Trust is a key component in horse training that enables you and your horse to be more confident working with each other. As prey animals, horses are especially untrusting creatures. By developing a bond with your horse, you’re equipping them to think instead of react. Overall, this will help your horse to be calmer, quieter, and more brave.

How do you build trust with a horse? Groundwork is a key ingredient to building trust with your horse. It allows your horse to get to know you face-to-face rather than from their back. There are five simple groundwork exercises that can start developing trust with your horse:

  • Backing up and reading body language
  • Working from a mounting block
  • Desensitizing to touch
  • Lunging at the walk
  • Ground-tying

I use these five groundwork exercises working with my own personal horses to help them feel safer and more confident around me. In this article, I will walk you step-by-step through each of these exercises. Groundwork exercises are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building trust. I have an online course that walks you through every aspect of building trust with your horse, including other groundwork and riding exercises. If you’d like to know more, check out the course here.

Building Trust With Your Horse By Asking Them to Back Up

This groundwork exercise is a great tool for pinpointing what your horse is feeling. While super simple, I found myself using this exercise the most with any horse in order to reinforce a calm atmosphere.

Step #1: Ask Your Horse to Back-Up

First, ask your horse to back up. You can do this by gently shaking the lead rope up and down until the horse takes a step. When the horse takes a step, stop shaking the rope so that they know they responded correctly. If they won’t step backward, gradually increase the pressure you use to shake the rope. Starting out, some horses may not respond until you wave your arm enthusiastically up and down. However, by starting at the lightest pressure and gradually increasing if the horse doesn’t respond, they will eventually learn to respond to the lightest pressure.

Once your horse understands the concept of backing up on the lead, you can shake the rope and have them back up a few consecutive steps. Remember to stop shaking the rope for just a moment between each step so the horse knows they are doing the right thing.

I prefer to back my horse up until they are around 8-10 feet away from me.

Step #2: Let the Horse Stand Still at the End of the Lead

Once you’ve backed your horse up, let them stand there a moment. You will take this time to evaluate what the horse is communicating through body language. If the horse tries to step forward or walk away, back them up again until they stand still.

What do you notice? If the horse is looking around and seems distracted, it may be a sign that they don’t feel comfortable in their surroundings. Does the horse seem wary and watchful of you? Are their eyes wide and their head raised? This could mean that they have some trust issues. Knowing where your horse is at can help you know what to expect and what you need to do to help them.

Step #3: Approach Your Horse and Rub Their Head

Next, approach your horse and rub their head. As you approach, notice how your horse responds. Some horses will turn their head away. A frightful horse may back away from you. An untrusting horse may put their ears back. Others may ignore you, looking left and right for a distraction.

If your horse avoids you by turning their head away, gently take their halter and move their head back towards you. Rub their head in between their eyes; this feels good to them.

Initially, nothing may change. Over time, however, you may notice your horse start to lick and chew as you approach. This is a sign that they are relaxed. As you rub the horse’s head, look for their head to drop; it is a true sign of trust when a horse does this. They are lowering their head and feel less guarded.

Building Trust With Your Horse By Working Them From a Mounting Block

Many horses are wary of people standing on mounting blocks and being above them since they are not able to see them clearly. I honestly believe this is why so many horses have a hard time standing at the mounting block. A great way you can continue to build trust with your horse is to do some exercises with them while you stand on a mounting block, tree stump, or bucket that puts you taller than their eye level.

#1: Ask the Horse to Stand Beside the Mounting Block

A great place to start is getting up on the mounting block and then lining your horse up if you’re going to try to get on. Instead of getting on them, just pet them. After a minute, get off the mounting block and lead them away. Do this a few times over. Another reason I believe horses have a hard time at mounting blocks is that they anticipate being mounted. You can take that anticipation away with this exercise.

#2: Incorporate Other Exercises While You Stand on the Mounting Block

Once your horse is more comfortable with the mounting block, start incorporating some other groundwork exercises. Backing your horse up from the mounting block, disengaging their hindquarters and shoulders, and even getting them to side pass are all great exercises to practice. Lining your horse up, leaning over their back, then standing back upright can be great for desensitizing. Have fun with these exercises!

Building Trust With Your Horse By Desensitizing Them to Touch

Being able to touch your horse is the first groundwork exercise you should focus on with any new horse, young horse, or horse you don’t know. If you can’t be confident working around the horse and touching them, it’s going to feed into your training and how you communicate. In turn, it will also help the horse feel more comfortable around you.

#1: The Goal is to Be Able to Touch Your Horse Everywhere

The ultimate goal is to be able to touch your horse everywhere. Imagine if the horse had a medical emergency; it needs to be able to deal with being handled so it can receive adequate attention. If you can’t comfortably run your hands over a certain area of your horse’s body, you need to work on getting the horse comfortable with that. Common problem areas for touch include the ears, girth area, belly, groin area, legs, and hocks.

