Photograph by BRV Creative.
Creating a genuine connection with your horse is simpler than it sounds. Horses are generally so open to creating a bond with their human and curious about our funny agendas and odd behaviour. Working on connection takes time but even 5 minutes in your day adds up - and when your horse recognises you as 'their human' the experience is priceless. Not to mention you'll be safer than ever before!
The day I posted about this on instagram, I did a 9 km trail and beach ride with Trin in a neckrope. And, boy did our connection get a good test! We came across a sealion lying absolutely still in the sun 10 m away, only its golden eyes moving as it blinked. Trin came quite close before she realised it was not a log, and she was more horrified than I have ever seen her. She told me in no uncertain terms that the best thing to do would be to bolt away down the open beach at absolutely top speed, for a long time.
She began to spin away (she's very agile for a chunky girl and it was a split second movement) but I asked her to keep spinning and face up again. She did... no bit, no bridle, just a tug at the side of her neck. She spun again and I turned her again and told her it was ok. After that we were able to turn and head away at a brisk but steady walk, and after 20 m or so, she began dropping her head and snorting the stress away.
I waited until we were 50m away before cueing a steady trot, then sitting for canter and she surged into a steady beat, with lots of snorts as she let the tension flow through and out of her body. I may have exhaled a few times too.
Horses are always going to get a fright at something, and when they do, you really want them to think of the person on their back as "their" personal safe place.
Here are some of the ways you can work on genuine connection with your horse. I guarantee that you will find new depths in your relationship, and your horse will keep you safer because of it.
Sit in the field, offer rubs, braid a tail, sing a song, find tasty snatches of grass and offer them. Just breathe.
It's so good for you, and horses love it when we are 'present' and coherent - this is my favourite mindfulness practice!
Horses love a calm predictable leader. Feed them at regular feeding times, lead them from the field the same way each time, stay calm in times if drama so you can be their centre in the storm.
Let your horse know they matter in whatever way works for you. Sweet talk, scratches, treats, long grooming sessions, energy work, massage, in-hand walks exploring the neighbourhood.
They hear our heartbeat from 3 feet and know when it beats with love.
Share Trust & Decisions
Make riding a collaboration where the horse has a say. Watch (feel) for when they want to trot, slow, canter, take a certain trail, leap a log, sniff a flower and - if it's ok with you and safe - let them pick some of the things you do!
The little things matter. When you pick a hoof, lower it kindly rather than dropping it with a thud. Offer the halter and let them tilt their nose to it, wait for them to open their mouth before you drop the bit when unbridling, do the girth up in 2-3 stages. Be patient with loading on the trailer.
All these micro delays show respect and let the horse choose to accept your ideas intentionally.
Don't push your horse above their fear threshold, but build confidence by asking them to challenge themselves. When they are genuinely fearful, be patient but stay calm and show with your calmness that it isn't the threat they believe. Ask them to give what you need, but not more than they can safely give. Expect that they take care of you (physical space, careful of you) and in return, treat them with the same consideration.
Provide for their needs - friends, forage, freedom, farrier, well fitting tack, decent feed - before asking they deliver on your desires.
It's a bigger job than it may sound and requires you to keep tabs on their behaviour, their gait and movement, and their expression for signs of pain or discomfort. You need to monitor their physical condition, and schedule annual visits from the dentist and saddle fitter and well as frequent visits from your farrier/trimmer.
Let Them Move
Horses release tension and trauma through movement. Mark Rashid has some cool stories about this, but also, I've always believed that after a tense time (a spook, dealing with something they are scared of, leaping a larger jump than normal, or training a movement they find hard) that it helps a horse to move their body.
They are evolved to run in times of stress and although we might often ask them to 'stay with us' when they are actually dealing with a stress event, we can pick a safe time to let them move freely and 'shake it off' afterwards.
Horses want experiences full of adventure and joy too! They are curious thoughtful creatures who deserve a life full of great experiences. Sometimes I will laugh out loud, and feel a surge in the stride of the horse as they frisk a little - that shared joyful excitement is just fantastic.