Don’t you just love it when you walk into the barn and your horse nickers to you?
That doesn’t happen overnight. You have to earn this sort of affection. There’s many ways to get a horse to love and trust you. I’ve used all of these, to great success.
One of my interests is in captive animal management, specifically, zoos. Zoo managers and keepers do what is called ‘enrichment’. It involves providing a varied environment for the captive animal to play with, manipulate, explore.
You can do the same thing with your horse, with the added benefit being that you don’t have to keep the horse in an enclosure like an elephant or a tiger.
There are a number of ways of enriching your relationship with your horse. I try to interact with mine in ways that don’t always involve getting on his back and doing circles for an hour.
Be gentle and kind.
This is a no-brainer. Horses are prey animals. If you’re hard and rough on them, they will respond in kind. They will not trust you. It costs nothing to be gentle in your handling, and kind to him. They don’t like to be slapped around or yelled at, just like you don’t.
Take him for a walk.
Yes, in the same frame of mind as you walk your dog. Halter him and take him for a walk in the forest if there’s one near you, or in the neighborhood. Scout out a safe route beforehand…if the only place you can walk off the farm is on a busy road, trailer him to a spot where you CAN walk him without having to deal with traffic. Let him sniff things that he doesn’t normally get to sniff, much less touch, like mailboxes or wheelbarrows. I’ve never met a gelding that didn’t want to smell another horse’s manure, and if you find some, let him sniff away. Don’t make it a training exercise (I’ve read that some people ALWAYS make EVERYTHING they do to a horse a ‘learning experience’. Please, don’t. They don’t even do that to kids.)
Stay off of people’s lawns. It’s not there for your horse. Don’t let him eat the roses, either.
The downside of walking your horse through a neighborhood is that every girl (even those who didn’t realize they were horse crazy until just that moment) will swarm out of their homes to see the horse. If your horse will tolerate noisy children and yappy dogs, and if you want to, let the kids meet the horse. They will ask to ride. Do not allow this. Never, ever, put someone else’s child on your horse (unless, of course, the parent is a friend of yours and is there with you.). Don’t touch the child unless it’s an emergency. They may pet your horse, gently, and you may want to take a pocketful of treats so that you can teach the child how to safely feed a horse.
Of course, if your horse is a nipper, or gets dancy when there’s a lot of kids or dogs, don’t go through a neighborhood where there are kids and dogs.
The kids will ask a million questions. The answers are: No, he isn’t a stallion. No, his name isn’t Secretariat. No, he isn’t going to have a ‘pony’. (He’s just fat) You would be amazed at how many people, even adults, think a pony is merely a “baby horse”!
You will probably get adults out to talk, too. Be prepared for The Greatest Horse Expert in the Whole Universe to come out and tell you what you’re doing wrong. I don’t know what it is about some people who feel obligated to point out your failings, except that it stokes their egos. They feel they are doing you an enormous favor by teaching you Everything They Know about Horses, which, usually, is nothing. Do NOT allow them to so much as touch your horse in an effort to ‘show you what I mean.” When he or she starts that up, excuse yourself and keep going. Walk fast.
DO NOT FAIL to go back through the neighborhood with your manure fork and a muck bucket afterwards.
Give him a massage or a scratching.
I’ve written about scratching on this blog. (See “Pony Primavera, 11 August 2011). I am a professional equine massage therapist, and there is no better way to establish a real bond with a horse than through massage. But you needn’t be a professional to give your horse a nice rub, and he doesn’t need to be injured to enjoy it. Pick up one of the many good books about massage. “Beating Muscle Injuries in Horses” by Jack Meagher, is a good one. I do not recommend the Tellington TTouch series, or Equissage. Neither one, as far as I’ve seen in 16 years of professionally massaging horses, is effective.
Groom him often, and be consistent.
If you can groom your horse daily, do so. They truly appreciate it, and you find bumps and bruises that ordinarily would be missed. It’s just ‘preventative maintenance”. What horses truly appreciate, though, is consistency. Groom him the same way each time, especially when it comes to doing his feet. It doesn’t matter what order you pick out his feet, but if you do it in the same order every single time, within a few repetitions, he’ll have the next foot waiting for you. They like to know what’s next.
Put his foot down gently.
After asking him for a foot and cleaning it, I will gently place the foot back on the ground. I don’t just drop it. Most of the time he will do it himself, but I think the horse appreciates the courtesy.
I know, this sound silly, but I say “please” and “thank you” to my horses. I will ask, “Step over, please” with a touch on the hip to tell him which way I want him to move. I’ll ask for a foot with a touch on his cannon bone and say, ‘foot, please’. When he does what I ask under saddle, I’ll praise him and say “Thank you, sir.” Yes, I know, it sounds weird, but they KNOW when you’re being polite. One of my friends, Steffie, had a gigantic Dutch Warmblood mare named Marquee. I’d massaged Marquee from the time she was a long yearling until she topped out at 16.3. Marquee was very assertive, one could even say aggressive. She wasn’t mean, but everything she did was done with a tremendous, competitive urge to be the best. She could be a handful for the person who didn’t respect her. One did NOT enter her box stall without asking permission. One didn’t just shove her over with a slap on the rump. She pinned more than one stranger who’d dared enter her stall without a ‘by your leave’, and although she never hurt anyone, when one is nose to nose with that big of a horse, one gets scared.
Marquee never scared me. I think she loved me, because I’d massaged her from babyhood and she knew me. I could do it, also, because I always asked her permission to do so.
