There is more and more talk in the horsemanship realms these days about how to connect with and build a relationship with your horse (or mule or donkey, etc.). This is great and is definitely very important if you want to create a pleasant and rewarding dynamic between you and your horse.
I will share an article on how to start with relationship building work in an upcoming post. But first, let’s talk about why this relationship is so important and foundational to your horsemanship. Personally, I believe genuine connection is at the core of the magic that exists in this world in all areas of life, and it’s no different when it comes to working with horses. But there are very practical reasons for it as well.
In this article I will discuss some of the many benefits of creating a relationship between you and your horse, ranging from the practical to the philosophical. The instinctual social nature of equines makes connection work integral to positive and effective practice and learning. Relational work with horses also provides increased safety for all beings involved, as well as other positive side effects such as the ability to recognize subtleties in your animal partner and to understand their unique personality. And of course, the trust that is built which can open doors to so so many possibilities, including shifts in expectations of your horse and of yourself.
Horses are Social by Nature
Horses and all equines are inherently social creatures. Their very survival (or sense of survival for domestic horses) depends on relationships within the herd, and therefore they are literally hardwired to be herd bound. This term “herd bound” is commonly used among equestrians with a somewhat negative association along with terms like “separation anxiety” and” buddy sour.”
This is because often times a horse will be unable to be mentally present with their handler when taken away from their fellow equines. Of course, this makes any “training”/educating of the horse, or goal-oriented work, that much more difficult or even potentially dangerous.
It is very understandable then to have such feelings of frustration with this common issue. But once you know the depth at which horses rely on relationships, it also becomes very understandable why they react the way they do to anything that infringes on those relationships. With this understanding you can then begin to approach the issues that arise when your horse is separated from their group, by learning how to provide him or her with what they usually get from their herd mates from you as well. And understanding is a key building block to genuine connection.
Now it is important to keep in mind that you will never be able to completely replace what other horses have to offer your horse. I do believe all horses should have at least one other equine in their life that they are able to build a relationship with if at all possible. If you are willing to do the work to build a true connection with your horse though, then they should be perfectly comfortable and happy leaving their horse friends to be with you for periods of time and be completely present with you when they do. If it is not possible for your horse to have an equine companion then it will be even more important for you to be a genuine source of connection for your horse. And the level of connection you are willing to work towards will have a direct affect, not only on what you and your horse will be capable of, but also how much enjoyment you will both get out of it.
If you can begin to build a relationship with your horse by displaying your own desire to connect socially, rather than just being a task master, then you will be setting the groundwork for a cooperative dynamic in which your horse will be that much more likely to willingly engage with and respond to you regardless of whether or not other horses are present. Essentially, you will be showing your horse that the connection that you are offering will be able to meet the social requirements that he or she seeks. Then, beyond meeting those basic requirements, you will even have the potential to create bonds that far exceed instinctual needs being met. Humans are also highly social creatures by nature and the joys of genuine connection are beyond what can be described here.
Safer Interactions for both Horse and Human
On to a very practical reason to focus on building a genuine relationship with your horse as a foundational practice, and that is the improvement in safety that it offers.
Before I go on though I do want to be clear that these methods contribute to creating a safer environment for both horse and human, but only if the practice is developed appropriately. Critical thinking and adequate knowledge of equine behavior is essential to maintaining safe working conditions. If you are new to horses or do not feel comfortable in your experience, then it is always advisable to work with an instructor or trainer that you trust.
By building a relationship with your horse you are creating a more peaceful environment. As is discussed in “How to Bond with Your Horse," you are working on many things including an improved channel of communication between yourself and your equine partner. We also know that horses rely strongly on communication amongst each other to create a sense of safety. A horse who feels safe is safer to be around because they can be in their “thinking brain” (aka parasympathetic nervous system state such as rest and digest) rather than simply in a reactive state ready to resort to fight or flight.
Many methods of relationship building are based on awareness and helping your horse regulate their nervous system when in your presence. This can have more long-term benefits as well, helping to improve and maintain your horse’s mental and physical health.
Allowing your horse to know that you are not going to pressure them into doing anything before they are ready is key to a healthy relationship. This sets you and your horse up to be prepared to add tools to the tool belt when the time comes. So essentially, by creating a connection built on trust you are preparing your horse to be a willing student in future educational interactions, setting them up to be able to choose the better and ideally safer responses to whatever situation they find themselves in.
Basically, relationship building creates a space for your horse to be mentally present with you because you have instilled a sense of trust and awareness. Mental presence allows for clearer and more effective communication between you both. All of this lays the foundation for a much safer interaction.
