It seems like many of my clients were working on their relationships with their horses this week, and that got me thinking about how we develop partnerships with our horses. It’s not always an easy task, and it’s a growing, living relationship that changes over the years. It is worth investing the time and energy to develop a good partnership with your horse, but understanding how to nurture it can sometimes be elusive. What kind of partnership do you have with your horse? What do you do to nurture the partnership?
A central goal of my work with horses is to help their handlers develop stronger, happier partnerships. I seek to unlock a horse’s natural talents and enhance them, and I do my best to show their handlers how to do this too. Much of that work has its foundation is understanding the horse and having a conversation with him. This conversation then leads to a partnership in which the horse is allowed to express itself and the handler learns to harmonize her wants with what is best for the horse. Have a horse that isn’t such a fan of arena work but enjoys challenges and games? My job becomes developing a program that will allow you to practice your arena work while mentally challenging your horse enough to keep him focused. Have a horse full of try but is also guarding an old injury or protecting himself from potential pain? My job is helping you sort out what is real and what is just behavioral, and how to honor the horse’s fears while also helping him move past them.
So how do I do all this?
It comes back to one word: conversation. I imagine that I am having a conversation with every horse I work with. I like to understand his background, his current relationship with his handler, and observe what he is telling me at present. He tells me things by the way he moves, his body language, how he holds his head, and how he reacts to his environment. A fearful horse will be distracted and flighty, and often not totally aware of his body. A disobedient horse who simply doesn’t want to do the work will often be very calculated in his actions and wear a sour face. Horses suffering from some sort of pain will often do their best to please, but act out when the pain becomes more than they can bear. No matter which attitude a horse has, my job is to understand the attitude and listen to his half of the conversation. I then facilitate a conversation between the horse and her handler. This means I spend time pointing out the subtle nature of the horse’s half of the conversation and teaching the handler how to respond in a way the horse will understand. It’s not an easy pursuit…it’s like learning a new language!
Want some tips for developing your own conversation with your horse? Give these ideas a try:
- Take time to just spend time with your horse. Go out to his pasture and hang out with him. Watch how he interacts with his herd and where he fits into the pecking order. Watch how he responds to those above and below him. Is he at the top or the bottom of the pecking order? Those traits are important too, and will change the conversation.
- Allow your horse to express himself. This doesn’t mean letting him walk all over you or abandoning his manners. But it does mean letting the horse tell you when he likes something…and when he doesn’t! He could express his joy with an exuberant transition, or his discomfort with a buck. So long as he doesn’t try to hurt you or place you in a precarious situation, I believe you will do better to allow this behavior, because he’s telling you something. Additionally, if your horse feels that he can express himself, his expressions will tend to become more polite and less dramatic over time. The horse that once tried to bite your arm off because he didn’t want to be saddled will soften to just nipping at the air, or perhaps even just flicking his ears. This is improvement through understanding!
- Consider why she is expressing herself in a certain manner and explore what she is trying to say. A horse that is girthy isn’t just unhappy about the prospect of working. She is trying to tell you something, like the saddle doesn’t fit, or her back hurts, or any number of other things. Try to understand what she is saying and sort out if her point is valid or requires some action.
- Not all expressions are valid! Sometimes, our horses are just plain lazy. When they complain about doing the work, sometimes that is all they are doing. At those times, it’s appropriate to insist that they improve their attitudes and get with the program.
- Understand how to balance your horse’s needs with your own needs. We work hard so that we can enjoy our weekends or vacations or time off. Our horses need the same thing. You cannot expect your horse to always school perfectly in the arena if you never give him a chance to just hack out on a loose rein sometimes. The dressage horse needs a trail or two each month. The western pleasure horse needs a chance to stretch his legs and move out sometimes. The jumper needs a break where he can hang his head low. Recognizing this need and responding to it will make your horse more willing to do his job.
- Do not shout when a whisper will do. Try not to overreact to your horse. And try to ask him to work with as little pressure as necessary. We all prefer to be asked to do a job rather than told. And we prefer not to be shouted at too. Give your horse the same curtsey by only applying enough aid to get the response you want, and also not over correcting when discipline is necessary.
Hopefully these tips will set you well on your way to developing a conversation with your horse, and in turn strength your relationship with him or her. I’d love to hear about your partnerships with your horses. Were they long-fought to win over? Or were you and your horse just meant to be together?