Like every other relationship, we have in life the one with your horse isn’t automatic, it’s something you need to work at. Horses are flight animals that survive on their instincts so it’s important that they trust you, you’ll have a far better partnership if they do.
Why is it important to bond with my horse?
In the wild horses live in herds and work together to ensure they are safe from threats and dangers. While most horses these days don’t live in the wild they haven’t lost their survival instincts so working with these instincts rather than against them will not only make your horse feel safer, happier and less stress but it’ll also help improve the relationship he has with you. After all, if your horse is worried every time you arrive to see him because he’s unsure what you’ll do he won’t be relaxed. This will result in him being unhappy and on edge, a feeling that will only be reinforced until to do something to address it.
Developing your partnership with your horse isn’t difficult and doesn’t take long but the most important thing to do it understand him and respect how his mind works rather than always expecting him to do what you want to do.
Everybody has got their own way of bonding with their horse and the key is to find what works for both of you but here are a few tips for things you can try and that will help.
I don’t mean the sort of grooming your do to clean your horse’s coat I mean social grooming, or allogrooming as it’s called. This type of grooming not only reaffirms your place in his the herd but also reassures him that you’ll look after him and protect him from predators.
Horses allogroom other horses by ‘nibbling’ along each other’s neck, withers and back. While you can literals do this if you want to I’d recommend using an old tennis ball with a quarter cut out of it (making it look like a 3D Pac-Man). You can then place the tennis ball in your hand and gently squeeze it to give your horse the impression you’re nibbling him. Doing this for just a few minutes a couple of times a day will really help the two of you bond.
Brushing your horse’s legs and belly gently will also have a positive effect on your horse because these areas are difficult for him to reach.
Join-Up is a training method that was developed by the world-renowned Monty Roberts as a way of humanely training horses without stressing them at all. The idea behind it is that you speak to your horse in his language and on his terms, using your body position and eye contact to gain his trust. You start by ‘sending’ the horse away from where you’re standing then when he’s ready slowly invite him back to you.
Once you’ve gained his trust and he wants to be part of your ‘herd’ he’ll automatically do what you ask him to do rather than you having to encourage or persuade him to do so.
Your horse will also be far more comfortable and relaxed if you’re speaking to him in a language he understands, he won’t be trying to work out what you’re saying all the time.
Spend quality time with your horse
Don’t only visit your horse because you’ve got to feed him, muck him out or for other chores, visit him just to see him and spend time with him. This might sound like a strange thing to say and I know that we’re all leading busy lives but even if it’s just an extra 15 minutes each day your horse will thank you for it.
Use that time to spend some quality time with your horse, whether it’s stroking him or just talking to him. You could even have a picnic with your horse, take some sandwiches and a few treats for him then find a nice spot to stop have your lunch, you could even invite some other friends and their horses. Ever since I was very young I’ve always enjoyed leading my horse to a quiet area of the paddock and then sitting down and the two of us having lunch together. As well as being beneficial to your horse, it’ll also have a positive effect on you too – I defy anybody to not come away feeling happier after doing this!
Horses are very social animals and the time you spend bonding with them in this way is very important. It reinforces the connection they have with you but also helps your horse to feel comfortable around you and therefore more relaxed and happier.
Rather than chastising your horse for doing something wrong, it’s far better to reward him for doing it right instead, horses are no different to people in that sense. If you only ever reprimand your horse when he’s doing something wrong but never praise him when he’s doing it right he’ll eventually stop learning because over time he’ll start to associate being told off with you rather than with what you’re trying to get him to do. That’s not to say you should never tell your horse off if he’s done something really bad (such as bitting somebody), but never praising him will only lead to him being unhappy. Ask yourself, if you’ve just joined a new stables and every time you do something wrong you get shouted out but never told well done when you get it right, how would you feel?
Instead of telling him he’s done it wrong tell him when he’s got it right and reward him with a treat. You can even use a clicker similar to that used for training dogs, when your horse has done something right press the clicker, praise him and give him a treat. He’ll soon learn that the sound of the clicker is positive and he’ll know what he’s just done was right and good. This is a far better and much less stressful learning environment that will really help you bond with your horse.
Help your horse to overcome his fears
Horses are flight animals, which means that in the wild they’re preyed upon rather than prey on others, so faced with anything he’s scared of your horse’s instinct is to flee. While in the wild this is what helps them survive, in a domestic environment running at the first sight of anything ‘scary’ can be a big problem. I once knew a horse that was so scared of yellow he would literally run a mile rather than go near something that was that color. While this is obviously an extreme example you get what I’m saying.
If your horse is scared of a stream them slowly lead him to it all the while talking to him to reassure them. Don’t force him to go in the water straight away but instead allow him to stand there and assess the situation then when he seems calmer give him a treat and then lead him away. Do this regularly, getting nearer to the water every time until he’s happy to stand in the water and has fully overcome his fear.
