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How to Bond with Your Horse

Updated: Jan 27



A girl bonding with her horse

Have you been hearing all the talk about creating a deep connection with your horse? As natural horsemanship practices become more and more popular among equestrians, talk of relationship building exercises is becoming more prevalent as well. But whether or not you have heard the chatter, and regardless of the discipline you practice, building a strong bond with your equine friend is foundational and exponentially beneficial to your horsemanship.


In this post I am going to start at the very beginning with the fundamentals of how to start this process. An ongoing, ever evolving process, but essential first steps never the less. I will describe 5 ways to begin to build connection with your horse. This is not an exhaustive list, but each practice will offer you an opportunity to connect with your equine partner on a deeper level, opening doors to so many opportunities in any direction you wish to go.


1. Educate Yourself on Equine Behavior


You know your horse is an individual with his or her very own unique personality. And understanding your horse’s personality and temperament type will be key to building a relationship with them. But you will also want to have a solid understanding of general equine ethology first. This will help you read your horse and cue you into those special personality traits unique to him or her. It will also help you communicate with your horse effectively, and I think we all know how important communication is in any relationship. As I talk about often, a solid understanding of equine body language is one of the most important aspects of positive and successful horsemanship on many levels.


Other key subjects to study are equine anatomy, physiology, psychology, behaviorism, and herd dynamics. As our ability to study equines evolves, so too does our understanding of them. As humans, our dynamic with horses began in a pretty limited fashion, and consequently was limited to mainly resorting to fear and dominance tactics in our handling of them. Luckily, today we are learning more and more, and discovering ways to interact with much more compassionate and effective methods.


Even if you are a highly informed equestrian, keep on seeking knowledge, new ideas and perspectives. There are so many perspectives out there and always new tid-bits to learn that may make a world of difference. I am a firm believer in being a forever student of life, and forever a student of the horse. There is quite a bit of information out there these days on those subjects mentioned, and so my first piece of advice is to study. Study the science and study the art of horsemanship.


2. Observe Your Horse


The first step to deepening your connection (or beginning to create a connection at all) with your horse is quite simple. Just observe him or her. Watching horses is one of my favorite things to do and is a practice I always recommend.


Horses naturally live in herd settings and have established, as well as fluid roles amongst their herd members, which is integral to their sense of safety. Observe how your horse interacts with the other horses. This will clue you in to a few things, such as behavior common to equines in general, as well as personality and temperament type unique to your horse as an individual. Is your horse dominant and assertive with the other horses? Or submissive and more inclined to follow a trusted herd member? This understanding will be helpful later in allowing you to find the best approach to connecting with and eventually educating your horse. As you watch your horse and the others interact, you will also be strengthening your ability to read equine body language. This is integral to successful horsemanship, and you will need to have a keen eye in order to communicate effectively with your horse. Observing wild horses, whether in person (if you are lucky enough) or through videos, is a great way to begin learning about the natural behaviors of horses as well.


Although I mentioned natural horsemanship in my intro, I do want to note that I don’t believe horse and human relationships are necessarily natural. The dynamic has been created (part of why it can be viewed as an art form ;)), and therefore I believe that horsemanship is more about meeting somewhere in the middle, or finding common ground. Once you have observed your horse in a “natural” setting, you will then want to observe them in different types of environments and situations as well. For example, how does your horse respond to being in a completely new environment? Are they worried and on edge? Or are they curious and eager to check things out? Observe your horse when you take them away from the herd. Do they immediately become frantic and call to their friends, or do they look to you as a source of comfort or reassurance? This will cue you in to their confidence level with humans and may reflect on what types of relationships they had with people in the past.


There are innumerable situations in which you could observe your horse to get clues on what makes them tick. So, get creative and truly open yourself up to reading into your horse’s unique personality. Pair this with a solid knowledge of equine behavior and you will have a great start to knowing your horse on a deeper level.


3. Seek Self Awareness


Now that you are becoming more aware of your horse’s nature, it will also be very beneficial to become tuned into your own nature as well. The nature of relationship is between two beings after all. Knowing your horse’s personality type and tendencies will aid you in knowing what areas to work on with them, and in what way to approach these areas. But, knowing your own tendencies will allow you to know what areas you may need to work on within yourself as well. Just as in any healthy relationship, there needs to be a two-way street. If you expect your horse to put in the work, you must also be willing to do the work.


One beautiful thing about working with horses that is commonly noted is their ability to serve as a mirror. Horses reflect our emotional, mental, and even physical states in many ways when we interact with them. Your horse isn’t actually mirroring your actions per say, but horses are so tuned in and pay such close attention that they actually are responding to things that their human is doing that the human themself may not be aware of. This is why they are so often accredited with healing abilities. So, be prepared for your horse to show you certain parts of yourself that you may not look at often. Keep in mind though, that this means you have to actually be willing to look at the reflection without projection of preconceived notions.


