Building Trust with your Horse

In last month’s feature article, we discussed how the horse’s mind works. The article talked about the importance of the horse seeing us as the decision maker of the herd in order to be effective in our training. Once our horse accepts us as the decision maker, need to do our part to reinforce the horse’s trust through consistent training. Trust…how can we develop a trusting relationship with our horse?

Trust is a horse’s sense of assurance that we will never put him in a situation that he cannot handle. Remembering back to last week’s article, we learned horses are prey animals that find comfort and safety within the herd. It’s true that horses are a fright-and-flight animal, meaning they are programmed to run when something frightens them. But think about how quickly horses get over their fears once we show them they are not in danger. Your horse can spot a new object and be completely convinced that it is going to kill him. But after just 20 minutes of consistent work with your horse, he will be completely over his fear and will probably even remember not to be afraid next time he sees the same thing.

The nice thing about building trust with your horse is that you can do it without special equipment or instruction. It is as simple as creating a small obstacle course with challenges to build and encourage your horse’s curiosity resulting in a bond of trust between you and your horse.

Start by creating an obstacle course in your arena, this will be a familiar place for your horse. The objects and challenges should vary in difficulty; it doesn’t have to be fancy. You can use anything you may have on hand, like trashes can, a piece of plywood, a garden hose, and a tarp. Set up your obstacles and then ride your horse into the arena.

Pick the object that you think will be easiest to start with. This will be different for each horse; so think about it for a minute and choose the object you think he will find least challenging.

Just ask your horse to look at the object you’ve chosen. If he’s nervous, stay at a distance and let him look. As long as he is paying attention to the object, let him be. Once he gets comfortable enough that his mind starts to wander and he begins to pay attention to other things, ask him to walk towards the object. If he stops, let him stand as long as his attention remains on the object. If he backs up, ask him to move forward to the point he was before, but other than that, let him be. I want to mention here that if your horse backs away and you ask him to move forward again, do so in a calm, quiet manner. He’s already nervous about the new obstacle, getting him worked up will make the situation worse, not better. Once he is close enough to the object that he can touch it, let him smell it and investigate it as much as he wants to. This will build and encourage the horse’s curiosity.

If you just want your horse to walk by the object after he has checked it out, ask him to walk forward and past it. If he still seems a little uneasy about the object, repeat the exercise until he is calm. If he walks by like there is nothing to it, move on to the next obstacle.

If you are working on an obstacle, like plywood or a tarp, that requires your horse to walk on top of it, then just take it slowly, asking for one step at a time. You may want to consider working your horse from the ground first when asking him to walk on top of this type of obstacle. From the ground or mounted, if your horse puts just one foot on the object and wants to stand there and smell it or paw at it, that’s fine. Let him take his time. When he walks over it but still seems to be nervous then repeat the exercise. If he was comfortable, then move on to the next thing.

Progress through your obstacles from easiest to hardest, take your time and approach each one in exactly the same way. This is what will help build your horse’s confidence and trust.

Now, move outside and for look new challenges. Obstacles to consider might be water crossings, walking past flags and dumpsters. As you approach each obstacle outside, use the exact same training steps you used while in the arena. As your horse’s trust builds, you will find that new obstacles are easier and faster to work through. Remember, it’s not possible to expose your horse to every situation, what we’re trying to do is build a solid foundation of trust. By taking the time to develop a bond of trust, your horse will know that whenever you say something is okay, it’s okay, even if he hasn’t seen that particular object before.

Always be patient with your horse and never lose your temper. Losing your temper and spurring and whipping on your horse doesn’t build trust or respect, in fact, it will erode it. Your horse needs to know he can always win. When he tries, reward him. When he gives, you give back, release and reward regularly. Your horse will learn that he wins every time he tries and, in turn, will learn to try consistently. And that’s the biggest thing you can ask of your horse; that he will try for you in any situation you may encounter.

Enjoy building mutual trust with your horse.

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