Having a horse is a wonderful and magical experience, and makes you a better rider as well as a better person in the long run. There are times when it can be tough but what is important is having a connection with your horse and knowing that whatever happens you will face it together as a team.
It’s important to bond with your horse in order to create a happy, healthy relationship. Having a good relationship with your horse is essential to getting the best work and the most fun. A horse that trusts you will be easier to ride, kinder in the stable, and more willing to do what you ask of them. A horse that trusts you will look to you when they are frightened or unsure and with your reassurance they will be able to relax.
If you have a horse, there is no way that you can’t love them. They are the most intelligent animal and they give us so much in return. But how do we bond with our horses without riding? Read on for inspiration and activities to try.
How We Behave Affects Our Bond
Horses are very emotionally sensitive animals so whatever you’re feeling they probably already know, even if you’re not sure yourself! It is one of the reasons that horses make fantastic therapy animals.
I’m not saying that if you’re stressed or upset you should hide it. In fact I am saying the exact opposite. If you’re sad; hug your horse, have a cry into their mane. Tell them all your problems. Spend some time just stroking them and chatting away.
They will recognise that you have trusted them and they will seek to return that feeling. If you love your horse with your whole heart they will be much more open to loving you back.
Spend time getting to know your horse
Take the time to know your horse physically and recognise their moods. Run your hands over their body, is there a spot they particularly enjoy being touched or an area that makes them tense up?
A great exercise to test yourself is to draw their markings and or notable parts on their body without looking at them and then check it afterwards!
Remember to always behave gently and mindfully around your horse. If they are scared of rugs do not chuck a rug on them and expect them to be okay. Set yourself up for success in every situation.
Consistency is key
Be consistent and clear. A confused horse is an anxious horse. Be consistent with the behaviour you reward or ignore. It’s helpful to think of or even note down a set of rules for your horse and how you would like them to behave.
Create positive associations; for example always be the person to feed your horse and your horse will associate you with something nice (food!).
It’s important to remember that there is no need to rush, allow plenty of time to groom and snuggle before and after a ride.
Learn to Read your Horse’s Body Language
It is important to establish a dialog with your horse, get to know their body through massage and grooming and always listen carefully to any advice given to you by your vet or physiotherapist.
Know your horse’s weaknesses, strengths and quirks. Time is the best way to build a bond with your horse. It will take time for your horse to trust you but when they do it will have a huge impact on both of your lives.
Find their favourite spot!
Here is an exercise to find your horse’s favourite spot for a scratch
- First get them relaxed with some gentle grooming.
- Then start exploring their body and checking how they respond to various parts of themselves being touched.
- Gently run your hands all over their body.
- Watch for when they scratch. Do they always scratch a particular spot. Either on the wall, with other horses or themselves. Be aware that excessive scratching can indicate discomfort.
- When they come in from the field which parts of them are dirtiest; that usually means they’ve spent extra time rubbing that spot in the mud!
- Once you’ve found a likely spot watch their face closely for a reaction. A happy horse looks loose, eyes partially closed, swaying, loose soft lip and relaxed ears. An unhappy horse looks tight or worried. If your horse appears unhappy move to a different area and continue the exercise giving them plenty of treats and positive affirmations.
- Don’t be afraid to recognise they’ve had enough and give them a break. They will appreciate that you have respected them.
- Give them some time to cool off and try again when they seem more open to the idea.
Exercises To Get to know your horse better
The key is in understanding their body language, which will help you make a connection with them and be able to read what they are feeling. Here are my favourite exercises that can help:
- Watch your horse in the stable, watch them in the field; who are their friends?
- What’s their favourite spot for a roll?
- Which corner of the field do they spend the most time in?
- Are they looking at you?
- Are they relaxed with their ears forward or are they sulking away from the other horses with their ears back. Are the whites of their eye exposed?
