A few years ago I seriously hurt my back and was unable to ride for the best part of a year. Of course, I still needed to go to the yard, and obviously still wanted to spend quality time with my horses so I started to think of different things I could do with them without actually riding. At first, it was a little difficult but it wasn’t long before I had a long list of fun things we could do together, and best of all this helped us develop our relationship further. This is why I thought it would be helpful to share that list so that when you’re next stuck for something other than riding to do with your horse you can take your pick.
Whether you want to increase the bond you and your horse have, teach them something new (or are looking for a new way of training), or are just looking for some fun alternatives to riding, you’re bound to find something the two of you can enjoy together.
10 ways to bond with your horse without riding
Everybody wants to bond with their horse but it’s something that takes time and needs to be worked at. You can’t expect a horse that doesn’t know you to automatically trust you, you have to earn their trust. Below are some fun things you can do with your horse that will help to build that bond and gain their trust.
1) Take your horse for a walk
We don’t often think about taking our horses for a walk, but it can be a great way to just explore the environment with your horse. You don’t have to travel far (even around the yard is fine) but allow your horse to set the pace and stop when he wants to smell something or is curious about anything. You might not think that this will help to increase your bond but by giving your horse the chance to investigate his surroundings you’re also showing him that he can trust you which will also strengthen the bond.
Taking your horse for a walk will also help to establish good manners and respect, but if you come across something your horse is wary of it’ll also give you the chance to help him overcome his fears and anxieties which is never a bad thing.
2) Share a picnic with your horse
Now I’m not suggesting for a minute that you force your horse to share your hotdogs or potato salad but making a picnic you can both enjoy is a great fun way to spend some relaxing quality time with your horse, especially on a warm summer’s day. Simply find a nice spot in your horse’s field, put a blanket down, and enjoy.
It doesn’t matter if you take some healthy treats for your horse, give him some forage, or include a few apples or watermelon chunks with your picnic. The main thing is spending the time relaxing with your horse. If you do decide to incorporate a few horse safe foods into your picnic that you can both share then check out this article I wrote recently about fruits horses can eat (and will love).
3) Groom your horse
Most horses love being groomed and will appreciate the time you spend doing so, it’s also a good way of checking your horse over to make sure he doesn’t have any cuts, scratches, or anything else you should worry about. Make sure you pay particular attention to any areas that your horse might have trouble getting to himself – believe me, he’ll be eternally grateful!
Within the herd horses will mutually groom each other as a way of bonding so if your horse wants to reciprocate by grooming you to allow him to do so. If he becomes a bit too enthusiastic though you can try putting a blanket or thick towel over your shoulder or a rail and allow him to ‘groom’ that instead.
4) Practice braiding your horse’s mane
You know what it’s like when you have your hair done – it’s like being in heaven sitting back, relaxing, and letting someone else take care of your hair. Well, horses are no different at all and genuinely enjoy having their mane stroked and brushed so why not take this opportunity to practice braiding your horse’s mane at the same time? Just don’t pull it otherwise you’ll run the risk of spoiling the relaxing aspect of it.
If you’re feeling adventurous why not practice braiding his tail at the same time? If the tail is a bit knotted then you can use Showsheen to help get those pesky knots out. Made by those clever folks at Absorbine, Showsheen is great for conditioning and moisturizing your horse’s mane and tail but as the name suggests it’s also great for giving his coat a real shine.
5) Give your horse a relaxing massage
Regardless of whether or not your horse’s muscles are aching he’ll thoroughly enjoy a little bit of a massage along his back and over his shoulders and rump. A horse’s thicker skin means that you’ll need to apply a little bit more pressure than normal for this to have any real effect which can ache your hands after a while but there are a few alternatives to using your hands that work very well.
You can either cut a quarter slice out of a tennis ball and, cupping it in your hand squeeze it along his back. This will have a similar effect to another horse grooming your horse which he’ll find very therapeutic. I used to always use the tennis ball method but after finding one too many dog chewed balls I decided to look for a less canine friendly alternative which is when I came across a jelly massage mitt. It’s comfortable to hold and has a grooming side as well as a massaging side. The best thing about it though is that my horses absolutely love it – more than they did the tennis ball!
