One of the greatest parts of horseback riding is developing a strong bond with your horse. But if you’re a beginner rider, or you don’t seem to be bonding properly with a horse you’ve had for a while, you might be wondering what steps you can take to begin strengthening your bond with one another.
Here are the 8 best tips that will help you bond with your horse.
- Do Groundwork Exercises
- Set Aside Time from Rigorous Training
- Mind Your Emotional State Around Your Horse
- Hold Your Ground
- Learn to Recognize Your Horse’s Physical Queues
- Help Your Horse Relax
- Spend Plenty of Quality Time With Your Horse
- Create Positive Associations for Your Horse
Knowing these tips is one thing, but implementing them is another thing entirely. Let’s look at each tip in more detail.
Do Groundwork Exercises
Groundwork consists of training that you perform with your horse while you’re on the ground, typically with the assistance of a halter and lead rope. If your aim is to increase the bond that you have with your horse, establishing a solid foundation of groundwork will most certainly help.
Groundwork teaches your horse to respect your personal space and look to you as the leader. It is also a great way to introduce new training exercises before trying them in the saddle. Having your foundation built in groundwork will make your rides much easier.
When you first begin groundwork exercises, you can keep things very simple. As your horse progresses and does well with the basics, you can then start advancing to higher-level groundwork techniques. Some horses demonstrate boredom and disinterest when they aren’t being properly challenged, so experimenting with new groundwork training exercises will help them stay engaged.
Not only does groundwork establish the much-needed boundaries in your relationship with your horse, but it also helps them grow to trust you more. If you’re not sure exactly where to begin with your groundwork, you can check out the article that we wrote here.
Set Aside Time from Rigorous Training
All work and no play just won’t cut it for your horse. They like to set aside time for fun just like we do. Because life is so busy, many people use any time that they get with their horse to give them a rigorous training session, but doing this day after day with your horse can be harmful to your horse’s health and your bond with each other.
Horses that are being overtrained will demonstrate signs of fatigue, such as a decrease in their body weight, less interest in other horses, and unusual behavioral changes. They might become particularly stubborn and nervous, even if they’re normally an agreeable and calm horse. If you start to notice these signs, take measures to make sure they get to rest and get plenty to eat and drink.
In addition to the physical distress, overworking them can cause them mental distress as well. Horses have very good memories! If all you do when you see them is force them to do a lot of hard work, they will quickly begin to associate you with the unpleasantness of excessive training. In order to avoid this, you should take time to play with your horse.
If you work on the same routine day after day, your horse may start to get bored. You will notice that they will become distracted much more easily and they’ll have a hard time focusing. Changing up your routine by offering your horse a break from their regular routine will get them interested again in what you’re asking of them.
Setting aside time from routine will keep your horse guessing and looking to you for direction. If you’re interested to know more about keeping your horse’s attention, check out this article here.
To give your horse a break from a rigorous routine and a chance to enjoy themselves, try a different activity. Trail riding is a great way to mix up the routine as well as offering your horse plenty of new things to see. Spend time just enjoying each others company. Your horse will enjoy the mix up from the normal routine and they’ll be asked to engage their mind in new ways.
Mind Your Emotional State Around Your Horse
Horses tend to pick up on the emotions of the people that are around them. They’ll mirror the energy in the atmosphere that you put off. For example, if there’s a situation that’s making you nervous and you’re allowing it to come through, your horse will pick up on it and more than likely start to get nervous at the same situation.
If you can maintain your cool in a difficult situation, not only will that offer some calm to your horse, but it will also allow them to see that the situation is nothing to get worked up about. Mastering your emotions is essential to becoming a better equestrian.
If you get frazzled every time you work with your horse, they’re going to start associating you with stress and frustration. It’s important to check yourself before walking into a training session with your horse. Staying cool, calm, and collected will offer a safe haven for your horse.
Your horse will start to think of you as a place of refuge. They’ll become more trusting of you and look to you for direction if they’re ever in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. This will help you decrease freak-outs and spooks from your horse because your presence will make them feel safe.
Be Consistent & Assertive
Horses are herd animals; they need one another to survive. When a horse forms a bond with you, they see you as a member of the herd. If you’ve ever taken time to watch horses in the field or in the wild, you’ll notice how there is a pecking order. There is an alpha horse that not only makes the rules but also protects the others. All the horses of the herd respect the alpha and look to them for guidance.
A horse is constantly vying to be higher up on the pecking order; any new member of the herd is looked at as a challenge to see where they fall on the list. If you’re trying to bond with your horse and build trust and respect, then you’re going to have to establish yourself as the alpha in the relationship.
In the beginning, your horse may seem like they’re testing you or disrespecting you. They want to see where you’ll fall in the pecking order. What this usually looks like is the horse questioning your authority. If you ask them to do something, they may try to throw a fit or do something other than what you’re asking.
Horses are great at being subtly disobedient and avoiding as much work as necessary. In order to get your horse to view you with the respect that they view the alpha with, you are going to have to be assertive and consistent with them. This means that you’re not going to let them get away with things, even if it may be considered a small act of disobedience.
You will have to be consistent in how you do this. If a horse does anything without you asking them to do it and you just allow it to happen, then your horse is learning what it can and cannot get away with. In order to be consistent, you will have to correct the behavior every time it happens, even if it seems real minute.
In the beginning, your horse may seem stubborn and rude; it’s just them trying to see where you’ll fall on the pecking order. However, if you hold your ground and enforce that you’re the leader, sooner or later your horse will start to recognize you as one.
