Tips From A Pro: Strengthening The Bond Between Horse & Rider

July 01, 2021 9 min read

Tips From A Pro: Strengthening The Bond Between Horse & Rider

Horseback riding is a sport based entirely on partnership. Unfortunately, as equestrians we have to find ways to communicate with our partners even though we do not speak the same language. We must learn to not only find ways to communicate clearly with our horses through our aids, but we must also convince our partners to trust us in all situations.

The top riders in every discipline will tell their followers that they were able to be successful due to their partnership with their horses and that they could not have done it with another. Every time we groom our horses, lunge them, graze them in the field, and ride them we are forming a bond. The relationship between a horse and rider will often determine how well they work together and it will often determine how successful they become.

What Does A Good Bond Look Like?

A good bond can look and feel a little different to every person, but there are some key things that can make you look at a horse-human relationship and think “they work REALLY well together!”

Mutual Trust

One thing that can show a good bond is how much of a mutual trust you have with your horse. When you are faced with a challenging or scary situation, how does your horse react? Does your horse run? Does your horse get close to you or look to you for reassurance? If you tell your horse it is okay, do they trust that and move forward with the task at hand?

You can tell that a horse and a rider have a positive relationship when the horse trusts the rider to get them through a new situation. This could be making it over a new jump, staying calm during a new desensitizing exercise, riding in a new arena or on a new trail, taking a horse to its first show, or many others. It is okay if your horse is unsure of the new situation, the important thing is that it trusts you to work through it together.

Having Fun

Another thing that shows a good bond is how much fun you and your horse have together. Does your horse come up to you in the field? Do you get excited to go ride your horse in your freetime? Now, of course that does not mean EVERY ride has to be fun and if your horse runs from you in the field it does NOT always mean you have a bad relationship. Horses are just like children. Some days they are more distracted and more difficult to work with, some days they just want to play with their friends. Those are the days you just have to look past and hope for better luck tomorrow.

Photo by Brittany Jones

What Can Hurt A Bond?

Some horses are easier to get to trust you than others, but almost all of them are capable of trusting in some capacity. The way a horse is treated throughout its life can cause it to either be very trusting or to not trust people easily.

Horses that have a difficult time trusting often have similar past lives. They often come with a history of abuse, a traumatic experience, or they have not been handled very much.

Past Trauma

I worked for a barn that had two ponies from the same previous barn. The two came in together and they both had very similar fears; one of the biggest ones being their fear for farriers. The two had such strong worries when around a farrier, that it seemed pretty likely that they had an experience in the past that was not positive in their minds. Now, this could have been from a farrier who actually was too stern with them or possibly even abusive, or the farrier could have been put in a bad situation (a dark area, lots of scary noises around, etc.). Whatever the situation, however, it was our job to get the ponies to improve their horse-human relationships. We worked on having me work on trimming their feet in very positive situations like when the barn was quiet, the ponies had just gotten exercised so they were tired, and with lots of treats involved. It was very important to work slowly and to make sure every experience was positive. If it ever got to be too much, we would postpone it to a better day. A key to horse training is to try to end on a positive note every time. Your horse will go back and think about the last thing you did with them, so make sure it is a positive thing to think about!

Needs Not Being Met

Horses that have been deprived of their needs (feed, water, exercise, safety, etc.) can become untrusting of humans because of their lack of care in the past. This becomes even more challenging if they were physically abused as well. These horses are often the most difficult to bond with and take the most effort to earn their trust, but they will be eternally loving when they do trust you. Sometimes the horses have been taken care of, just not handled very much. If they are older when they start getting handled it is even more important to be patient since they have been without human interaction most of their lives. A young horse who grows up in a show barn with a lot of handling will be easier to work with than an older horse who is not worked with daily. For these horses, and for young horses in general, it is important to have positive exposure often and in short spurts. Do not plan to do one really long session once a week, this will overwhelm them and often cause them to get more worried. Plan on 15-20 minute sessions every day and increase from there to get the most positive progress.