Building Trust with your Horse
Speaking of trust, you probably can agree that trust is key to any healthy relationship, right? Why should it be any different with your horse? As humans, we put horses in so many unnatural situations and usually the only ways to persuade them to do it are with fear or trust.
The goal around here is to make using fear to intimidate a horse into doing something a thing of the past though! People have been working with horses for thousands of years now and we have come a long way in our understanding of them. With that understanding comes trust.
But the trust has to be present on multiple levels. You must trust yourself to be able to read your horse properly and your horse must trust you to do so also. All of this begins just like any other friendship. First you make the introductions, find some common ground, then clarify boundaries and expectations.
Over time a deeper understanding will emerge between you and your horse, but only if you are willing to put in the time and commit yourself to being accountable and consistent.
And of course, as the connection grows other qualities of friendship will become apparent as well. Like forgiveness for miscommunications and increased confidence when in partnership with each other. The trust comes when you allow your horse to be authentic to his or her true nature, and when you yourself can be authentic. And these types of relationships are built through reciprocity, not through fear and intimidation.
This type of connection building work can also have the positive side effects of helping you build trust in yourself and in other relationships in your life as well. As you dive into getting to know your horse on deeper levels you will naturally begin to learn more and more about yourself too. This is simply the nature of relationships; they act as mirrors. And the more you understand of yourself, the more you will be able to recognize what types of relationships to seek in daily life as well as how to handle conflict in them when they arise. Learning how to trust in your own discernment can allow so much room for peace and confidence in all interactions.
Recognizing Subtleties in your Equine Partner
Through relationship building practices such as attunement, you also begin to learn how to recognize subtleties in your horse that you many not have noticed otherwise. Not only will you become more and more aware of equine body language in general, but you will also be able to read different horses you may work with and recognize traits unique to each individual. This naturally creates a safer environment because it will help you respond in the appropriate way to the many nuances that equestrians must be aware of, and with better timing. To put it in non-technical but very common horsey terms, you will be improving your “feel.”
This in turn only adds to the trust in the relationship as well. You will start to see the cause and effect of every little interaction you have with your horse, and being able to notice these connections will aid in becoming the type of partner or leader your horse needs depending on the situation.
There is a methodology in the ethical horsemanship movement known as attunement. This practice promotes ideas such as “relationship before training” or “connections before concepts,” which is essentially what this whole article is about. The idea is that rather than jumping into a round pen or an arena with a horse you don’t know and who doesn’t know you, and just immediately beginning to “train” the horse to perform, that you instead initiate a mutual acknowledgement of each other as sentient beings and individuals. Through this acknowledgement you are able to open a dialogue and begin to interpret the communications of another being that doesn’t speak the same language as you.
Horses are actually much better at this than most people. That is again because the evolution of their species depended on it; this acute awareness of subtleties and the ability to respond with accurate timing. But in the process of getting to know your horse, you too can start to pick up on the subtleties and integrate them into your practice.
Adjusting Preconceptions within the Horse Industry
Historically speaking, the horse industry is all about how horses can serve humans. And horses have served humans in so many ways for so many years, and continue to do so. But we are finally at a point where some horses can be allowed to simply exist without having to work for it. Of course, most horses still do have to “have a job” just as most humans do. But horses do not get a say in what it is they do, so I am of the strong belief that if you interact with horses in any way, that it is your responsibility to provide the best possible conditions for horses to not only exist but to thrive in this man-made world that they helped create.
This can begin with a simple reevaluation of the expectations placed on horses. Horses are capable of many things, but often times the expectations of any given horse are just too much simply because the horse is already fighting so many invisible battles.
There is a lot of research being done currently on behaviorism, psychology, physiology, and even neurobiology of horses and humans alike. This growing awareness can be considered in respect to how different species of mammals interact and relate to each other as well. Through these studies, our understanding of trauma responses in mammals is growing too. Horses are often exposed to many traumas, but by being informed on typical responses and the immediate and long-term effects of such, we are able to adjust our approach.
One result of this is an increased focus on relationship as a foundational approach to horsemanship and more realistic expectations of what is possible in the moment. By being realistic in the moment, the possibilities of the future expand immensely.
I could go on and on about the benefits of why relational methodologies as a foundation in horsemanship practice is paramount, but I will leave it at this for now. If you need any more inspiration to work on creating connection with your equine friends, then I would recommend going to the barn and simply sitting in your horse’s presence with zero expectations and I’m sure the inspiration will hit. This is the first step to tuning in to yourself and to your horse anyway so why not give it a go!