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.
Make Training Fun And Rewarding!
Again, you don't have to use clicker training to integrate positive reinforcement into your regular training. Though I encourage you to just start here and not end here, this is a great place to begin working with positive reinforcement. This is often how I work with new clients that are inexperienced with clicker training and/or maybe in a situation where working with clicker training isn't ideal to begin with.
You don't have to use food either to work with positive reinforcement! Many horses really enjoy scratches, verbal praise, and rest. Other forms of positive reinforcement might be...
Allowing your horse through the gate they wanted to go through but were being a bit pushy, wait until they step back or away then open the gate. The horse finds going through the gate rewarding, that's positive reinforcement.
Ending a ride as soon as your horse does something you like! Even take off the saddle and bridle and let them have a good roll in the arena. Horses often find not being ridden anymore rewarding, this is positive reinforcement for doing the right thing!
When you're preparing a meal and carrying it to your horse, wait until they stop pawing or have their ears forward THEN give them their food. This is positive reinforcement for the behavior you like! No hitting, shouting, chasing back, needed. You'll see a change in behavior quickly!
Scratches! Lots of scratches the minute your horse does the thing you like. Whether that's staying out of your space, picking up that nice trot, moving forward, going over a jump.. etc. No patting, just scratches. And try doing the scratches in the horse's "sweet" spot if you can. Or on or in front of the withers is usually a nice place for the horse.
Allowing the horse to graze can be a reward! Let's say you're working on picking up a nice trot under saddle or practicing some ground work, when the horse does it just a little better or has an "ah ha!" moment, take them to some near by grass for a few minutes as their reward.
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This concept/practice can be as simple to as complex as you and your horse are comfortable making it. You just need to find what you guys enjoy together. Remember, none of this is forced and may take some time to introduce the horse to them.
Some ideas are....
Playing soccer together to using free shaping (mentioned previously) , where you alternate running and pushing the ball around at liberty.
Puzzle Toys/Scent Work like some of these pictured, where the horse works to find the food.
Playing fetch can also be fun for some horses! But may require some training with free shaping first.
Hide-and-go-seek is fun for many horses, where the horse has to find you! And when they do, they get a big reward. (Bonus: also helps with voluntary catching!)
Shorter Training Sessions
Working horses to a point of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion is really common unfortunately. Even trainers that talk about wanting to always “end on a good note” tend to be referring to what THEY think is a “good” note, not what the horse thinks is a good note.
I talk more about this subject in my blog post “mental rest”, and we will talk more about emotions in a moment, but first I want to address the mental stamina of most horses and this idea of how long training sessions should be.
I would say, from personal experience, an hour is the minimum average time most equestrians expect their horses to be “on” , mentally. Physically they may only be exerting energy for thirty minutes of that, but when you take into consideration that asking a horse to stand still for grooming, leading, etc all requires mental engagement from the horse and is active training we may be expecting a lot from our horses.. especially when that “hour” turns into multiple hours or even whole days as we trail ride long distance or participate in training clinics or even when we go to shows. I’ve known people to just sit on their horses in between show classes or tests... this isn’t rest for the horse, at least not mentally.
Sure, your horse may continue to be obedient and continue to perform as expected... but asking your horse to go above and beyond their mental capacity can quickly become a negative experience to the horse. Shortening the time we expect our horses to stay “engaged” with us decreases that mental fatigue they may experience, which in turn helps improve motivation and positive relationships.
In short, stop training while the HORSE (not you) still wants to do more! You’ll create anticipation for the next session, and show the horse you’re acknowledging and respecting their limitations. Over time you can slowly increase the length of training sessions, but be prepared for the fact that it may never be as long as we’ve all been taught to expect of our horses.
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One of the best ways to strengthen your relationship with your horse is to give them a choice on whether or not they want to be caught. Whether it's from the pasture or the stall, this a great way to allow your horse to “tell you” how they feel about working with you or how they are feeling that day, but in order for this to work you have to accept their answer! Giving your horse the option to work with you or not can really expose the underlying emotions your horse experiences during their time with you.
In the beginning “no’s” may come often, or all the time. This may be due to physical discomfort or negative emotional responses to training and handling. Either way, it’s a huge red flag that something needs to change! A horse that doesn’t want to be caught is a horse that doesn’t enjoy being around you. That may sound harsh, but if being ridden equals pain (from the saddle, training techniques etc), or maybe they know that when you’re around they are taken away from their buddies and everything they find safe and reassuring.. they naturally will view your presence as negative.
So no matter how much “bonding” you do once you finally catch your horse, it’ll all be shadowed by the negative emotions they experience during that first interaction each day; especially if it results in you chasing them around until they are too tired to refuse to be caught.
Free Shaping Sessions
You don’t have to take up full time clicker training and positive reinforcement to utilize the power of positive reinforcement. Start by adding short regular sessions of free shaping into your regular routine and you’ll start seeing big changes!
Set your horse up in protected contact (a stall door or a fence between you and the horse), get out some low value treats (like hay pellets), get yourself a clicker (or your voice), a feed pan, and a hand held or stationary object, and start introducing a target to your horse. You can read and watch more about target training on my blog post “getting started with clicker training”, but it’s really easy to do and a great way to activate your horses brain and connect with your horse in a positive motivating way.
I recommend the following when doing these sessions...
Do them on days you aren’t going to be doing much else, maybe a rainy day or a rest day.
Keep the sessions brief (five to ten minutes), too long and the horse will become fatigued mentally.
Make sure other food sources are available like hay or grass to avoid food anxiety/frustration.
