January 14, 2023 4 min read
A horse, as with any other animal that can be tamed, needs a lot of time, patience, and compassion when it comes to earning their trust. In the wild, horses usually live in herds and are always on the lookout for danger. As Rutger University equine studies expert Carey A. Williams, Ph.D. of Rutger University notes, horses are prey animals, which is why their top means of survival is running away from predators.
Taking into account their flighty nature is an important step in getting to know and bonding with your horse. In this article, we will learn about your riding partner’s behavior and touch on a few topics regarding horse rehabilitation as well as how to live your best equestrian lifedata-style:
As horses are considered prey animals, they are well-equipped to quickly sense danger. Their binocular vision gives them an almost panoramic view of their surroundings, and they also can see well at night. They do, however, have a small blind spot right in front and directly behind them. Avoid these areas especially when approaching them for the first time.
As we’ve mentioned in a previous post on Equine Activity Liability, you must approach a horse you’re just getting to know on their left side by the shoulder. This way, your horse can best see you and won’t feel surprised or threatened. Avoid abrupt movements and loud noises, and speak to your horse in a low, calm, and comforting tone.
It’s also a good idea to gauge your riding partner’s demeanor through their eyes. According to a feature on Equimed, a soft gaze often means that a horse is calm and relaxed, blinking can mean a bit of mental processing, a hard gaze can mean tenseness, and a wide-eyed look with whites showing can often mean fear and panic.
Giving them a good groom can create unbreakable bonds!
When you’re sure that your horse is calm albeit curious about you, allow them to smell you and get familiar with your scent. Gently lift your hand near their nose and allow them to sniff. A horse will often look away when they’re done, and depending on their mood, it may be best to give them space to process.
Allowing your horse to become comfortable with you doesn’t happen overnight. It can take days or weeks, and sometimes, even months. Engaging in regular horse bonding exercises gives your horse the chance to calmly get used to people.
Once your horse warms up to you, it becomes easier to recognize behaviors that signify affection. For one thing, a horse that loves you would confidently approach you. Behaviors that are accorded herd members in the wild are also translated to trusted humans. As noted by Horsey Hooves, breathing on you through the nostrils is a sign of trust, as horses do this among themselves. Nudging, and sometimes, grooming is also a behavior signifying familiarity. A horse laying their head on your shoulder and calmly following you around means that they respect you and trust you to look out for their welfare.
There are times, however, when you and a horse would not meet eye to eye. This can manifest in behaviors that include refusing to move, refusing to lower their head for the bridle or to follow commands, stepping on you, and physically being aggressive.
Before saying that your horse hates you, it’s important to first reflect on how you are acting around them. The Horse Fact Book notes that they react to their environment and to people’s demeanor–which is not necessarily a sign of dislike. Take note of the kind of energy you bring when you try bonding with your horse: Are you giving them ample affection, or do you just see the whole thing as a chore? If you come with positive energy, then trust that a huge percentage of the time, a healthy horse will bounce the same kind of energy at you.
Of course, there are exceptions. Horses that have gone through abuse and trauma may have a lot of trust issues. In these cases, while having a positive vibe helps, creating a relationship with your riding partner will take a lot more work.
Trauma can be caused by anything from a painful, ill-fitting saddle to years of being overworked and physically hurt. If you’re working with a rescue horse or reckon that your horse had previous traumatic experiences, you may want to hire the services of a compassionate horse trainer who can help process your riding partner’s fears.
Throughout the process, it’s highly important that your horse is made comfortable and that the healing goes at their own pace. For horses that have issues with saddling, gel saddle pads can help distribute weight better, keep the tack from slipping, and absorb shock.
While this is basic, always check if your horse's bit is fitted properly as ill-fitting ones can cause oral lesions on the corners of the mouth. Persistent rubbing and injury to this area may cause distress that can affect your horse’s demeanor. Constant pain can be a source of depression for your horse, so it’s a must to regularly inspect the gear to see if they are up to spec and comfortable.
Nothing beats the feeling of riding freely with your companion.
Horses that suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) understandably have a lot of trust issues. An HQ Magazine article highlights the importance of finding triggers in order to begin the healing process. Creating a new, healthy, and peaceful routine is a good way of reintroducing stability in a horse’s life. This can go hand-to-hand with desensitization to help overcome their trauma.
This step is best done in a place where the horse feels safe and secure. Desensitization means reintroducing an item or a situation that once caused pain in a more neutral manner. A simple example would be working with a horse that’s afraid of grooming tools. You can start by first holding out the tools and allowing your horse to approach and smell them. When these tools become familiar to them, you can run them gently over their body. Rewards such as horse treats can work in reinforcing a more positive experience. The goal is to reach a point where your horse is relaxed enough to realize that the tools will cause no harm (and will even afford snacks).
Desensitizing methods can help with bigger traumas, but many horses who have been overworked, neglected, and abused will need more than this. There are horses that shutdown and shut off from the world, and offer no reaction to any stimulus. Shutting down is a traumatized horse’s effort to keep themselves safe, as being quiet can help them avoid being seen and hurt.
Allowing your horse to go through therapy at their own pace can help a great deal in earning their trust. With the help of a horse trainer experienced in dealing with such cases, you can slowly and surely reintroduce a more positive world to your riding companion.
Always greet them with a warm and positive energy!
After earning your horse’s trust and respect, it’s important to continually nurture and strengthen that bond. The best way to do this is by spending a lot of time with them. On the saddle, doing groundwork exercises and occasional heavy training will teach you a lot about your horse’s behaviors and quirks. These will also improve the way you sense your riding partner’s mood, so much so that you’ll learn to interpret body language no matter how subtle.
Remember to be open to your horse’s feedback, as Horse Canada recommends. Observe how they react to certain commands or interactions, and adjust from there. Another good idea is to give time for a leisurely walk after vigorous activities to allow you to reach a state of relaxation together.
Off the saddle, gentle grooming is a good way to strengthen bonds. In the wild, horses groom each other as a way to affirm relationships. Regular grooming allows you to do the same, and has the added benefit of having the opportunity to check for physical issues.
Aside from grooming, massages can initiate contact and will help your horse relate your hands to a warm and pleasant experience. Horses who have experienced trauma and are having a hard time coming out of their shell benefit a lot from massages. This method helps relax muscles and allows your horse to release any physical, emotional, and mental tension.
A great bond can lead to great memories together!
As for how to bond with a grumpy horse, remember that like you, your partner also has not-so-good days. When a usually happy steed suddenly feels sullen or seems to be in a bad, agitated mood, always check their surroundings. Are there things that are spooking them? Are there people around that they are not comfortable with? If possible, take your partner to a quieter place where they feel safer.
You may also want to check for wounds, injuries, or anything that may be causing discomfort to your horse. Check with a vet if you don’t find anything but feel that something is wrong. Once the cause has been managed, your horse will be able to bounce back with your support.
Lastly, horses love calm people and environments best. Give yourself and your partner ample time to simply chill out together. Bouncing good energies from each other allows you to feel closer and creates good memories for you and your horse.
Remember that once your horse connects with you, it will trust you with their well-being. Make sure to provide them with the most comfortable saddle pads and bit accessories that will ensure their health and safety. Check out our collection below.
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