Blamed For Mistakes

A horse can also learn to be untrusting if they are blamed for rider mistakes. They often will learn to do bad habits in order to get out of situations and avoid the pain that follows. When I was in college we had a horse donated to us that would bolt after jumps ONLY if a mistake was made. It did not matter if it was his fault or the rider’s (although I will say 99% of the time mistakes are due to rider error), he always would expect to be blamed. At first, my trainer said to halt him as quickly as possible, but this seemed to just make the bolting worse. She eventually said, “what do you feel up there?” and I said, “he feels like he is worried-running, he is not TRYING to be bad, he just expects to be blamed for every mistake.” So the next jump I purposefully took a short spot since I knew it would upset him, and when he bolted I just stayed with him, talked calmly to him, and slowly brought him back. After that he became instantly more trusting of me and it was only strengthened with every ride until he got to where he would not get quick with me at all since he felt more trusting of me.

I see riders blaming horses for their mistakes in all disciplines and it really does make a huge difference in the horses’ bond with humans. Not only does this cause the horses to actually be fearful of mistakes, but it also takes a lot of accountability out of the rider. It is important to have a good riding routine.

What Can Help A Bond?

Exercises

There are many trust exercises that you can find on the internet using various methods like natural horsemanship to improve your trust with your horse. There are many groundwork exercises like “joining up” with your horse to help them understand you are their leader, but you are also approachable and looking to work together. Sometimes doing desensitizing training incorrectly can create a spookier horse than you started with, so make sure you do your research and work with a knowledgeable horseman if you need assistance. You will need to pay attention to your horse’s behavior and body language to make sure that you are not pushing your horse too far out of their comfort zone.

Setting Up for Success

It is important to a horse that you are always setting them up for success and never failure. Sometimes you have to look at your horse’s anatomy and see if they are actually capable of doing what you are asking of them. A horse with a longer back may have a more difficult time doing lead changes. A larger horse may have a harder time turning tightly or stopping quickly. The horse in the previous example also had a confirmation flaw called being “over at the knees” that caused him to have a limit to how high he could jump. If he were to be asked to jump higher he would stop at the fence, but it was not due to him being bad, it was due to him fearing the pain that accompanied it. However if we stayed within his range, we would have virtually no difficulties while on course. Make sure you look into why your horse is having problems and if it actually has to do with the bond or with a physical difficulty. Your bond will grow stronger and stronger the more you choose options that will allow you both to succeed.

Tack

It is also important to check your horse’s tack and make sure that nothing is upsetting them and causing them to fear being ridden. You should make sure that your saddle fits correctly, you are using the correct pad for you and your horse (like the Kavallerie Gel Pads), you are using the correct boots for your discipline (like the Pro-K Support Boots or Pro-K Tendon Boots), and you have any extra protection needed (like a bit guard) to keep your horse comfortable while being ridden.

Photo by Brittany Jones

Reassurance

I have often found that the more reassuring I am to a horse, the more likely they are to trust me during difficult situations. If I know a horse is going to be stressed out, say they are sometimes scared of new jumps and new situations, then I will do everything in my power to show them that it is okay and that they can trust me to get them through it unharmed. This is much easier when you have a bond with your horse and have proven to keep them safe in situations in the past. However, you can do this even with a horse you barely know if you play your cards right. If I know a horse is anxious I will usually scratch their withers since it releases endorphins and makes them relax (you can see horses do this to each other in the wild or in turnout when they mutually groom each other). I also like to let them calmly see whatever it is that is worrying them. I make sure to tell the horse that it must go forward (unless in a situation where we can avoid the problem altogether) but that it is welcome to do so at its own pace. I am just there for reassurance that it is all okay. Often, once the horse touches the object once or twice it learns that it is nothing to worry about anymore. I talk more about managing common riding problemshere.

Frequent Breaks

A horse will often trust you more and enjoy your presence more if it is not ALWAYS expecting work. You should make time to just hang out with your horse: graze them in a field, give them a bath (if they enjoy them), deeply groom them, or take them for an easygoing trail ride. Figure out what makes your horse the happiest and the most comfortable and make time to incorporate that into your routine. Just like people tend to trust other people more when they hang out (and when the other person is not always in an intimidating role), your horse will relax more with you if you are often doing fun things together.

Although most horse and rider pairs show a unique bond, there are many common problems to cause a horse to be less trusting and many common practices to increase your bond with your horse. Make sure that you frequently evaluate your partnership to make sure that your horse feels comfortable with you and the situations you are put in. Make adjustments as needed like with ill-fitting tack or with changing your goals if your horse’s anatomy does not allow you to get to where you wanted to be.