Learn to Recognize Your Horse’s Physical Cues
Learning to recognize your horse’s physical cues will let you know when your horse is stressed or relaxed. When you have knowledge of what your horse is feeling, you can take the actions needed to help them calm down or feel less anxious.
An anxious horse may spook, snort, or dance around. If you notice your horse getting anxious, you can turn their mind to something else in order to distract them. Have them move their feet and do exercises that will get them thinking and using their whole body.
If your horse is getting frustrated during a training session, their performance may wane, they may chomp the bit, and swish their tail. By catching when your horse is starting to get frustrated, you can take time to let them know that everything’s OK. If a horse associates a certain task with being frustrating, they’re immediately going to expect that every time they’re asked to do such exercise.
Take a moment to walk your horse and let him stretch. Talk to him in a soothing voice and pat his neck. Reassurance is the best thing to do in order to get your horse over being frustrated. This also means that as soon as your horse responds correctly to what you ask them to do, you make a big fuss and give much praise. That way, the horse will associate the exercise with good.
If your horse is relaxed, they’ll chew their teeth, close their eyes, and relax a hind leg. When working with your horse, look for these moments. Learn to notice when they get in this mode; learning what causes your horse to relax can help you calm and relax your horse in a stressful situation.
Brush Your Horse
In the wild, horses groom each other. No, this doesn’t mean that they pick up a brush and groom each other’s coat; it means that they use their teeth to scratch each other’s itches. One of the reasons we brush our horses is because it mimics the behavior displayed in the wild.
Brushing your horse can mean that you’re the buddy that scratches all the itches that they can’t. It means that you rub the sore muscles that your horse has no concept on how to do. You offer the relaxing brush down their back that feels like their mother’s tongue that cleaned them off when they were first born. Everything that has to do with brushing is associated with good.
Have you ever had a massage? If so, you probably remember how relaxed and loose you felt afterward. Brushing your horse is technically considered a massage since you are working the horse’s muscles with the brush. Using the curry comb is like a back rub for your horse. It’s working to not only remove dirt but also to cause circulation in your horse’s muscles and to break up any scar tissue that may have formed.
Massages are known to release endorphins throughout the body and help to increase circulation. Both of these things will leave not only humans but also horses feeling very happy. Once again, you’re just giving your horse something to positively associate you with. In this instance, it’s you as their masseuse.
Spend Plenty of Quality Time With Your Horse
Spending quality time with your horse is another great way to build your bond. In a herd, horses spend all day together. By giving your horse that quality time, you’re establishing yourself as part of their herd.
Quality time doesn’t have to mean riding or work; it can mean having a nice enjoyable time with your horse where potentially no work is involved. This is how horses do it in the wild; they graze next to each other all day. By spending more time with your horse, you will make yourself a constant in their life. Horses love constants.
This means that you provide the same thing for them no matter the situation. Whether you provide peace and comfort or excitement and fun, your horse can rely on you to be that for them.
Take time to simply talk to your horse every now and then. Let them get used to your voice and something to listen to. You’ll notice that when you talk, their ears constantly follow you, even if they have no idea of what you’re saying. If they’re ever put in a stressful situation, you can talk to them. Since they are familiar with your voice, it will offer a familiar aspect in an otherwise not familiar situation.
Spending quality time with your horse can give you something to do on days where you can’t get out and ride, like when the weather’s bad or if your horse is recovering from an injury or a hard ride. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, a small amount of quality time is better than none.
Create Positive Associations
Horses like being in the field, so spending time with them there can help them enjoy your presence more. If the only time you get them is to do rigorous training, they can start to associate you with discomfort and work.
Utilizing positive reinforcement and spending time with them in places that they’re relaxed and happy will help strengthen their positive association with you. Let them associate you with safety, comfort, and a good time.
In order to be known as a positive association, you have to make your rewards better than your demands. That means you may ask something of your horse, and as soon as they do it, give them much praise.
Any situation where you find your horse disobeying or getting anxious warrants the biggest praise for even the smallest try. This will make the scary situation seem much less daunting to your horse.
How Long Does it Take to Bond with a Horse?
How long it will take you to bond with a horse is determined by how much time you’re willing to commit and the horse’s personality or history. The more time you have to get to know the horse and spend time with them, the quicker you’ll probably be able to bond with them. However; if you’re working with a horse that is particularly stubborn or that has an abusive past, it may take more time.
Nonetheless, never underestimate the power of one session with your horse. Even just introducing yourself to the horse, spending a little time with them, and being confident and assertive can immediately leave an impression with a horse. Respect can be built with just a few minutes of groundwork. A positive association can be re-enforced by giving much praise for obedience.
Another great thing to realize is that you can constantly be building a better and stronger bond with your horse, even if you’ve had them for years. Offer more challenging exercises, try something different, re-kindle the giddiness you had when you first purchased the horse.
How Do I Know If a Horse Likes Me?
The best way to tell if your horse likes you is to take note of their physical cues when you’re around. Do they chew their teeth and rest one of their legs? Do they watch you consistently with their ears pointed towards you? Or do they become skittish and pin their ears back at you?
Chances are, if a horse doesn’t like you or can’t even tolerate you, then you’ll know it. This usually means keep your distance. Horses that have a distaste for someone can be aggressive and its best to just steer clear.
Want to keep learning more? Check out our article on 15 Tips for Beginner Horseback Riders.