You are so excited about your new horse and just want him to love you as much as you love him! You want him to be happy and feel safe whenever he is with you. And you want him to do his job willingly.
It is possible to get your horse to do just about anything you want him to do, but if you know anything about reading equine body language and behaviour, you know there are a lot of miserable horses out there doing all the things they are asked to do.
If you want your horse to willingly interact with you even after you have finished riding, that’s about creating a true bond, a true connection.
You have probably heard at some point that in order to bond with your horse, you need to be the leader or the boss in the relationship – but that’s based on an outdated understanding of equine behaviour and herd dynamics. The current understanding, which comes from evidence-based studies of feral horses, is that horses within a herd develop relationships between individuals. There is no top-down hierarchy. And because horses want to save their energy for when they need to run away from danger, there is very little conflict within the herd.
In a true partnership, both individuals get something positive from the relationship. So what’s in it for your horse? How can you make every interaction with you pleasant for him? When you can do that, your horse will want to be with you. He will even meet you at the gate so you don’t have to “catch” him in the paddock.
Let’s look at things from his perspective first. Most horses have many different owners during their lifetimes and face multiple changes, from being weaned and taken away from their mothers, to being sold privately or through auctions. Even having the same owner for many years can still see them moving from one boarding facility to another.
It can take several months – even over a year – for a horse to truly settle in to a new home. Everything changes when he moves. He leaves behind the people and horses he knows and has formed relationships with. He has to adjust to new people, new horses, and a different routine, all in a different environment.
You can help your new horse out by:
- Being as consistent in your behaviour and routines as possible.
- Allowing him a few days (even a couple of weeks) in his new home before working with him. Basically, just hang out with him without asking anything of him.
- Introduce him to the area by taking him for hand walks. Allow him to graze and check out this new place. Keep the walks short at first and pay attention to his stress level.
- Remember to focus on making it an enjoyable experience for him. So be sure to avoid overwhelming him by slowly and carefully expanding his comfort zone.
- Get to know where your horse enjoys being groomed and scratched. Start with the usual neck and withers. But also carefully investigate other areas, especially those places that are harder for him to reach himself. It has been shown that scratching around the horse’s withers and base of the neck can actually lower a horse’s heart rate and help him to relax. Horses naturally bond through mutual grooming; touch is an important aspect of their lives (just as it is for humans).
- Horses love to play. Come up with some interesting games that will get him using his brain. Hiding treats around the arena (you might need to help him find them at first). Put a bit of apple or carrot on top of a jump standard or fence post, or hide some underneath cones that are spread around the arena. Be creative and have fun.
- Find out what preferences your horse has in treats. Which does he choose first when offered a selection of apple, carrot, watermelon, banana, parsnips, celery, cantaloupe, grapes, turnip, or mint? Try picking different types of grasses and see which he prefers.
- Use positive reinforcement with your training. Telling your horse what he’s doing right and rewarding him with praise, a treat, or a good scratch means he will be more likely to repeat that behaviour. Positive reinforcement is a highly effective training method and it really can improve your relationship because your horse associates you with good feelings and experiences.