How To Improve Your Relationship With Your Horse
How To Improve Your Relationship With Your Horse
(without going “all in”)
I’ve been thinking on this one for a bit. It’s really easy to get on social media and look at all these amazing equestrians with amazing relationships with their horse and be jealous, yet confused as to how they got there ... when you feel like it’s a struggle just to catch your horse for lessons. OR, you have the opposite response; the response of disbelief or even judgement and mockery. Brushing it all aside without a second thought, because "that's just trick training, or fake."
These are both common responses to have when reading captions that sound a lot like a Hollywood movie sometimes; talking about giving the horse choices and using force free methods. You just shake your head thinking it all sounds like a make believe and absolutely impractical for “normal” horse training and ownership. It all just sounds a little too... "kooky" for you.
To be honest, I’ve been in both camps. In the past I’ve wondered, envied, questioned, laughed at, and even brushed past all that impractical horse training stuff... yet I still wanted that "connection" and "relationship" with my horse, so I started exploring ideas. I told myself "I'd never be that crazy", but surely there was something more than what I had... just more practical than what they "supposedly" had (the very realist, disbelieving inner me speaking). Until one day, not long ago, I realized that I was no longer the disbelieving confused person, but actually the one that people were questioning, laughing at, brushing past, wondering ... and (I’ve been told) envying. How did this happen? How did I end up here? Writing what sounds like “impractical fluff” about having a more positive force free relationship with my horses. I can hear my past self laughing at me... and I wish I could go back in time and tell myself what I’m about to tell you. Are you ready? Here’s the truth.
It IS practical, it IS real, you just need to take it one step at a time and stay open minded.
While some of what you see in social media IS fictional fluff, there absolutely is a way to work force free with your horse; to deepen your relationship with your horse, and to be able to do it in a very practical and safe way.
There are two ways to go about it too. There’s the cold turkey way, where you drop everything you’re doing and completely change everything you’ve ever believed and done in one fell swoop, and then there’s the baby steps way... where you start off with bite size chunks and build on it. The cold turkey way is usually the better choice for the horse, but sometimes humans find this impractical or too challenging so we often need time to adjust and change the way we think and do things.
I know many people that transitioned the cold turkey way, and in many ways it’s faster and better, but personally I transitioned in smaller bits over time. This felt safer and more manageable for me, as I was having to explore the idea on my own and had no idea where to start.. or really that I was “starting” at all. Life just has its way of starting you down new paths without you even realizing it sometimes.
One baby step at a time I learned to let go of old habits and out dated truths, gradually making changes that carried me further and further from the old style relationship I had with my horses; a relationship where they didn’t care to be caught and only did what I said because they had to. To a new place, where my horses truly enjoyed my company and working with me; something I never thought I would have... or even thought existed except on social media. It does though, it exists, you just have to be willing to make changes.
As I changed and grew in this new area of my horsemanship I also became more aware of the short comings in the relationship I had with my horses, in their performances and behavior, things I never recognized before as a problem until I was made aware. Really it was like having sunglasses or blinders on. I knew our relationship wasn't the stuff of fairy tales, but it also didn't seem too bad.. until one day I could see the whole picture.. suddenly everything was so blindingly clear to me how bad it had really been.
So, if you’re like me.. and you want to have a better relationship with your horse but have questioned the practicality or just don't know where to start.. Maybe you’re still uncertain or maybe you have life restrictions (like doubting trainers and family members, etc) that are preventing you from going “all in”. Maybe you don't think your relationship is that bad with your horse but you'd like to do a little better. I’ve got some ideas for you. Your first “baby steps” if you will.
I do want to encourage you to start here, but not end here too. We are wading in at the shallow end, but the deep end is magnificent. Let this just be the beginning of your journey, there’s more waiting for you.
Demand Free Time
This one I personally struggle with the most. I’m so restricted on the amount of time I can spend with my horses I end up placing a lot of pressure to “accomplish” and “achieve” during the time we do have, but all this ever “accomplishes” is a horse that views me as someone who demands, demands, demands. Horses are incredibly passive and quiet animals that really don’t thrive in high pressure and goal oriented environments. And even if you are a low-key, low stress, “recreational” rider, chances are you’re still more demanding than you think.
If you ever “expect” your horse to act a certain way, or have an exercise/training routine, you’re more demanding than you think. I’m not saying those things are necessarily “bad”, but they can have a negative impact on your relationship with your horse.... so we need to counter that with plenty of demand free time.
For me this time looks like taking my horse into the arena and letting them loose, then I walk around casually or I sit on the mounting block, and I just relax with my horse. If they come up to me we have a little grooming/rubbing/scratching session, but they are free to wander off if they like.
Another way I achieve this is in-hand grazing/exploring/walking. This is a little tricky because this time can quickly become incredibly demanding of the horse if you’re dictating how the horse must behave or where they must go. For my horses I can casually walk them a little away from the barn without any stress then toss the lead rope over their neck (or unclip it) and just walk with them. However, if your horse becomes anxious when away from his buddies or the barn, or maybe they pull and drag you and your not able to let them dictate the walk then this isn’t demand free time and could be stressful for both of you.
One more thing you could do is go sit in the pasture! Same idea as being in the arena, but now you’re in a situation where you don’t have to risk any stress on the horse and you’re actually going to improve the future “voluntary catching”, so it’s a win win! Feel free to reward the horse any time they come up to you with a nice scratch, or if your horse is good with food (meaning they don’t become anxious or pushy), a little low value food reward is a nice idea too.
Bonus: To magnify the power of demand free time, leave your horse in their pasture or return them back to their pasture after. No riding, no training.... just make the whole experience enjoyable for the horse and show them not every time you’re there you expect something of them.