunner at reined cowhorse, cutting and roping, and Plumber as a team roping heel horse. I have trophy saddles, buckles, blankets and headstalls aplenty from these three. They were and are good horses, who came through for me, and other riders they trusted, over and over again, whether that meant handling a tough steer, or the end of a twelve hour cattle drive in the face of a howling gale. I am absolutely proud of them. But they weren’t/aren’t what I call a confident horse.

Burt, Gunner, and Plumber, all three, trusted their rider to take care of them. They obeyed directions no matter how tough the going got. They stayed broke under stress. But that isn’t what I mean by a confident horse.

Last week I posted about my trail ride on Sunny, my little ill broke palomino plug. A lot of people wrote to say how rare and valuable these “solid minded” horses are (I’m quoting Janet here). And this, for me, is another way of describing a truly confident horse.

To my way of thinking, a solid minded horse, or a confident horse, has confidence in himself. He doesn’t so much trust his rider to take care of him, or obey his rider (though he may/does do both these things) as he has confidence in himself to deal with whatever comes up. His main distinguishing trait? He is not anxious.

I have been privileged to own three confident horses in my life (Flanigan—see my post, Flanigan’s Story June 08-- Henry, my son’s trail horse, and Sunny, my current trail horse). I did not train any of these horses. They all came to me as mature, broke horses.

So what does this tell me? That I’m not a good enough trainer to train a confident horse? Maybe. But I think the answer is a little more subtle. I’m going to try to explore it here, and I hope you will all chime in with your ideas.

My three confident horses had/have some things in common. All of them came up the hard way. Flanigan was broke by some midwestern cowboy (unknown to me). The horse was cinchy and apparently the cowboy tried starving him into submission. The horse trader we bought him from told us it took six months to feed the horse back to a decent weight. Flanigan had known some hard times. Sunny, my trail horse, came from Mexico, where, so I was told, they rode the H-E-double hockey sticks out of him. Hard times again. Henry, my son’s horse, was a team roping horse his entire life, and though I have no reason to think he was treated harshly, a team roping horse tends to get the rough corners rubbed off over the years.

Besides having come up the hard way, all three horses were/are essentially lazy horses. At the same time they were/are all what the old cowboys use to call hard-twisted—they can take a lot and not get rattled. I am willing to bet a lot of money that Flanigan and Sunny, at least, would have been pretty broncy when they were started.

So what does all this tell me? That the confident horses that have come my way have a certain “picture”. I don’t think I would have chosen any of them for myself as a green horse, or to start. I tended to look for more mallable, sensitive, responsive horses. I did not choose horses that wanted to buck. The three horses I mentioned earlier, Burt, Gunner and Plumber, were just that. Sensitive, willing, no buck. They made good horses. But not tough, solid minded, confident horses. They weren’t the type.

So, here’s my theory. Confident horses are often horses that, contrary to what you might expect, have been through some adversity and come out the other side. They have proven to themselves that they are tough enough to take what life dishes out, even when its not easy. This gives them confidence in themselves. The kind of horse that can survive this way and be all right is a tough minded, hard twisted personality to begin with. If Burt, Gunner, or Plumber had been subjected to that kind of start, they would, I think, have ended up blown up and worthless. But the ones who have what it takes to come out the other side can become confident.

Given a sympathetic owner who appreciates them and can get along with them, these confident horses really shine. No, they are not usually sweet. They are often grouchy, or at the least, standoffish. But they know how to take care of themselves and will take care of you right along with them. (See my last post, “Trail Ride”). I needed to give my well broke, sensitive horses confidence—and they would come through for me. I could/can draw confidence from my confident horses. I could take from them rather than give to them.

Yes, you still have to be in charge. But you can tell a confident horse what to do and let him take care of the rest. You don’t need to babysit him. No horse is perfect. My confident horses would/will all spook, for instance. But they don’t spook often, and when they do, there’s a legitimate reason. They make one jump, take a look, realize its not a problem and that’s that. They don’t prance around like anxious ninnies for no reason. They don’t bolt. They aren’t worried. They are confident in their ability to handle the world.

So, I’m curious here. I’ve put forth one theory about confident horses and how they get that way. Its fits the confident horses I have known. I also feel that I’m having a hard time describing exactly what I mean by a confident horse. Again, to get a better picture, read my “Trail Ride post. I’d love to hear anybody else’s ideas on this subject.

