Building a great relationship with your horse

Getting a new horse is exciting. Here’s how to start your relationship off on the right hoof.

Adding a new horse to your herd is always fun. New equines take you on an exciting voyage of discovery. So many layers go into the creation of a great relationship, but basic principles are always a good place to start. Here are the two I consider most important:

1. Safety always comes first.

2. You can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis unless you have gone through the process of teaching it to your horse.

With a new horse, there are always some questions. What does he really know? And how does he feel about the training he’s had? You don’t know until you ask him. Horses answer these questions through the behaviors they give you.

What does he know?

Phase one of a new partnership is relationship building. Going for a walk is a great way to do this. A leisurely, no-pressure walk can be a treat for both horse and handler. It’s also a great way to collect data. What does he know? What training holes do the walks reveal? How comfortable – or not – is he when walking with you? What is revealed about his past training?

Sometimes what you learn is that the horse has been well loved and treated fairly. Other times you learn that the “quiet horse” you bought is quiet because of the suppressing effects of punishment. The well-loved, well-trained horse will be a gem ready for new experiences. The punished horse may come with layer upon layer of emotional trauma to sort through.

Data collecting

The data collecting tells you what you need to work on back in the “lab” – otherwise known as your barn, arena, or safe paddock. It may tell you that going out for a walk has to be put on hold because issues were revealed that make even a seemingly simple walk a hazardous undertaking. Conversely, the data collecting may indicate that you can continue to use the walks for relationship building while you work on the minor training holes those walks reveal.

There are generally always training holes, even in well-trained horses. We all value different things in a horse. One person may value a horse that stands without being tied for grooming. Her horse will be a ground-tying superstar, but might fuss at the constraints of a tie. A new owner might be puzzled by this otherwise well-trained horse who doesn’t know how to tie. The reverse could easily be true. The horse might tie beautifully, but walks off when you try to groom him untied. He’ll frustrate the new owner who isn’t used to tying horses for grooming. She’ll think he’s very poorly trained when really it is just a missing piece in his education.

What do you value in a horse?

The best approach is not to assume anything, but to follow the second training principle. Begin by asking yourself what you value. What do you want your horse to know? How do you want him to stand while being groomed? How do you want him to walk next to you? What are your expectations for riding, driving, etc.?

Make the list. Then develop a teaching plan that reviews everything that will make your horse a superstar performer for each of the behaviors on your list. This usually means going back to basics. When I say to people they need to work on the basics with their new horses, I know it’s not what they want to hear. They want to be out riding, not teaching their horses to pick up their feet for cleaning. But if that horse already understands basic foot care, the teaching process will go very fast. You’ll ask, your horse will respond. Job done. You’ll tidy up some loose ends and move on. The whole process will have taken up just a tiny portion of a grooming session.

But if you discover that your new horse doesn’t pick his feet up well – that you have to pry them off the ground every time you want to clean them, and he feels like he weighs two tons while you struggle to hold up them up, then you’ve uncovered something that’s worth exploring in more detail. It isn’t just that you want to make the daily task of foot cleaning easier and more pleasant for both of you; teaching good foot manners is going to improve his overall balance. As you tidy up these basic horse-keeping details, you’ll discover that your new horse is suddenly a whole lot easier to ride.

Assume nothing

With a new horse, I assume nothing. Even when there is a lot of good training to tap into, it is so much better to begin as though it’s not there. Instead of assuming he knows things, you’ll be asking him if he does. This avoids one of the pitfalls of training – using a tool before you’ve taught it.

In clicker training, I want to focus on what I want my horse to do – not the unwanted behavior. The handler’s focus is a key element in determining whether the training is reactive and correction-oriented, or proactive and positively focused.

What do I mean by this? I have a clear image of what good leading looks and feels like. Pulling, crowding in on top of me, rushing ahead, lagging behind – none of these things fit into this description. But if I start out by focusing on what I don’t like, that’s where my focus will stay. I’ll end up being what I don’t want to be – a correction-based trainer. I might be using a click and a treat, but my focus will be on stopping unwanted behaviors, not building the good behaviors I want.

Clicker teachers

I want to be a clicker “teacher”. I want to focus on what I want my horse to do. And I want my training to focus on teaching my horse the skills that I would like him to do. I want to construct behavior, not just derail the unwanted stuff.

For horses, this change in focus makes a world of difference. It is one of the key shifts people embrace as they come to understand clicker training more deeply. When they discover how important it is to first build a training tool before using the tool, the relationship with their horses changes dramatically, as does the whole flow and success of their training.

A simple walk around your barn and down your driveway can serve the purpose of data collecting. What does this horse know about walking out with a person? What does he not know? What components are already in place, and which ones are missing? Instead of trying to teach those missing components during the walk, it is much better to go back to your “lab” and construct them.

Once you know what your new horse knows, and you have cues you both understand attached to behaviors you both know he knows, you can use these components in real world settings. You’ll be using what you have taught him to build that dream relationship. You’ll be asking him for energy levels and balance shifts that bring him closer and closer to matching up with your ideal image of a perfect horse. You aren’t reacting to and correcting unwanted behavior. You are building the behavior you want.

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Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for your Horse, The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures, The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker and The Click That Teaches Video Lesson Series. She earned her degree from Cornell University where she specialized in animal behavior. Alexandra has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s. A pioneer in the development of humane training methods, she began clicker training in the early 1990s. She very quickly recognized the power of clicker training for improving performance, enhancing the relationship people have with their horses, and for putting fun back into training.;