In my last post I talked about my concerns over those who would convince you that a good relationship with your horse is so difficult that you have to pay them for their ‘proprietary’ methods. In my experience it is only complicated because we make it so – or because someone in the horse’s past has left them afraid or shutdown. It seemed only fair that if I was going to say it was simple, and criticize those who will not share their secrets without getting paid, I should share what I think are key activities and principles to building a solid relationship foundation with your horse.
“Horses have been living with humans for thousands of years. Following this long co-evolution, horses today demonstrate impressive social skills during their interactions with humans: they are receptive to human emotions and are very good at understanding human demands.”University of Turku. “Long-term relationship with owner reduces horses’ stress reactions in new situations.” ScienceDaily, 25 August 2022.
- Start with the relationship. Most of us would not ask a favor of someone we just met, or even someone we only casually know from our local coffee shop. Yet, so many people get a horse, throw a saddle on and expect them to do us the biggest favor of all – carry us around doing something they likely learned from someone else. When the relationship is new, or even if you’ve been struggling with it, take some time away from asking them anything and just develop the relationship. Hang out together, take a walk in-hand, sit nearby while they eat – anything that doesn’t require work from your horse and gives you both time to just learn about each other. This is your time to really just observe, which feeds into other points below.
- Observe your horse’s body language. Take some time to really look at your horse. Can you identify when he is excited, annoyed, content, etc.? If you spend time in non-work interactions, as mentioned above, that is your opportunity to really just observe. How does your horse look when contentedly grazing? (Or is he a nervous eater, which would point to an area of concern around his feeling of safety?) When you take a walk, is he alert and interested? Is he high-headed and nervous? Or does he seem to not be paying much attention? The more you can observe and understand what your horse is conveying about how he feels, the easier it is for you to read when things may get stressful for both of you, later on. If you are new to reading a horse’s body language, TheHorse.com has this nice overview to get you started.
- Learn their likes and dislikes. Being able to read your horse’s body language will help you understand their likes and dislikes. Horses are individuals who have preferences, and we need to understand those without taking them personally. In some cases a horse’s past experience may prevent them from enjoying something they normally should – say a scratch on the neck or a carrot treat. When he first arrived, I would give Chase a quick scratch in parts I know horses like – withers, top of shoulder blade, where the neck joins the chest, and base of the mane. His initial reaction was one of suspicion, so I’d stop. But I’d still occasionally offer. Gradually his reaction became more inquisitive, and then that lovely day came when his upper lip wiggled. Now he invites me to scratch and shows me where! This did several things – showed him that I listened when he reacted badly, gave me a measure of how his attitude toward the relationship was changing, and eventually gave him something he knew he could communicate to me about.
- Talk to your horse … a lot! I don’t mean become a senseless chatterbox, but do speak to your horse. I know there are those who’ve cautioned against using words or talking much at all. Horses, they say, don’t speak that much, so your words are meaningless to them! Yet, science is beginning to prove what I’ve known all along – horses understand words and definitely read your tone. It stands to reason they would develop these skills over millennia of living with us! In my experience working with horses who have had bad human experience, my talking is often the first thing that gets their curiosity. But, perhaps most importantly, is that those who caution against talking miss the impact speaking has upon us. First, in order to speak you must keep breathing – and holding your breath (or shallow breathing) is one of the first reactions if you get nervous. When you talk out loud you also begin to hear any nervousness in your own voice that you might not otherwise realize is there. If you can talk in a regulated calm way, as one would speak to a child, you can begin to feel your own body relaxing. Your horse will react to that physiological change in you as well.
- Use “Please”, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry”. Okay, this time I’m not being literal. However, if you approach everything that you ask your horse with “Please …” in mind then you are more open to hearing the answer. This is the biggest key to your relationship – hearing the “No” as well as the “Yes”. Horses may say “No” for a lot of reasons – pain, fear, lack of clarity in the question, etc. – but it is never in order to challenge you. Read that sentence again – it is never in order to challenge you. A “No” answer is never a “challenge of your authority” as many may tell you. If you go in asking “Please” you are more likely to react to “No” with a “Why not?” of your own. This should lead you to look for signs of issues and perhaps ask your question in another way. It is also important to keep in mind that anything your horse does for you is a favor that deserves a “Thank you” – at that moment, not a bucket of grain that night. I am fully convinced that staying grateful for what a horse does for me, and showing it in words, tone, and physical appreciation is why I have been blessed with such amazing equine relationships over my life. It is never about what I have accomplished, but rather about what they have granted to me. Lastly, there was a recent conversation in a dog behavior group about apologizing to your dog and whether they understand it. I have always automatically apologized to my horses if I goof up. I cannot say that they understand what an apology is, necessarily – but I can tell you that there is a physiological change in me that they reflect in response.