6) Find your horse’s sweet spot
Every horse has a favorite spot that makes them go soppy when you scratch it, find your horse’s spot and he’ll love you forever. By paying special attention to your horse’s sweet spot you’re telling him that you understand him and will respect him. This will help him to trust you while also increasing your bond at the same time.
It can be difficult to find your horse’s sweet spot at first but it’s normally in a place they can’t reach such as the withers, you’ll know when you’ve found it though. When your horse’s lower lip starts to relax and quiver he starts to go soppy you know you’ve found it. Some horses may even return the favor by trying to scratch you back.
7) Play with your horse
You don’t have to spend a fortune on expensive horse toys that your horse probably won’t like anyway (if mine are anything to go by that is) but spending time interacting with your horse is a fun way will be extremely rewarding to the both of you.
Research has shown that horses prefer toys that lead to treats so why not make your own horse roller? All you need is a strong plastic container, cut a few holes in it then fill the container with treats before making sure the lid is secure and giving it to your horse. If he’s not sure what to do or is a little wary of it show him how to use it by pushing it around until some treats come out – he’ll soon get the hang of it then.
8) Take your horse on a treasure hunt
A slight variation on taking your horse for a walk, this one involves treats placed randomly around where you’ll be taking your horse for a walk. Plan where you’re going to go in advance and then hide apples, carrots, or even strawberries randomly along the route. You can then walk your horse near to them, allowing him to sniff them out on his own.
Doing this will make a pleasurable experience even more fun, after all we all know how much horses love their food!
9) Concentrate on your breathing
It might sound like a silly thing to say concentrating on your breathing will help you bond with your horse, but within the herd, horses will feed off of each other and if a herd member is feeling anxious then other horses are more likely to feel this way too. With this in mind, it stands to reason that if you’re calm and relaxed around your horse he’ll be relaxed too, but what’s more he’ll know that it’s you that helped him to relax.
When you’re around your horse always be mindful of how you’re feeling and if necessary take steps to relax yourself. You can do this by either concentrating on your breathing but if you’re not comfortable doing that (I know I get very self-conscious doing this if other people are around) then why not try singing to your horse instead. This will have the same effect and you never know, your horse may even join in!
10) Read your horse a story
While I’m not always able to do this every day I do try and do it at least once a week and have to admit I find it almost a relaxing as my horses do, if not more so. I tend to do it while they’re eating their evening meal so I know I have a captive audience but it doesn’t really matter when you do it. It also doesn’t matter what you read to your horse either, it’s the tone of your voice that’s important.
Make yourself comfortable (personally I like to sit in the corner of the stall) and just start to read whatever you want to your horse. You will probably not get much of a reaction from him at first but after a little while you’ll see his ears start to twitch towards your voice and he’ll begin to relax.
10 ways to train your horse without riding
It’s easy to think that training a horse is hard work and has to be done from the saddle but this isn’t always the case. In fact, training can, and should, be fun for both you and your horse and everything in the list below is exactly that.
1) Teach your horse to walk with you without using a rope
While it might be difficult to get your horse to willingly walk by your side without the aid of a lead line it can be extremely rewarded. After all, what better sign that your horse loves you and wants to be with you could you ask for than to have him choose to walk by your side.
Rather than start by getting your horse to walk with you, start by going into the field and asking him to come to you. Once you’ve got him doing that you can then move on to teaching him to walk along next to you.
2) Positive reinforcement training
Horses are very intelligent animals that can learn something new pretty quickly but at the same time they’re also flight animals so don’t react well to anything negative, this is why shouting at your horse never works. Positive reinforcement works by rewarding your horse for doing the right thing rather than punishing (or chastising) him for doing the wrong thing. The reason this is so effective is that you’re allowing your horse to learn from his mistakes which is a far more productive way of learning, for everybody, not just horses.
If you’re not keen on using treats in your training regimen then don’t worry, rewarding your horse with your voice and a gentle pat is just as effective.
3) Practice backing your horse up
Most horses understand that you want them to back up when you use your whole body to push them backward, but with a little bit of training, you can easily get your horse to do this with a gentle tap on their shoulder or even a verbal cue or command word, such as ‘back up’ (okay so that’s two words but you know what I mean).
Every time you ask your horse to back up make sure you either use your verbal cue or tap your horse’s shoulder. If you reward him (either with a treat or with praise) when he starts to move you’ll soon have him moonwalking on command.
