How to Play With Your Horse
When it comes to spending time with your horse, you probably don’t always want to ride. Riding can get monotonous and be strenuous on your horse, so finding a way to have fun and relieve some stress can be a great way to help your horse relax and unwind. One thing you can try is playing with your horse!
So, how do you play with a horse? Here are some ways you can play with your horse that are not only fun but can also contribute to your horse’s connection and training:
- spend time finding their scratchy spots
- teach your horse to follow you
- desensitize your horse to scary objects
- teach your horse new tricks
I have personally used these different types of play to help build a relationship with my horse and further their training in certain areas. The most important thing to remember is to keep an atmosphere of fun and comfort, and your horse will be more willing to play and pay attention. To learn more about certain ways you can play with your horse, keep reading!
Play With Your Horse By Finding Their Scratchy Spots
If you ever watch horses in the pasture, chances are you’ve seen two horses nibbling and grooming each other. While this may seem like too simple of a way to play, it feels good to the horse and provides them with other horsie interaction. One way you can mimic this “game” is by spending time just scratching your horse and looking for the itchy spots they enjoy.
Some of the common scratchy spots that horses have are:
- the base of the neck
- the chest
- the underbelly (where the girth would go)
- around the dock or base of the tail
While your horse may have other areas they like to be scratched, I find that these are the most common. Finding your horse’s scratchies can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First of all, it feels good to the horse! Did you know that an itch is caused by tension in the muscle? So that means when you scratch and itch, you’re actually working to relieve the tension. Scratching your horse acts as a massage for their muscles, so it can help increase circulation in those particular areas.
This exercise is also great to use for horses that aren’t completely trusting of human interaction. This will show the horse that human touch is good. It will help them learn to trust humans and interacting with them.
Another thing I’ve found that this particular type of play does is it can lead to a horse becoming more expressive in its emotions. When I first got my horse, Tucker, he was very stoic and tended to be harder to read when it came to understanding what he was feeling or thinking. When I would initially scratch him, it was hard to tell whether or not he liked it. Now, years later, he has become very expressive and definitely shows when he feels like a scratch feels good. I believe it has to do with learning to trust humans and becoming more comfortable with expressing emotion around them.
Play With Your Horse By Teaching Them to Follow You
If you watch horses play in the pasture, it’s usually never just one horse playing. Oftentimes, there are multiple horses all running around together. If one goes tearing across the field, the others all follow. Playing “follow the leader” is a game that horses just naturally do. A herd of horses in the wild will follow an alpha horse. The alpha horse will lead the herd to water sources and grazing lands. As prey animals, horses rather stick together than be by themselves, so when one horse starts moving, they all follow.
One way you can play with your horse is by teaching them to follow you! In this game, you will be the leader in “follow the leader,” meaning that this exercise can help the horse see you more as a leader. This type of play can also help your horse develop a connection or draw to you in which they will want to naturally come to you and be around you. If you have a horse that is difficult to catch in the pasture, this can be a great game to play in order to combat that behavior. Lastly, if you are interested in doing liberty work with your horse, this is a great place to start.
When it comes to teaching your horse to follow you, there are a few specific exercises I like to use to help them understand the concept. The first thing I do is that I practice free lunging my horse in a round pen. Here, I can practice moving my horse using my body language and even practice calling my horse into the middle towards me. (To learn more about lunging a horse in a round pen, check out my article Lunging a Horse in a Round Pen: How-To Guide For Beginners.)
Another exercise you can do to help your horse want to follow you is simply asking them to take a step towards you, then rewarding them. I find it easiest to start with asking your horse to step to the side and look at you rather than getting them to move forward. One way you can do this is to have your horse at a standstill, then walk around toward its hind-end with momentum so the horse will step away with its hind legs. As the horse does that, they should turn and then be facing you.
Play With Your Horse by Desensitizing Them to Scary Objects
Horses, by nature, are curious animals. Although they are often scared of new objects, they usually don’t hesitate to go over and try and inspect what the object is and determine whether it’s friend or foe. You can help your horse be more confident in curious when it comes to desensitizing by creating an atmosphere of fun!
What is desensitizing? Desensitizing is a type of training you do to help your horse learn to accept objects they would normally be afraid of. This can also be called “bomb-proofing,” because you can eventually desensitize your horse so well that a bomb could go off and they wouldn’t be startled.
A horse’s natural instinct is to flee from anything that may pose a threat. The goal of desensitizing is to teach your horse to think past its natural instinct. The way that playing with your horse comes in is that a horse is going to be much more willing to accept a scary object if they have fun in the process. By nature, horses are lazy. The more work and stress that is involved, the less likely it will be for them to accept something. Sadly, when it comes to desensitizing, we often make it a serious matter that can cause the horse to become frustrated and scared.
There are a few things you can do to make desensitizing more of a game. 1) Mirror the behavior you want to see from your horse. If you’re introducing a new object to your horse, act like it’s no big deal. Oftentimes, we bring the object slowly and carefully up to the horse, portraying a predator that’s about to strike. This can cause the horse to become more afraid.
2) Bring the object to your horse, then take it away and let the horse go to it. If you watch horses in the field with a new object, they’ll first approach, gallop away, then approach again. This will mimic the same behavior and help them have the time and chance to think about what they are doing.
3) You approach and play with the object. As mentioned above, horses love playing “follow the leader.” They also like playing “monkey see, monkey do.” What one horse sees another horse do, they’ll often try and copy the behavior or action. If you want your horse to accept a new object, approach the object yourself. Walk over it, sit on it, and play with it while your horse just watches. This can help your horse feel more confident when it comes time for them to approach the object.
Play With Your Horse By Teaching Them New Tricks
One way that I specifically like playing with my horse is by teaching them new tricks! I find that my horse loves to do this! This is a great way to give your horse a break from the monotony of riding and strenuous work. It’s also a great way to stimulate your horse’s mind and make them think through processes rather than just having them react.
I believe when you have a good understanding of how to communicate with and train your horse, you can probably teach a horse to do anything! One fun and weird trick I taught my horse was to find a sponge! I would put the sponge somewhere in the barn aisle and Tucker would go and look for it, standing at it once he found it. When it comes to teaching your horse tricks, think about fun ways you can challenge your horse.
Here’s a piece of advice I follow when it comes to teaching your horse tricks: only work on tricks for a few minutes at a time. Trying to master a trick in a day can become frustrating to you and your horse. Remember, this is supposed to be fun and low stress! I only work on tricks for 10 – 15 minutes a session to ensure that my horse doesn’t get bored or disinterested.
Looking for a trick to teach your horse? Check out my article How to Teach a Horse to Lay Down: Step-By-Step Guide.
P.S. Save this article to your “Horse Care” board!