The Savvy Station

Creating a More Confident Horse

by Pat Parelli on Jun 14, 2023

Creating a More Confident Horse

By Pat Parelli

Confidence is easy to lose and sometimes very hard to regain. Whether it's a horse, human, dog, or donkey, confidence is a very important and sometimes elusive ingredient for success. Ronnie Willis, one of my mentors, used to say, “Confidence, acceptance, understanding, and then results, whether it's for the horse or the human.” If the horse is confident that you won’t hurt him, if he is confident in the situation he’s in, then he will put effort into understanding it. That’s when you get the results you want.


So, this little mantra, confidence, acceptance, understanding, and results, has become a powerful stream of words for me, but how to get confidence can be elusive. For years, I had heard about approach and retreat. I would try it all the time, and I got some results, but I truly began to experience lasting change when I realized that retreat and approach is way more powerful than approach and retreat.


Many of us have touched a lizard, but if that lizard decides to come over and crawl up your leg, that approach would most likely make you retreat. We’ve all seen a dog when the newspaper boy goes by on his bicycle, and the dog runs after it, but when the bike turns around, the dog retreats. The approach causes retreat, and it also causes a lack of confidence.


We also need to understand there are many ways to retreat. We can slow down, back up, go sideways, or go around something in a circle until the horse gets enough confidence to get curious.  Then, once they begin to get curious, often acceptance and more understanding and results will follow. We must remember that horses have major instincts. The first is to be perceptive to danger, people, places, changes, and things. This is why the kids can catch the horse that dad can't get near. The next instinct is: don't just stand there, do something—fly from fear. And the third is, make sure you run to safety, whether it's the barn, the herd, or the gate.


One of the things that a lot of people try to do with horses is desensitize them. I don't want my horses desensitized. I want my horses to be confident, curious, sensitive and responsive. They gain confidence by not only retreat and approach, but by experiencing positive exposure to many situations and lots of different stimuli.


Finally, we must also remember that every horse has its own horseanality based on four things: innate characteristics, environmental influences, learned behavior, and spirit level. So, if a horse is innately confident, it's pretty easy to take the credit for it, but a horse that isn't innately confident, this is where the work has to start. As the old saying goes, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Often this is true in horse-ville because horses live what they learn, and they learn what they live. As partners with our horses, it's our responsibility to help them build a great foundation by exposing them to many different things and situations, thereby teaching them to become great puzzle solvers. Hopefully, this understanding of how horses feel, think, act, and play in the human world will help us develop the partnership we've always dreamed of.


  • Barb King
    Feb 28, 2024 at 23:00

    I love these articles that help us deepen our understanding about the “nature” and “needs” of our equine partners as we work/play our way through the levels with our horses. Thank you, Pat, for continuing to provide us with the expectations that we do our part in making the world a better place for horses!


  • Jane petrou
    Dec 01, 2023 at 09:50

    This is brilliant ,I do alot of stuff with my horse without realising that I’m doing what pat is saying,which gives me confidence to know im learning over the years ,and have become a puzzle solver myself.


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