#2: Rule out Pain for Problem Areas

If your horse does have a certain area they don’t want you to touch, it’s important that you rule out pain as causing the issue. If the horse is in pain, but you’re continually trying to work with them, you will be doing more harm than good.

#3: How to Get a Horse Used to Touch

If your horse does have an area they don’t like touched and you’ve ruled out any pain, what do you do to get them used to touch? If the area is in a place that potentially puts you in danger, like the back legs, for example, use a long lunge whip as an extension of your arm to touch the horse.

Start by touching an area of the horse you know they are comfortable with. Gradually work towards the problem area; keep going until they show signs of uneasiness, then go back to a place of comfort. Do this a few times over.

If you have a horse that’s really untrusting with this exercise, I recommend looking into positive reinforcement methods, like using treats to reward. I’ve noticed that these methods are very effective with reactive horses.

Building Trust With Your Horse by Lunging at a Walk

A sign that your horse is anxious or uncomfortable is that they will want to move their feet. If you’re trying to have your horse walk while lunging them, but they keep breaking into a faster gait, it may mean that they are feeling uncomfortable. If they are also looking to the outside of the circle and getting distracted, they aren’t connected with you. In this exercise, you’re going to use lunging and walking to get your horse in tune with you.

#1: Tip Your Horse’s Nose to the Inside of the Circle

One way to get your horse connected with you is to get them carrying themselves correctly. If you’re lunging your horse on a circle, proper body carriage would cause the horse to bend through their body towards the inside of the circle. Create some connection with the lunge line to tip the horse’s nose in towards the middle. Point your lunge whip towards the horse’s inside shoulder. By doing these two steps, you should see your horse bend through their body instead of being straight.

While you do this, make sure to release the pressure when you first see your horse starting to bend through their body. This will let them know they are doing the right thing.

#2: Stop Your Horse and Ask Them to Back Up

Another great way to get your horse focused when lunging is to practice the first exercise I mentioned. Have your horse stop and back up. Evaluate their body language, then approach them. Once you’ve petted them for a minute, send them back on the circle again. The switch-up between exercises will also help the horse look forward to what to expect next.

#3: Lunge Your Horse at a Different Time

Horse owners unknowingly teach their horses to automatically get anxious and go crazy when being lunged. They do this by only lunging the horse when the horse needs to burn energy. Horses learn by repetition, so if you are repeatedly doing this when your horse has extra energy, that’s all your horse is going to know.

Try changing it up. You want to create a calm atmosphere that welcomes the horse to walk while lunging. Try lunging them after you’ve ridden and they need to be cooled down. They will be much more willing to walk and start to correlate lunging with staying calm and relaxed.

If you’re new to lunging horses and need more guidance, check out my article Lunge a Horse: Meaning and How to Do It.

Building Trust With Your Horse by Ground Tying

Ground tying is when a horse is trained to stand still when their lead rope or reins are dropped to the ground. This is another exercise great for building confidence and teaching the horse to think on their own.

#1: Start by Moving Around Your Horse With Rope In Hand

To start teaching your horse to ground tie, they must first be comfortable with you moving around them. With the lead rope in hand, start at one of your horse’s shoulders, walk in front of the horse, and go to the other shoulder. Notice how the horse reacts with their head. Do they try to turn their head in the direction you’re going, almost as if blocking you from their side? If they do this, take your hand and simply block them from turning their head that way.

Does the horse try to walk off in front of you as you cross by their head? Simply back them up to where they were before. Do they back up as you come around the other side, trying to keep their head next to you? Stay at their shoulder and go with them as they back up. As soon as they finally stop, give them a rub and pet them.

#2: Drop the Rope

Once your horse is comfortable with you moving around them with the rope, it’s time to drop the rope to the ground. Initially, the horse may try to eat, put its head down, or even walk away. Just take the rope and put them back where they were. Practice working around them like you did before; however, do it in smaller time increments and reward the horse by going back up to them and petting them.

#3: Increase Your Distance of Travel

As you work on this exercise, you can start increasing your distance of travel working around your horse. Once you can easily go shoulder to shoulder, try walking all the way around your horse and see if they stay where they are. From there, make your circle bigger. Go move objects in the arena, see what you can and can’t do.

Other Tips for Building Trust With Your Horse

Getting hands-on and working with your horse is the most impactful thing you can do to start building trust. However, there are things you may unknowingly be doing that are ruining your chances of building trust with your horse. In my online course, I walk you through every aspect you need to know to adequately build trust and develop a bond. Check out my How to Gain and Maintain Your Horse’s Trust course here.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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