Happy Memorial Day!


mugwump said...

What an interesting thought. Like I told you the other day, Mort was the only truly confident horse I've owned.
I was his second owner. The first one was responsible for the out of control mess I bought.
But Mort was trustworthy and brave in spite of his negative behavior. He never lost his sense of self. I trusted him more implicitly than any other horse I've had since.
I let him make many decisions for us in our life together.
Sonita was completely trustworthy (confidant) on a cow. She was wired to do her job and I never was afraid on her like I could be on other horses when we went down the fence. But she was a panicky needy thing everwhere else.
I've got some interesting things to think about here.

Juli said...

It is interesting. But I don't think it takes adversity to make a confident horse. My three year old, who's idea of a bad day is that I'm late with dinner, is what I'd term a confident horse. He's an Arab/Paso fino cross, so you would think he'd be hot and reactive, but he's not at all. He will take on just about anything, and when something spooks him, his normal reaction is to jump, take a look at it, then go check it out. This is usually followed with an attempt to eat whatever it is he's checking out.

He's also a very willing, intelligent, and pleasant horse to be around. He is always underfoot. Our trainer called him one of the most willing horses she's ever had the pleasure of working with, because you ask, and he about shrugs and goes "ok, sure", even if it's new and scary.

Once he has miles, he's going to be the horse I can put anyone on because he'll have the brains and confidence to take care of a rider who, well, doesn't.

So maybe I'll just go with the thougth that MOST confident horses are made, but every once in awhile one is born.

Laura Crum said...

mugwump, you are nailing it. Confident horses have a very strong sense of self. You can trust them to make many of the decisions when you ride them. That's exactly it. My good horses who were not particularly confident could be very willing and brave, but they needed me to make the decisions.

I was a very inexperienced team roper when I started roping on Flanigan, and I could really screw up, completely forget to cue him, and he would still take me to the right place and make the run. He pretty much did it for me. All I had to do was throw the rope. He was the same on tough trails. He'd go wherever I told him to go. He'd let me pick the route and he'd deal with it gracefully. When I got a little worried, I sometimes let him pick the route. He could handle anything. An immensely strong, sure-footed horse with incredible survival instincts. He took care of me as much or more than I took care of him. I really miss him.

Juli--It will be interesting to see how your young horse turns out. You could be right about him being born confident. On the other hand I have known young horses who were as you describe, but did not turn out to be particulrly confident as mature riding horses. Sort of like teenagers who think the world is their oyster, but are a little more uncertain about that when they get to be in their thirties.

I am really somewhat floundering around trying to describe this trait. As I said, many very good horses are not what I would call confident horses. That doesn't change the fact that they are good/great horses.

gillian said...

Laura, thanks for taking this subject on. (I was the one who asked about it, btw)

My ears perked up in August of '08 reading Me and the Big K/chapter 3. It was just one sentence:

"He was back within minutes, his three-year-old relaxed and confident, trailing at the end of his reins."

Thats what I want from my horses. So I've stayed tuned for ways to get it. Here are some Mugwump posts that have influenced my thinking about confidence [and some relevant quotes in brackets]:
*Ride Like Ben Cartwright
*Trained or Broke?
*Lets open up a discussion
*Sonita Chapter 6 (never buy a horse that looks up)
*Sonita Chapter 7
[We loped some more.
Finally, two hours in, she stood with her head level. She cocked a hip, and relaxed a little. Still alert, but she stood quiet.
I stepped down, loosened her cinch and took her back to her stall.]

*Sonita Chapter 9
[My anger faded as I rubbed my wild, willing and courageous mare. I realized she was doing what she thought I wanted. ]

*Sonita Chapter 11
[She stayed in the walk, peaceful and quiet the rest of the way to the trailer. I checked my watch. In 54 minutes we had covered 11 miles. In 54 minutes we had started a partnership that lasted for years. ]

*Sonita Chapter 12
[There was a huge hole in what she thought I was telling her compared to what I thought I was saying.]

