6 tips for earning your horse’s trust and respect
So, you want my respect and trust? Are you doing the right things to earn them?
Are you consistent every time you work with me? No matter what it is we’re doing?
When you lead me do you ensure that I respect your space, or do you let me tread on your toes and walk all over you? Do you respect my space? Do you come to me when you are calm and clear-headed, or do you come to me when you are in one of those strange, uptight moods which makes you very confusing to me? I get very baffled and find it hard to trust you if you seem like a different person some days.
Can I depend on you and your ability to protect me and be a strong leader? Can you make me feel secure when you are on my back, or do you make me feel like I have to take control and do my own thing? Do I need to take the reins myself?
Have you taken the time to do the work, read the research and understand my nature?
Your beloved steed.
Learning how to gain your horse’s respect is a good starting point for my blog series, because if you don’t have that respect and trust, none of the work you do with your horse will run smoothly. Whether you are riding your horse, leading your horse or brushing your horse, the suggestions set out below will always apply. You need to be constantly mindful, alert and aware, because horses are masters at watching your body language and will pick up the smallest inconsistencies. Future posts will elaborate on some of the things I have touched on here, but the basics of enjoyable riding really begin with the fundamentals and those start in the mind of your horse.
1. Be a good leader
Horses are herd animals, and every herd has a leader. You need to be that leader to your horse when you are working with him. This means being confident, reliable, dependable and consistent whenever you are interacting with your horse.
Look at the roles in this example: You’ve just finished riding; you’ve had a good ride and you and your horse are feeling nice and relaxed. You move to lead your horse back to the paddock and you let him push in front of you (he’s now leader). Then while untacking him you allow him to walk away (he’s leading again). Then, while brushing him down, he nips at you (asserting dominance, again the leader in the partnership).
He feels entitled to behave as leader because you are doing nothing to challenge his behaviour – a good leader would not allow this behaviour. If this poor communication and inconsistency in establishing leadership is left unchecked, your horse will start to view you as a poor leader and trust and respect will break down. If your boundaries are crossed, you need to apply gentle corrective behaviour, straight away, every time.
Working with a trusted trainer to gently correct these boundary issues will do you both the world of good. You will learn about setting boundaries and he will learn about respecting them. You will learn to be confident with him without becoming arrogant and pushy or complacent.
2. Stay centred and practice mindfulness
Practice emotional control and staying centred. This will affect how you are with your horse (and how you are in life in general). As long as you stay centred, keep a clear head and concentrate consistently, your horse will learn to trust you and in turn respect you.
Practices such as meditation and DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) can help you with this and in everyday life, to develop mindfulness skills and teach you to live in the moment. Well known horse trainer, Warwick Schiller explains in this video (Change yourself to change your horse), how these practices have helped him become immeasurably better at working with horses over the last few years.
3. Stay anchored and see it through
When you ask your horse for something, be prepared to see it all the way through. Do not balk, give up or run away if the horse gets a little spooked or stressed at what you ask for – just breathe and keep going. Don’t get angry when you don’t get the response you’re looking for. Centre yourself, and practice calm confidence (not arrogance!), consistency and patience without losing your cool.
4. Don’t demand too much
Don’t ask for something from your horse that she is not ready to give you, or that you haven’t prepared her to give you. Doing so may stress her out to the point where she feels she’s being punished instead of trained, and you will lose her respect. If you persist in pressuring her to the point where she panics, she may simply freeze altogether as the ‘thinking’ side of her brain shuts down and panic instincts take over.
Learn to read the signs of stress and anxiety in your horse – tightening around the mouth, pinned ears and dramatic reactions such as bucking will tell you you’ve gone too far, but there are far more subtle signs of stress that will manifest before these ‘louder’ reactions happen. Learn to pick up the subtle signs of stress quickly before they escalate into dramatic reactions and adjust your behaviour accordingly. I will be blogging about the signs of stress in an upcoming post on body language.
Working with a trained professional can help you gauge what your horse is ready for, what her stress cues are, and how much she can handle.
5. Take baby steps
Break down work and training with your horse into little steps. Let her learn at her own pace. What may seem like a little lesson or accomplishment to you, could be a huge one for her. If you try to make big leaps from lesson to lesson, she will become unsettled and anxious. As previously mentioned, she may come to see training as a form of punishment and will definitely lose your trust and respect.
6. Practice regular groundwork
Many riders or owners feel that horses are there to be ridden, shown, jumped, hacked, etc, and as a result spend most of their time in the saddle. The majority also think that horses are best trained in the saddle and don’t often consider that there are other ways of building a relationship with their horse.
What is often overlooked is that doing groundwork with your horse: lunging, desensitisation work, boundary setting exercises, confidence and focus building, and so forth. It is one of the most powerful and successful ways of building a close bond with your horse, gaining his trust and respect and boosting your own self confidence. It is also a valuable way to learn about cues and body language, both your own and those of the horse.
Initially, a trainer may need to demonstrate the best exercises, correct body posture and co-ordination skills you will need. Once you’ve learned these, making groundwork a part of your equestrian routine will have benefits which will surprise and impress both you and your horse, and strengthen your bond to each other which will benefit you no end in the saddle.