- Watch them closely in the stable. Do they pop their head out when their hear a certain noise. Do they always leave their droppings in one spot. Do they seem happy to see you. Take your time travelling your hands over their body. Is there anywhere they have a strong reaction to. Look out for ears pinned back for pain or a soft and relaxed lower lip for enjoyment. Are they standing still or fidgeting.
Groundwork is an excellent way to bond with your horse and reassure them when facing new obstacles. The more time you give your horse to adjust and accept their surroundings the more comfortable and relaxed they will be.
Eat and relax together: in their herds horses spent all day together munching away. Take your breakfast, lunch or dinner with you and eat with your horse when they are either grazing or enjoying their feed. Nothing is nicer than a picnic with your pony on a sunny day.
Mutual/selective grooming: Take a couple of brushes and a handful of treats into the field or school and allow your horse to roam freely. When they come over to you reward them with a treat and give them a groom. In this way they can decide when they are feeling overwhelmed and walk away. This reduces tension as the horse is not struggling to get away from you. This exercise will also encourage your horse to come up to you in the field and be easier to catch.
Tricks and clicker training: Another fantastic way to bond with your horse is to teach them tricks. It doesn’t have to be super complicated, but spending time with you horse and understanding how they express themselves will be incredibly beneficial to your relationship. A good starting point for trick training is ‘touch’
First step in trick training: How to teach ‘touch’
A naturally curious horse is an advantage when trick training but you can do this with a disinterested horse as well, just make sure whatever food item you’re working with is irresistible!
First you need to set up, I recommend grooming and having a cuddle before doing anything.
You will need:
- A horse – this is essential. A pony will also suffice.
- High value treats for your first session.
- A brightly coloured object that your horse is not afraid of; a glove, tennis ball, small cone anything you can easily hold in one hand.
- Let your horse know you have treats, allow them to sniff your hands and pockets (As long as they are polite!) Any rude behaviour just gently push them away or move away. They will quickly catch on. Do not reward them for mugging you for treats! Once your horse is alert and paying attention to you (Ears forward) use the clicker and then immediately give them a treat. Do this a few times.
- Get your object and show it to your horse. If they touch it, click and treat.
- Your horse should be getting the idea now. Move the object around into difficult places for your horse to reach. Ideal time to try some stretches.
- Always finish on a positive note and pick a word or movement that means the session is finished. I like to say “All done” and do some jazz hands to show I’m not holding anything.
If you find your horse is getting pushy when you are in the stable after a few of these sessions introduce a condition. For example, always wear the same treat bag/ hat silk/ gloves when training and not for anything else. That way you are clarifying to your horse when it is time to be still and when it is time to get their brain working.
In hand showing: no challenge too small.
Take a basic or easy exercise and practice until perfect with your horse. In hand showing and agility can be a great way to build trust as well as liberty/free schooling. Allowing your horse to choose to come to you will accelerate your progress. Find out more about horse agility at www.thehorseagilityclub.com
What if it’s not working?
Horses, like people, need time to adjust and some horses need more time than others. Especially horses that have been abused or neglected. But once you have gained their trust you will be an unstoppable team.
If you’re worried that your horse is more grumpy than average it is a good idea to have their back checked by a physiotherapist, book a horse dentist appointment and make sure they are healthy and not in any discomfort before proceeding.
Check for any abnormalities in behaviour that might indicate sickness or discomfort. It’s also worth noticing any changes that happened around the time of the change in behaviour. It might be emotional distress that is causing your horse to be unhappy.
What should you do now that you’ve bonded with your horse?
Never stop! No matter how close you think you are with your horse. You can be closer. Never stop taking the time to make sure they are happy and comfortable. Never stop training. A bond must be maintained and can fade with time away from your horse.
Hady List of Exercises to Bond with your Horse
- Do Groundwork Exercises
- Help Your Horse Relax
- Give your horse regular massages
- Talk To Your Horse
- Relax in your horse’s stall
- Enjoy a picnic while your horse is grazing
- Be consistent and clear
- Mutual grooming with your horse
- Teach your horse tricks
- Agility with your horse
- In Hand Showing