4) Try your hand at join up
Developed by the horse trainer, Monty Roberts, join up is a method of training and bonding with your horse where you use his own language and on his own terms. You start by sending your horse away from you and then, when he’s ready to come back, allow him to do so.
This is a great way of training any horse but is also wonderful for building trust because, when done properly, your horse will see you as part of the herd and will automatically do what you’re asking him to do. He’ll trust you won’t hurt him or let him down so will be willing to cooperate.
5) Teach your horse to respond to your voice instead of other aids
While we have a vast array of aids at our disposal it can be extremely rewarding if the only aid you need is your voice. After all your horse may be too far away for any other aid to be of use but you still need him to stop what he’s doing or come to you. By training your horse to respond to your voice alone this will never be a problem again.
6) Teach your horse to lower his head
Teaching your horse to lower his might seem like a completely random thing to suggest but, while it will make putting a bridle on much easier, it will also have a positive effect on your horse’s mood.
You might not realize it but when a horse raises its head it can also elevate their stressed levels because it’s an unnatural position for them and in the wild is only normally used when a horse is looking out for danger. When they lower their head on the other hand it can have the opposite effect, it’s their natural grazing position and therefore will also help reduce your horse’s stress.
7) Teach your horse to raise his leg by tapping it
While your horse will probably lift his leg automatically when you run your hand down it imagine how good it would be if you could get him to do it as soon as you tapped his leg instead. It might sound difficult to do but if you tap your horse’s leg just before you pick it up, then give him a treat as soon as he does he’ll soon associate the tapping with lifting his and will begin to do it without any other commands.
If you’re feeling really adventurous you could even try training your horse to lift his leg with a verbal command alone, just make sure he knows which leg you want him to raise.
8) Teach your horse to stand still without being tied up
If you’re out on a trail and need to leave your horse tired up it can be difficult if you can’t find a tree or anything else to tie your horse to, but if you’re able to ground tie your horse it won’t matter. Ground tying is where you effectively tie your horse to the ground.
Bringing the reins over your horse’s head and letting them hang down to the floor (or dropping one of them if you have split reins) is the cue to your horse that you’ve ‘tied’ him up and that he should stand still. It’s a technique that ranch workers regularly use when they need to jump off their horse quickly to attend to a cow.
9) Desensitize your horse to something scary
Every yard is full of scary things if you’re a horse, whether it’s a plastic bag blowing, an umbrella opening, or a car reversing, there’s bound to be something he’ll be wary of. After all, horses are flight animals that live in a constant state of alert. While this is how they survive in the wild, their instincts don’t realize they’re not in the wild anymore so desensitizing your horse will help them to relax more.
10) Help your horse to overcome his fears
Teaching your horse to overcome his fears can be a great thing to do, for both you and for him. Your horse will have a new found confidence and respect for you while you’ll know that you helped teach him there was nothing to be scared of in the first place.
When helping your horse overcome his fears it’s important to be patient and calm the whole time and to not force your horse to move quicker than he’s comfortable doing so. Little by little expose your horse to whatever he’s scared of and when he shows signs of relaxing praise him and walk him away. Do this a few times every week and your horse will soon lose his fears.
10 fun things you can do with your horse without riding
While some of the tips below can help to increase your bond or can be used to train your horse, more than anything though else they’re just great fun.
1) Give your horse a bath
It’s best to do this on a warm summer’s day when your horse’s coat will have plenty of time to dry naturally, but spending time washing your horse is a great way to spend quality time with him. If you want to make your horse super relaxed and chilled out why not use a lavender shampoo? I like to use Wahl’s 4-in-1 calming shampoo but you can use whatever you prefer, just as long as it’s okay for horses.
Even just the smell of lavender is known to relax and calm horses (and people) so if you don’t have any lavender shampoo you can just hang some dried lavender near where you wash your horse and it’ll have the same effect.
2) Let your horse play in some water
If you have a stream or shallow pond near you it can be great fun to let your horse play in it especially if it’s a hot day. If you don’t have any water nearby you could either take your horse to some or if you don’t have a trailer you could make your own ‘waterhole’. If you’re able to dig a shallow hole in the ground, line it with a tarp (making sure you secure the edges so they don’t blow about and scare your horse) and simply fill it with water. You don’t need much water for your horse to enjoy himself.
