Your horse is a living, breathing being, so bonding with him and developing a relationship built on mutual trust is extremely important to his well-being.
When I was asked to write an article about bonding and gaining your horse’s trust, my first thought was: “One of the simplest yet hardest things to do. And what makes it hard is not in the horse, but in us.”
We are often so busy and lead such stressed lives that despite our best intentions we don’t see our horses. I don’t mean they literally vanish into thin air, but we don’t see the horse in front of us. Instead, we see what we project onto them.
We don’t consider who our horses are, how their day might have been, or what they like or dislike, especially if we haven’t had the best of days ourselves. We expect our horses to make us feel better, and don’t realize that maybe they need us to brighten their day.
If you truly want to create a trust-based partnership with your horse, then you must put down your “tricks of the trade”, stop trying to figure out a foolproof technique, and look within yourself. Here are some ways to strengthen trust and begin bonding with your horse, as well as some signs that you are making some progress.
Few things will relax and calm your mind like getting in touch with nature; listening to the quiet, feeling the sun on your skin, the grass between your toes. We often forget this is where our horses live. They spend every moment being in and of the natural world.
Bonding with your horse in his natural environment is getting to know him as he is. Instead of coming to him with your agenda, try leaving it behind once in awhile. Sit down with your horse in the paddock. Watch his motions, his emotions, his interactions. Find out who he is when he’s not being forced to work. Let him discover you on his terms. Allow him to explore you, approach you and greet you in his own time.
Have you ever been approached by a boisterous person – loud voice, hard handshake, jumping into your space and demanding your attention? Not a comfortable experience for most, yet this is often how we greet our horses. We walk right up and put a halter on, or start touching, petting or grooming regardless of how the horse feels.
Instead, try inviting your horse to the meeting. Notice how he reaches out with his nose as he stretches towards you to discover your uniqueness.
I’m not “comfortable” with that
You wouldn’t let another person touch you inappropriately, and your horse feels the same. Ask her and let her invite you into her vulnerable areas before you start poking, prodding and rubbing. Get her approval to explore her defenseless areas, then you can scratch her withers, rub her body and search for those special places she likes rubbed. Let her show you what she’s comfortable with.
Not only will you introduce yourself further, but you’ll be asking your horse to accept you for what you do and not for what you are – a predator. You will also discover her favorite “itchy” areas, making that ever important good first impression.
Many horses enjoy human contact, while others learn in time that it can be comforting. Here are a few common ways horses like to experience human touch around the face. Find the ones your own equine likes in order to deepen the bonding experience.
Ears – Massage his ears. Begin at the base and work your way up to the tip. Discover what he enjoys, and build on the positive experiences. Work in a fluid rhythm, creating circular motions or stroking the ears. There are acupressure points at the tips of the ears which alleviate stress, and many horses just melt into instant relaxation.
Eyes – A particularly sensitive nerve center is located right under the horse’s eye. When you move two or three finger pads in the direction of the hairline and create small circles, your horse will begin to relax. Be careful not to use your fingertips as you may dig your nails into his skin. As you increase the area of the circles you may be able to cover your horse’s eye. By momentarily taking his vision, you ask him to trust in your protection.
Muzzle – Cup your hand over your horse’s muzzle, circle your palm and let him tell you if he likes the cradling feeling or the gentle motion of your hand against his lips. If you’re a more advanced horseman or woman, you may wish to place two or three finger pads against the top gum, once again circling as you go.
Remember to make your way to the front of your horse’s mouth by entering the side first. This massage can be very soothing, but be cautious that your horse doesn’t pull your fingers between his teeth. The top lip can be very powerful!
For the anxious and frightened horse, this can be the most difficult request. If your horse is willing to drop his head for you, you are well on your way to bonding and gaining his trust. When you ask your horse to do this, you are asking him to give up his primary form of defense – flight.
Anatomically, horses need their heads up high to focus on distance. When their heads are lowered you remove this ability and ask them to focus on the ground. At that point, their trust has been completely placed in your hands. As a horse lowers his head for you, he presents the most vulnerable part of his body, the back of his neck. This is exactly where a lion would strike to asphyxiate her prey. Some say that crouching down by the side of your horse and encouraging him to lower his eyes below your own takes bonding and trust to an even deeper level.
One way to request a neck drop is to place pressure on the lead rope underneath the clip. The pressure is very slight, equivalent to holding a baby bird. Notice if your horse responds to a constant pressure of if he prefers a pulsing within the pressure. Either way, remember that horses learn from the release of pressure, so your timing in rewarding the tries is crucial to encouraging his nose to touch the ground.
This exercise offers many advantages, including muscle stretches, tissue softness, natural adjustments and preparation for the one-rein stop. One of the greatest benefits is that it builds trust. By asking your horse to softly, smoothly and willingly yield his head around, touching your hip bone farthest from his head, you take away his vision in one eye. Horses are known to follow their noses and this tight neck yield prevents an open and immediate flight path. Losing vision decreases his flight options, a major part of the horse’s survival instinct, and asks him to completely place his trust in you.
Take a moment to do the following exercise. Stand up. Cross your legs. Now… run! Okay. Stand up again (you probably fell flat on your face). This is exactly what your horse would experience if you made her disengage her hindquarters. When you do this, you take away her ability to run and instead ask her to look to you for guidance.
Horses gain leadership by controlling one another’s feet and taking possession of territory. In other words, if you control your horse’s forward motion and direction, you take the leadership role in your herd of two. (This takes us into another topic, respect, but we shall save that for another article.)
I hope these tips will start you on the path of bonding and building a trust-based relationship with your horse. Remember, it’s not about developing the right trust-building techniques and tricks. Your horse is not a motorcycle that always goes on command. He is a living, breathing being, so bonding with him is extremely important. Ask yourself, “Based on my actions and intentions, would I trust me?” Treat him as you would like to be treated. See him for who he is. Be the kind of person he can trust and rely on, and you will develop a bond that will never be broken.