But I also believe that it is very beneficial to do some self-work on your own and outside of the arena or round pen as well. This can improve your horsemanship and effectiveness in many ways. The more self-aware you are, then the more you will be able to tune into your emotional, mental, and physical states at any given time. Learning how to recognize your own triggers and gain control over your reactions will serve you immensely in all aspects of life, and definitely in your work with horses. Awareness is one of the most highly regarded attributes to a horse. Horses respect and trust other horses who are highly aware of their surroundings and of their fellow herd members. Being able to demonstrate this to your horse will be a great first step in convincing them that it is in their best interest to connect with you.


4. Be Consistent


A solid knowledge base, and awareness of self and of your horse are great, but they will be nothing without consistency. So, the next key factor to equine relational work that I would like to discuss is the importance of being consistent in the way you show up for your horse. Ultimately, consistency is what builds trust, and what is a relationship without trust anyway?

You can create consistency in many ways. Once you understand more about equine behaviorism, herd dynamics, and how horses use body language, you will have a much stronger ability to communicate with your horse.


So, start off by making sure that your communication is consistent. You can begin this process by defining the vocab, so to speak, that you will use with your horse. What I mean by this is choosing what cues you will use with your horse and what response you want from your horse in return from those cues. Then being consistent in your use and expectation of said cues.


There are many different ways to educate your horse on this vocab that you will be using. I will have other posts that discuss these different methods as well as what I believe to be the most kind and effective applications. But the point here is that whatever your process may be, it will be most effective if practiced consistently. You may need to play around with different methods to find what works best for your horse as he or she is a unique individual. While consistency is important, it is only beneficial if your process is efficient. If you are trying something and it is not working, this will either indicate that the application needs to be altered or a new approach may need to be considered all together. But once you find it, consistency in your process and application will be your best friend.


Again, remember that a healthy relationship is a two way street. So, not only should you be consistent in how you communicate your asks to your horse, but you should also be consistent in your acknowledgement of what your horse is communicating back to you.


Consistently showing up and being present with yourself and your horse in the moment will be very beneficial as well. This means that you will want to be able to observe your own mental, emotional, and physical state, as well as those states within your horse, and still be able to react with a steady energy appropriate to the moment. We all experience good days and not so good days (our horses included), and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you recognize that you may not be able to show up for your horse in a calm and encouraging manor, maybe choose not to do goal-oriented work in that moment. Instead, maybe just hang out around your horse and do something to regulate your own nervous system.


5. Build Confidence


Confidence is key! Helping your horse to build confidence in themself and in you will be a game changer if you want them to want to bond with you. And in order to do this, you are going to need to have confidence in yourself and your abilities as well. Mindset is very important here which is a large part of why I am writing this article with these specific tips and in this order. By starting with an informed knowledge base you will automatically feel that much more confident because you will be taking a lot of the guess work out of it. As mentioned before, horses are highly sensitive, and you better believe they know when you are questioning yourself. In fact, I believe it was Ray Hunt who is commonly quoted as saying, “they know when you know, and they know when you don’t know.”


Be willing to be humble enough to admit if you are not yet confident in your abilities or knowledge. If this is the case my best advice is to seek out a knowledgeable instructor/trainer who is aligned with your vision and work and learn with them. Regardless of where we are on our horsemanship journey, we all have things to learn!


Another important aspect of building confidence in both yourself, and in your horse, is to have realistic expectations. Remember to not put yourself in a position that you are not prepared for. If you ask your horse to do something that may be challenging for them, make sure you are fully prepared to respond appropriately to how they react. Likewise, be sure to have realistic expectations of your horse. You wouldn’t want to ask a question of your horse that you haven’t taught them how to find the answer to yet. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to present a challenge for your horse that you haven’t given them the tools to use to work out said challenge with.


If you follow these steps laid out in this post so far you will already be on your way to helping your horse build their confidence as well. A confident handler will be reassuring to both the shy or pushy horse, and a consistent practice with consistent energy will help your horse trust that they can rely on you and allow them to know what to expect. All of this will be a huge confidence boost.


There are plenty of specific exercises intended for confidence building with your horse which I will discuss in a future post as well.


Conclusion


All in all, there are many paths you can take to creating a genuine connection with your horse and truly building a loving and trusting partnership. So be open to discovering the path that is best suited for your unique dynamic with your horse and then apply these foundational points to your practice. And as always never stop learning!


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