- Spend some free time together. One of my favorite things to do in building a relationship with my horses is to leave them free to roam while I am involved in some activity or chore. It might be mending fence in their enclosure, building obstacles while they are loose in the arena, or just generally doing chores while they are roaming the barnyard. Horses tend to be curious by nature and they will often come over to see just what it is that I am up to. I’ve had them stick their muzzle into a bucket of tools and even pick up a hammer to inspect it. I’ve had noses on my back as I set a jump, or just general ‘supervision’ as I go about my business. They are free to be close or not, and it provides both of us an opportunity to observe each other, with no specific expectations on either of us. Some of my favorite moments have come out of these interactions, and I’m convinced it brings us closer. Note: make sure you are comfortable around your horse before doing this. If they are highly reactive to new things use caution.
- Be consistent. This may seem obvious in any learning or training situation, but there are ways in which people are unwittingly inconsistent that puzzle our horses and make us seem unreliable. For example, if you are like me and you like to be physical with your horse – I love giving face rubs, scratching withers, leaning against a grazing horse – then you cannot get mad when your horse reciprocates. I occasionally get a head-bump, or shoulders presented to me (or even tails), or Chase will lean his shoulder lightly on me as we walk. If I corrected or punished for these solicitations I am sending a mixed message about our physical relationship. That is not to say you cannot set boundaries – I let mine know (usually with my voice) if they bump too hard – but that is different from giving a hard “No” to their solicitation. The same goes for treats – mine are allowed to kindly ask for a treat, but not to be bullies about it. If you aren’t comfortable with physical contact, then set those boundaries and respect them yourself. Developing these consistent rules about your relationship (yes this, but not that) will strengthen it and aid in ongoing dialog between the two of you.
- Be kind! Of course, if you are concerned about your relationship with your horse, you are likely trying to be kind in your interactions. But this isn’t just about being kind to your horse – you have to be kind to yourself. Don’t take it personally if your horse doesn’t love you as you’d hoped. They aren’t a dog, and they need a lot of time to truly develop a deep relationship. Accept that you will make mistakes along the way and don’t beat yourself up about. Mistakes are how we learn, and horses can be tremendously forgiving if you make the effort to do better. Finally, give yourself some leeway. If you wake up with a plan for your ride that day, but you end up having a trying or exhausting day at the office, change your plans! That’s a good day to be kind to both of you and just take a walk, go sit in a grassy area, or find some other low-key way just to spend time together with no pressure on either of you. Don’t think of it as lost time, just time gained in developing your relationship.
Those are some experience-proven guidelines that will help develop a good relationship with your horse. If you are new to the relationship, take your time and work on your bonding before asking too much. Remember, no matter how well trained your horse may be, that was with someone else, not you. Let them get to know you! A recent study showed that the longer a horse was with their owner the better they accepted novel experiences. In that study it was the horses who had been with their owners for 6-8 years who were most calm in new situations – so accept that it takes time to develop that bond.
If you are already in the relationship, and you are struggling, take a step back and “start fresh”, if just for a little while. Stick to things you know are easy for the two of you while you explore some of the options I listed above. If things are really bad enough that you need help, then by all means seek help. Just beware of those who will make it sound like a college course to improve your relationship! And question anything they may ask that makes you feel uncomfortable or appears to make your horse uncomfortable. The goal should be that you both become more relaxed with each other – and that should not involve escalating tension for either of you.
If you are in a relationship that is already working – congratulations! Maybe there was a tip or two that was new in my list above, but you’ve obviously found something that works for both of you. Keep it up and appreciate that you have something others pine for.
Because I am in a moment when some of those relationship experts are annoying me with actually misleading information they are promoting (in some cases highly stressful for the horse), I will address some “don’t” relationship items in my next post.
Be good to your horses!