At Horse Listening, we are emphatic life-long learners of all things horsey. You will be reminded time and again about how there is so much to be learned from horses and other horse people, if only we listened.
This guest post is written by Lindsey Rains, who is an equestrian blogger and creator of Alta Mira Horsemanship. She focuses on communication between horse and rider, with an emphasis in kind training tactics. She resides in Auburn, WA, USA, with her husband, and daylights as a non-profit administrator. Visit her blog. You can also follow her on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
One of my favorite movies as a young girl was My Friend Flicka: A misunderstood girl reaches out to an equally misunderstood mare from the wild. Together, they both transform through the deep bond they create. I am convinced this is every horse-crazy girl’s dream. It certainly was mine! This is what many of our friends think that their first trip to the barn with us will be like, also.
But we all find out pretty quickly that most interactions with equines are not a magical encounter. Most of our time with horses involves work, persistence, and routines--not quite what the movies would characterize as the essential elements of the equine-human relationship.
And yet, these movies still tug at our heartstrings. Sea Biscuit, Hidalgo, and The Black Stallion speak to a deep truth about humankind’s relationship with horses: that it all comes down to partnership.
Partnership: Is it Just for the Movies?
I think the reason why we are drawn to these movies is because we know that we can bond with these strong, sensitive, and intelligent creatures. The experience of that partnership is indescribable until you have experienced it. But is that partnership an anomaly?
The drama of storytelling aside, I think all of us can experience partnership with every horse we encounter, even if we haven’t gone through a harrowing event or a mighty quest with that horse.
To Be the Leader is to Be the Friend
If you’ve studied a herd structure with any handful of horses, the central question is always “Who is the leader?” Every single horse is unsettled until that question is resolved. Once an order is established, the entire group is at peace.
The same can be said for your horse when you first interact with him. When I was a youngster, all the barn girls used to joke about how every new horse would push your buttons in the first lesson. Could it be because every horse needs to find out who is the leader in that initial encounter?
I have found that most horses, with very few exceptions, ultimately want their handler to be their leader. Though we have dominance struggles with our horses periodically, knowing that they don’t have to make the tough decisions in a life-and-death situation is a huge relief for the horse.
Of course, we don’t have to face life-and-death situations to show them that. All we need is to show that we are trustworthy and willing to stand our ground. This, in turn, will make our horse feel that they are both cared for and protected. Given this trust, their best talents will be able to rise to the surface when you ride them.
How to Gain A Partnership with Any Horse:
Maybe you don’t own a horse and are taking lessons or riding a friend’s horse. Perhaps you own several horses, and trying to bond with each and every one of them feels daunting. Here is a way to quickly lay down the foundation for a partnership with any horse at any time. Upon this foundation you can continue to build trust and a positive history with that given horse, and cause all your work together to be spectacular.
The Five Key Ingredients for Partnership Are:
- Boundaries: Every horse is more settled knowing exactly what you expect of them. Beyond the basics of no biting, kicking, or invading your personal space, be firm when their attitude is aggressive, pushy, or wild. Then soften when they are obedient, inquisitive, and calm. Horses settle and work their hardest to please you when they know what is expected of them.
- Consistency: As you make your boundaries clear, be consistent with them. A horse will get confused when you allow bad behavior in one moment, then punish him the next. By keeping your responses consistent, the horse will be able to rely on you. Consistency is vital to have in your composure, as well. By remaining as relaxed as possible in every situation, the horse’s baseline temperament will be calmer also.
- Kindness: Do not be harsh or over-reactive in your correction. The source of all your guidance should be kindness. Take a little extra time to hang out with the horse when you’re not “working”. Bring them an apple, spend a few minutes lightly massaging them in their stall, or even talk to them as they graze. Small moments are more than enough to reinforce trust.
- Communication: Just like consistency, clear communication is integral to riding a relaxed horse. If you send your horses several signals at once (or over or under-communicate), they will be confused and either get fidgety, spooky, or withdrawn. Being really clear about your riding aids will deepen their trust in you and reinforce your leadership.
- Reward: This last step is the most important: always look for ways to reward the horse. Let him walk, pat his neck, give him a treat, or put him away for the day when you see good behavior, breakthroughs, and accomplishments. You can provide all the structure and guidance you want in order to be the leader. But with reward, the horse’s respect will transform into loyalty.
How Partnership Will Revolutionize Your Riding
In all reality, bonding with a horse is not just for the movies. Partnership makes all the difference when we handle, rehabilitate, ride, and train any given horse. Having grown up riding lesson horse after lesson horse, I know how it feels to try to figure out how to bond with a horse that you may never ride again. When I finally discovered that a horse’s trust was simply anchored in kind leadership, every encounter with a new horse involved that beautiful element of partnership--and it can for you, too.
What comes to mind when you think about partnership with a horse? What has been your best bonding moment?
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