*Sonita (Whew!)
[She was too well behaved to do anything but head out the way she was pointed, but I saw her ears rapid-fire back towards me and the white of her rolling eyes as she watched me as long as she could.]vs[Sonita's tail swung side to side in a happy rhythm and her eyes shone calm and content.]

*Mort and Me walk the line
[You can't teach your horse to think on the run. Every horse needs to learn at the walk. So does the rider.] also [If I wasn't hanging with my hands, Mort stayed focused and calm. His incessant head toss eased.]

*Mort Stories
[The reason he has such a good stop on him is because he understands it. He's really willing once he knows what you want, don't you think?]

*Mort stories chapter 2
[Mort started to calm down. A week of racing through the pines with me clinging to his mane instead of his reins seemed to be his cup of tea.]

The themes I've picked up from these posts are dripping sweat, communication, fairness, leadership, and more dripping sweat.

From your post, I'll pick this sentence:

"They obeyed directions no matter how tough the going got. They stayed broke under stress."

So can we call this trained? Broke? Can we call this confidence in their rider, as opposed to confidence in themselves? How did you get that?

The thing I've been thinking about lately is barriers to confidence (in self or rider) and what to do to overcome them. The latter point I'm kinda stumped, but I've come up with some things that seem to gum up the works.

*Doesn't understand what's being asked
*Out of balance
*Rider nervousness

There are some cause and effect conundrums that muddy the waters for me even further.

As you may have gathered by now, I absolutely inhale everything you guys write. (Others too, so dont worry, I wont become your crazy internet stalker.) So thank you again for your attention to this topic.

Laura Crum said...

gillian--I absolutely don't have the answer. I put out there what I understand about confident horses, and it ain't much. I can say that the horses I describe as "not confident", my well-broke Burt, Gunner and Plumber, were/are great horses who did a lot for me. All I can say is this "confidence trait" is elusive and I am not the gal who has the handle on it. I just recognize this pattern that I have seen. I can't make one confident.

gillian said...

I would totally settle for "stays broke under pressure" though.

t_orchosky said...

Ok. I thought of all the horses I have at the moment and I have ONE confident horse. (At first I thought I had 3 - until I thought it through). This horse I have had since he was 1 1/2. I don't know how his life was for the first 1 1/2 years. My husband bought him at an auction - I tried to tell him the horse was too calm for his tastes, and I was right. This horses is now 6 years old, I did all the training (with little knowledge) and my 8 year old son recently started riding him. That should tell you how much confidence I have in him. (I'm a big believer in older horses for young or inexperienced riders) He is GREAT with my son, he has boosted my son's confidence and taught him ALOT. My son begged enough to try to ride him and now I couldn't pry them 2 apart. When we bought him his chest was stitched up from a cut but he was in good health otherwise and good spirits. I never noticed any signs of abuse or hardship. But for a rough trail this is the horse I would pick to go with me over anything else I have. I've never seen him in a situation that he couldn't handle.

Laura Crum said...

gillian--As for staying broke under pressure, you are getting very close with the wet saddle blankets. I think that's key. I've known several horses that were trained by relatively inexperienced people who probably did a whole lot "wrong". But these people rode their horses constantly, did everything with them, were not discouraged by anything (young people). The horses turned out pretty darn good. Confident, too. So, yeah, wet saddle blankets would be my first thought. And my horses Burt, Gunner, and Plumber, all wanted to be good. Unlike the confident horses I describe, they were really keying on the rider, right from the very beginning. It was easy to get cooperation out of them. I always treated them fairly. They were good examples of horses who took confidence from the rider and would do anything you told them. Not such a bad kind of horse. I didn't make them that way. They came in that way. I could have ruined them, of course. The way I trained them, they turned out OK. Lots of wet saddle blankets, again.

t-orchoskey--maybe confident horses are born, not trained. Your comment would make me think so. Juli's, too.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

There's a big difference in the retraining of an OTTB who was a winner, compared to one who didn't run or didn't run well.

Maybe some horses are born confident but maybe some learn it by being successful.

Maybe when a horse is born confident and faces adversity successfully, the confidence builds.

My guess would be confidence is a personality trait, enhanced by experiences. I think you try to build confidence with successes in training, but need the inherent confidence to end up with one of the special ones.

FD said...

I have thoughts, but eh, it's late and I'm tired and they aren't making sense. Will come back tomorrow.