One time I beat Steffie to the barn and was entering Marquee’s stall to massage her. One of the Mexican barn hands came running up and said “No vaya alli! La caballo es peligroso!” meaning, don’t go in there, that horse is dangerous. Marquee, in the meantime, had pinned her ears-at the man. Yet, she stepped aside gracefully for me to enter her stall, and placed herself between me and the man. She was protecting me.
When Steffie arrived, I told her about it, marveling at how I could do things with the mare that others couldn’t. Steffie said, “That’s because you always ask her permission to enter her stall, and you treat her with respect.”
To this day, I will ask, rather than order. It works. In addition, by being polite, the opposite gives me a powerful tool to use when a horse is NOT obeying. When he acts up, all I need to do is give a hard jerk on the halter and say “NO!” in an angry tone. They understand.
Tighten the girth gradually.
When you girth up your horse, he’s going to blow up. He is. I don’t know of a horse that doesn’t, although Steffie says her Holsteiner mare Cortina has stopped doing this when Stef put an elastic girth on her saddle.
Take it easy. Tighten the girth slowly and over a period of a few minutes. Pull it up a few holes, make sure there’s no wrinkles in his skin caught underneath it, and walk him a bit. Check the girth again, pulling it up. The act of walking forces him to deflate. Check for too tight or just right. Be gentle.
Loosen the girth immediately.
The moment I dismount with no intentions of remounting, I loosen the girth, releasing the pressure but not enough to let the saddle fall underneath him. Loosening the girth rewards him for being good about it being tightened, and it tells him he’s done being under saddle. I may keep it on him for a while, but he knows I’m not getting back on.
Tie up the stirrups when you’re lounging him under saddle.
No horse likes to have the stirrups bouncing on his sides. Tie them up so they don’t.
Teach him some tricks so that he can win applause-and treats.
You’d be amazed how easy it is to teach horse simple tricks. It takes time, patience and consistency, but even something as simple as “who wants a carrot”? makes your horse look like a genius when non-horse people come to visit. They may marvel at how clever he is, and believe me, horses know this. Develop a patter to go with the horse’s tricks so he can look smarter than you.
Some of the best horse trainers and riders I know do this. When they plan on introducing something difficult or new to the horse, i.e. flying changes, they do it towards the end of their planned training period. When they ask the horse to do it and the horse goes it correctly, they get off. Right then and there. Getting off his back for doing something right is a powerful training aid. Praise him and stop the session right there. You don’t always have to do this, but it makes a big impression when the horse does something and you reward him by getting off for the day. They think about it. They really do. They remember a reward.
Make sure his tack fits and is clean.
Does this sound simple? It should be, yet I know folks who never touch saddle soap to leather.
I know people who will use the same saddle on every horse they ride. Granted, good saddles are expensive, and a saddle fitter may tell you something you don’t want to hear: this saddle doesn’t fit your horse.
But if you buy a quality saddle to begin with, and keep it clean and cared for, you can sell it. I “stole” my Albion K2…not really, but I got it for a very good price. It was used but had been taken care of and was in almost new condition. I’d sold my Collegiate earlier in a time when saddles were NOT selling because it was in excellent condition. It just didn’t fit Trooper.
Using the same saddle for multiple horses is like using the same shoes for many people. It doesn’t work.
A friend of mine bought a very expensive dressage saddle for her green three-year old filly. (I won’t name it here for fear of the Canadians trying to sue me, but it starts with S and ends in e.) She’d backed the horse at least a dozen times before buying the new saddle, without problems from the filly. After a few minutes of being in the new saddle, the filly suddenly went bonkers and threw my friend, breaking her shoulder.
When my friend was able to ride again, she put the saddle back on the filly. The filly again, allowed her to mount, but within a few moments began to buck. My friend immediately bailed off, not wanting to risk another broken bone.
She removed the saddle and looked at it. It apparently had nothing wrong with it, but she wasn’t going to chance it. She put her old saddle on the filly, and after coaxing the filly to stand, mounted. This time there were no fireworks. Obviously there was something with the S——e saddle.
Then she discovered what it was about the saddle that evoked such a violent reaction from the filly. You couldn’t see it when you inspected the saddle, but the points of the tree had been poorly made, and when my friend sat in the saddle, the point, sharp as a dagger, was pushed right through the panel, stabbing the filly.
Check his tack often. Use as gentle a bit as possible. Make sure it fits him and that it’s not too tight, or too loose. If you have a western saddle, use a cinch knot rather than securing the cinch by using the holes in the strap. The holes are convenient, but it’s a lazy way of cinching a horse. The holes put in the strap are for YOUR convenience. Using them may make the cinch too tight. If you don’t know how to tie a cinch knot, learn. It’s easy.
Make sure his bridle doesn’t press near or on his eyes, that the saddle fits him and well, and that his saddle pad is clean. They have very sensitive skin…just watch what a horse does when a fly lands on him!
Don’t make every visit to the barn a work date.
Sometimes, just call him in, groom him or just handle him for a few minutes, and let him go. I call these times “My Little Pony” visits. Just because I’m middle aged doesn’t mean I can’t indulge in a little horse pampering.
Talk to him.
Yes. Tell him what you’re doing. If you are introducing a new piece of tack or have a camera, let him sniff it, tell him what it is. Touch him with it.
If the vet is coming, tell him. Tell him what is going to happen and why. Reassure him that he’s going to be just fine, this is just a procedure.
Do they understand? I swear my Arab, Jordan, understood every word. (I will confess to a lot of barn blindness when it came to Jordan.) What they understand is your body language, your tone of voice, your manner in handling the new thing. By talking to him, you are telling him that you know it is new but it’s not going to hurt him.
These are simple things to do. They will pay off in ways you never imagined. Give them a try.
I’m hoping you may come up with more ideas, and if so, please don’t hesitate to let me know!