At first, your horse may be a little unsure but if you encourage and reassure them they’ll soon start pawing at the water. Before you know it your horse will be happily splashing around.
3) Make de-worming fun for your horse (and easier for you)
Nobody likes de-worming, horses hate the taste and we find the whole experience stressful but there’s a fun way to teach your horse that it can be fun. Rather than throw old syringes away fill them with something soft and sweet (such as a mashed up banana or apple or even a little bit of honey) and then squirt that into your horse’s mouth. He’ll be unsure at first but will soon forget that and just enjoy the delicious, sweet treat.
Doing this a few times will desensitize your horse to the syringe and therefore the taste of de-wormer but to help reinforce this though it’s important to give him the treat again after you’ve de-wormed him. This will help him to forget about the de-wormer.
4) Make some healthy treats for your horse
Okay, I admit you’ll be spending a lot of time away from your horse while you’re making treats for him but once you’ve made a batch of treats you can try them out on your horse to see which ones he prefers. You can come up with your own recipes but if you’re not sure what to make check out this article I wrote a little while ago, it has some healthy treats your horse will love.
As an added bonus when you’ve found what your horse’s favorite treats are you can even use them as a training aid or reward.
5) Have a photoshoot together
We’re so used to snapping everything on our phones these days that we rarely take the time to have proper photographs taken, the ones that we actually take the time to frame, so why not do it now? If you’re not able to use a professional photographer ask a friend with a proper camera to take some pictures of you and your horse.
You don’t just have to have the standard photograph of you holding your horse, use your imagination and be as creative as you like. Once you’re finished print out your favorite photographs and frame them, you could even have them made into cards and send them to your friends.
6) Try your hand at horse agility
Horses are intelligent and inquisitive animals that like a challenge which is why horse agility is perfect for them. You can build your own obstacle course using objects you have around the yard but make sure you include elements that your horse will enjoy as well as a few that will encourage him to overcome his fears.
If you’re not sure what sort of course to build why not have a look at the International Horse Agility Club’s website. They’ve got all sorts of tips and advice to help you, but also offer the chance to show your horse online.
7) Show your horse online
With most countries around the world experiencing some sort of lockdown recently and with many still having restrictions in place most shows have been postponed or canceled altogether but that doesn’t mean you can’t show your horse. There are plenty of Facebook groups or online communities that hold virtual horse shows.
Normally you’ll need to either photograph your horse or record him and then upload it to the community where the members will get the chance to see you and your horse. They’ll then be a way of voting for your favorite with the winners either being notified via email or in a live stream on the site.
8) Get your horse used to the feel of ropes and pool noodles around him
Creating an obstacle course with loose ropes and pool noodles can be a fun way of desensitizing your horse to touch and unfamiliar surroundings but it does have practical benefits beyond just the desensitizing aspects. Hopefully, it’ll never happen, but if your horse ever gets caught up in anything he’ll be far less likely to panic.
You know your horse so build a course that you know he’ll enjoy, but make sure you include a few elements that will help push him out of his comfort zone.
9) Hang out with your horse in his field
Just spending time with your horse and showing genuine interest in him and his surroundings can be so much fun. As well as getting to spend some quality time together you’ll hopefully also get an insight into what makes your horse tick and how his mind works.
Your horse will also enjoy this and will be pleased that you’re interested in the same things that make him happy.
10) Teach your horse a new trick
We all know that you can teach a dog tricks but what you might not realize is that you can do it with your horse too. You don’t have to teach your horse anything complicated to start with, try teaching him to pick up a cloth from the floor. You never know it might even come in useful when you next drop something!
It may sound daunting teaching your horse to pick something up but with a few of his favorite treats, it’s actually quite easy to do. Start to encourage your horse to nuzzle a cloth and then reward him when he does, from there you can move to him picking it up, making sure you reward him every time he does it right.
Whether you’re having a break from riding due to health reasons or because your horse is retired it doesn’t matter. Having a break from the normal routine of riding can be a great thing sometimes, not only can it increase the bond you and your horse have but it can also be great fun. As well as being a good excuse to spend quality time with your horse it can also be a great way to teach him a new skill (or even a new trick).
Even if you are able to ride there’s no reason why you shouldn’t spend quality time with your horse out of the saddle so why not give a few of these tips a go?
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