Your horse will remember that he was scared of it and how you helped him to overcome this fear and be grateful to you for it. Horse’s learn from each other so if, in the future, something unnerves him he’ll feel happier and less stressed if you’re there and aren’t scared yourself.
Give your horse treats
Like all of us, horses love a treat so why not give them to him? While constantly feeding titbits isn’t a good idea (same as always eat chocolate isn’t good either – it’s nice but it’s not good!) giving him a nice juicy apple now and then won’t do him any harm at all. Quite the opposite – he’ll enjoy the treat which will obviously make him happy which will increase his bond with you.
Feeding your horse too many treats can, however, have a negative effect on his behavior. If you give him a carrot every time you see him he’ll except it which can result in him being bad-tempered if he doesn’t get a carrot. It’s also likely to result in him nipping or biting people, not out of malice but because he’s trying to get the food he’s grown to expect.
Take your horse for a walk
Rather than riding your horse why not lead him instead and let him enjoy the walk, if he wants to stop and eat the grass let him. Walking your horse like this will help to enhance the friendship and bond the two of you have. When riding, your horse doesn’t get time to stop and eat or to explore his curiosities, but while leading him you can allow him to do this. He’ll enjoy the time the two of you have spent together and accept you as part of his herd.
If your horse is especially nervous and jumpy when you ride out this can really help to overcome that because it’ll strengthen his trust in you.
Be consistent and clear
When you’ve had a long and tiring day it can be easy to let your horse get away with not doing something properly whereas if you weren’t tired you’d make sure he does it properly. While this is perfectly understandable and any human would except that and not worry about it, your horse won’t understand. Horses like to know where they stand which is why it’s important to be consistent. Clarity is also important for the same reason, if you’re not clear your horse won’t know what to do. In the long run, this could lead to him becoming frustrated.
This doesn’t mean you have to shout commands at your horse just make sure you’re clear in what you’re asking him to do. Put yourself in his shoes and, be honest, would you really understand what you’re asking if somebody else was asking you to do that? At the same time don’t get cross with your horse if he doesn’t understand what it is you want, be patient and you’ll be rewarded with his trust.
Teach your horse tricks
You might think this is a totally crazy idea but hear me out. I’m not saying you need to teach your horse anything radical, just something small like him picking up an item from the floor. It takes time to teach your horse to do this but with plenty of praise and patience, you can eventually have him picking anything up when you ask him too.
The key to teaching your horse is to make it fun, start with something easy to pick up like a food scoop. At first, it’s unlikely that your horse will pick it up but the smell of his food will make him curious. Every time he shows interest in it reward him and let him know he’s doing the right thing and eventually he’ll pick it up in his mouth. Once he’s got the hang of picking it up you can start to point at it and say to him ‘pick it up’, he’ll then learn that pointing and giving that command means you want him to pick the object up. At this point he’s ready to start to picking up any other objects on command.
This can have a two-fold benefit because not only will it help build the bond between you and your horse but it’ll also have the added advantage of your horse being able to help you around the yard. If you drop something all you’ve got to do is ask and he’ll pick it up for you – it’s a win-win situation!
Give your horse regular massages
Be honest, who doesn’t feel relaxed after a massage? Then imagine how your horse would feel too. Massaging your horse will not only help to relax him but it’ll also loosen up any tight muscles he has, especially after a ride. You don’t have to spend long doing it and, depending on the sort of work you and your horse do, doesn’t need to be done every day.
Massaging your horse can have a number of other benefits as well such as pain relief, muscle recovery and increased flexibility. When done before a ride it can loosen your horse’s muscles and increase the blood flow to the muscles, whereas after a ride it’ll help to reduce tiredness and stiffness.
If your horse is particular timid then this can really help because it slowly teaches him to trust you and that you’ll be gentle with him. It works so well that a lot of vets will actually recommend doing this as a way of bonding with a difficult horse.
Talk to your horse
I don’t mean walk up to your horse and ask him how his day’s been, I mean talk to him in a way that he not only will understand but that will also be comforting and reassuring to him. Don’t stand in his blind spot (either right in front of him or right behind him) but instead stand just to his side and make sure you’re taking relaxed breaths. Your horse won’t know how you’re feeling but he will understand how you’re breathing and react to that. If your breaths are stead then he’ll be calmed by that. Next gently stroke, but don’t pat, him all the while talking to him with a reassuring voice.
When you first approach your horse don’t just walk straight up to him either, start to talk to him and call him before you reach him. This will let him know you’re there and will prevent him from being startled because he hadn’t seen you before.
What should you do now that you’ve bonded with your horse?
It’s important that once you and your horse have bonded and created that special relationship you don’t stop building on the bond. Your horse trusts you now so you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize or break that trust. After all, it’s far easier to continue to increase the bond than it is to have to start again and rebuild it.
Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.