Do them towards the end of your time with the horse that day, such as after grooming and any maintenance care. Try not to create a situation where you have to go right from free shaping to having to go halter and move the horse or do any other handling, especially in the beginning.
When your done leave a handful or two of treats in the pan and walk away to let your horse know the session is over, even if you need to do more with the horse after the session. Believe it or not, you leaving can be aversive to the horse once the horse understands how rewarding these sessions are! The “jackpot” at the end makes it less frustrating for the horse and also tells them “great job!”
Over time you can introduce more and make the task more challenging, but start small and experience the excitement and motivation your horse and you can have together!
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Familiarize Yourself With Updated Behavioral Science
This point goes right along with the next two suggestions I have, but is slightly different so it deserves it's own section. A lot of horse training is still based on outdated or never researched behavioral theories; theories like dominance and submission, herd hierarchies, horse to human respect and more. Being aware of what's inaccurate and what's accurate can make or break not only the effectiveness of your training but also the relationship you have with you horse. If your training and interactions with your horse are based off of a theory or an idea... while your horse is actually behaving and communicating on an entirely different level... that's going to create a lot of tension and frustration for both you and your horse.
Making sure we are always learning, always willing to accept (or at least consider) new updated science and research, is part of the horsemanship journey! Just because something has always been done this way or that doesn't mean it's accurate. There are a lot of things that humans have done in the past that we now know to be harmful or based on inaccurate information. At the time, that was just all we knew.. but now we know better, so we need to act on the new information, not hold on to the old information.
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Respecting and Understanding Equine Emotions
Emotions are not something we are often taught to consider during horse training. Considering how the horse feels and responds to situations at a core level has been something we've not even considered doing until fairly recently. A lot of this is due to the way we've always viewed horses in the past, as equipment or machinery, but thankfully things are changing!
You can deepen your relationship with your horse by showing them you understand they are living beings with emotions and feelings. This doesn't mean you should start attributing human attributes to them though, they are still their own animal with their own emotions and needs. Humanizing them is just as dangerous as ignoring their emotions all together.
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Learn to Listen To Body Language
Without being able to listen to what our horses are telling us, we can't know how they feel about being around us or working with us. We can't even know how our training is impacting them for the better or for the worse without "listening" very closely to how they speak.. which is through their body.
Obedience alone does not dictate the quality of training, even a very "obedient" and uncomplicated horse may be experiencing a lot of stress and aversion to training, and we can usually tell this by watching their body language. Instead, we want our horses to enjoy their work, to enjoy being with us and deepen that relationship with them. We can't achieve this though if everything we do with them they are clearly expressing dislike for, and that's where learning to listen comes in.
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Provide A Species Appropriate Lifestyle and Diet
This is a BIG one. Every animal has a unique lifestyle and unique species specific needs. For example, horses are wandering grazing animals that are designed to live in the open within a social system (the herd). On the other hand, an animal like a fox is a solitary creature burrowing for safety and hunting periodically. Both of these animals require an entirely different lifestyle, and those lifestyles should be respected even in captivity.
Though the horse may not directly associate you with the way it's being able to live... allowing them to live as close to a natural state as possible reduces frustration, stress, and the potential development of behavioral "problems". This in turn can make a huge impact on your relationship with your horse. If your horse is experiencing stressors regularly through the environment and then you show up to train with your horse.. you're asking an already frustrated animal to be obedient and willing.
For example, extended periods of stalling. While stalls are convenient for humans in many ways, they are not suitable for horses. Short periods of stall rest for injury or during particularly bad weather may be necessary, but shouldn't be a horse's every day life. Horses are designed to be moving around 17 hours a day, when we stall our horses we restrict that movement a LOT. All of that energy typically spent in moving that's now being "bottled up" can become both a mental and a physical form of stress for the horse.
Not only that, we usually withhold grazing sources during that time as well. Horses are designed to spend approximately 60 to 70% of their day grazing. Cribbing, biting, aggression, pacing, wind sucking, and more are typical results of this restricted ability to graze (and move), but the behavioral and physical issues that can arise from this inappropriate lifestyle are too numerous to list. And yet... we expect our horses to be 100% well behaved all the time after putting them through endless hours of stress each day.
One last one to mention, though there are many more I could put on this list, is social interaction! Like I mentioned before, horses are social creatures that not only enjoy the company of other horses but actually require it for survival. At least, that's how they are programmed. In a domestic environment we know that they are safe and that they may actually be even safer in a solitary lifestyle (no kicks and bites), but your horse doesn't see it this way.. and we need to respect that. Separating a horse from its herd or restricting socialization is inappropriate for the species and causes unnecessary stress on their bodies and mind.
Give Them The Benefit Of The Doubt
This is another "large scope" point, meaning that it encompasses a large area of possible causes and outcomes. The point I want to make here mostly is that you horse always has as reason for what it does, and we need to constantly be problem solving rather than blaming the horse for something we don't like. Often times the humans are the direct cause of the "bad" behavior, and we need to first look to ourselves before looking to the horse.
Even once we do look to the horse, it needs to be along the lines of "is the horse is pain?" "is the environment too stressful?" "maybe he's ill or having an off day." "maybe there's something missing in his diet." We should never interact with our horses in such a way where the horse is to blame for anything. Horses do what they are taught or what they naturally do and nothing else.
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This is probably going to be a two part series, I can feel more ideas sitting in the back of my head, but I think this first installment is plenty heavy enough to get you started! I hope you found it helpful and I encourage you to consider adding some of these ideas into your horse's life. Over time you'll begin to see positive changes (some quick, some gradual) in your relationship with your horse that may just get you hooked into trying more. ;)
And please.. don't hesitate to share this post (with credit), comment, ask questions, email me.. anything!
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