One of your first thoughts when you become a proud horse owner might be “How can I bond with my horse?”.
Every horse owner knows the importance of bonding with our equine family members. Horse owners are incredibly lucky — these marvelous animals are known for having pretty long life spans, so you’re going to have your best bud around for quite some time. This is what makes bonding with your horse so crucial.
How Can I Bond With My Horse?
Bonding with a horse may feel a tad intimidating for new owners. Often larger, taller (unless you’ve adopted a Shetland) and far stronger than you and with a unique, possibly rebellious or stubborn personality to get to know, this fear is perfectly understandable. Fortunately, there are stacks of bonding methods and most are simple, routine exercises that anyone can do.
Just like with humans, the key with horses is consistency. Finding the bonding techniques that work best for you and doing them on a regular basis is a great way to build a bond with your horse. Let’s explore some of the best and most common bonding methods.
Simple grooming is a fantastic way to bond with your new horse. It’s natural for horses that have a good relationship with other horses to engage in mutual grooming. They gently nip and nibble at each other and help each other scratch those hard-to-reach places, which is no doubt greatly appreciated by the scratch receiver!
Why should it be any different for humans and their horses? While you probably don’t want to literally nibble your horse, there are plenty of other ways to incorporate physical touch into your grooming sessions. For one, many horses appreciate a good back, belly, chest or behind-the-ear scratch so much that they may try to return the favor!
A fun idea for children and adults alike is a pony makeover — simple acts like brushing out the mane, trimming and braiding will not only make your horse look pretty, but also serve as a great, tactile way to bond with him.
Never underestimate the power of a carrot stick or apple piece when it comes to bonding with your horse. Of course, overindulging a horse with treats can have negative consequences for behavior down the line, so it’s always best to give treats in moderation. Be mindful also of what you decide to treat your horse with, as some fruits, vegetables and other foods aren’t good for them.
Safe treats that horses enjoy include:
- carrot sticks
- apple pieces
- sunflower seeds
Horses are also known to enjoy an occasional sugar cube. There are also some great commercial horse treats on the market. Treats to avoid include chocolate, coffee, avocado, potatoes and tomatoes.
What better way to bond with your horse than via the medium of simple play? You can often see horses rolling in the grass, following each other or play-fighting. For a human, it could be pretty dangerous to try and join this kind of fun, but there are safer, gentler ways to play with your horse that are far less likely to end with you in hospital.
Teaching your horse to push a ball with her nose is a simple trick you can get started with. It might be worth investing in a large, soft, inflatable ball for this purpose. If your horse is easily spooked by new objects, you may want to start by gradually introducing the ball to him.
Some people report success with getting their horses to play games like fetch and teaching them tricks. This can be achieved with the aid of treats and perhaps a clicker if that is what she responds to. Another simple game is getting your horse to follow you, as this is something horses regularly do when playing with other horses.
Groundwork is an important part of laying the foundations for a positive relationship with your horse. It basically involves simple exercises to get the horse used to following commands and learning to respect you as the authority figure in the relationship. It’s also the best time to set boundaries and show your horse what kinds of behavior will and will not be tolerated.
Some examples of groundwork training are:
- Walking properly on a lead.
- Standing still.
- Move forward and back.
- Bending forward and down.
- Moving away from pressure.
This is far from an exhaustive list — there are a great number of groundwork exercises you can try. Not only is groundwork crucial for gaining your horse’s respect, but it also forms a large part of the bonding process as your horse gets to know what you’re about, and vice versa. This leads us to our next bonding tip.
Learn How Your Horse Communicates
Equally as important as ground training is observing your horse to see how he communicates with you. Horses communicate in a variety of ways. For example, if she is frightened, her eyes may widen and she may make snorting sounds. If he is agitated, he may swish his tail from side to side aggressively. You may spot a droopy, relaxed mouth if your horse is in a chilled-out mood.
They use so many different facial expressions and body language to show how they are feeling, just like humans. Keep a close eye on your horse even when you’re not directly interacting with them to see how they respond to stimuli or situations. This way, you can better understand what he is trying to communicate to you.
This can vary depending on your horse’s personality. It is pretty intuitive and something we learn as we get to know our horses better, so don’t worry too much if you don’t immediately “get” everything. Check out our article on how horses show affection to learn more about the equine language of love!
Spend Time With Your Horse
Time spent with horses doesn’t have to revolve only around riding, stable chores and groundwork! Simply spending time with and close to your horse is a great bonding method. Even if this means chilling out with a book or filling in your horse on how your day has been (as you do), it’s perfect for getting your horse accustomed to your voice, scent and general presence.
Taking a casual stroll with your horse at your side is another easy way to spend time together and exercise him without too much effort. Teaching your horse to walk properly at your side is one of the core skills taught in groundwork training, but it’s also a fantastic way to get out, clear your head and bond with your horse at the same time.
Trust is a key part of any horse-human relationship. Always be respectful of the horse’s boundaries — if they aren’t entirely comfortable with something, take your time. Being firm when setting boundaries is fine, but shouting, yelling or taking your frustrations out on your horse after a bad day can be rather damaging to the relationship you’ve worked hard to build.
It can be frustrating when things aren’t going well and you’re feeling down, but it’s generally agreed in the horse community that being consistent and keeping the same energy around your horse is the best way to build a positive relationship. Heap on the praise for good behavior and ignore or work on correcting the bad depending on the situation.
- Never assume that you’ll be able to jump right on the back of a horse you’ve just acquired and ride off into the sunset. All horses need bonding time. Some are more easygoing and some will need ample bonding time before letting you ride.
- There are lots of simple horse-human bonding tactics you can use, some that don’t even require a great deal of effort.
- Common bonding techniques include grooming, playing with your horse, groundwork training and simply spending time around your horse.
- Being firm yet loving and consistent are the best things you can be when bonding with a horse.
Bonding with horses is quite intuitive and not completely dissimilar from how humans bond with each other. We bond with our friends and family as children by playing and as adults by spending time together. We learn to hone in on how those close to us communicate and often pick up on when something isn’t quite right with them.
This is very close to how we bond with horses. Horses are intelligent, perceptive beings and will very likely pick up on your moods and emotions, too. If you’re happy, your horse will know. Likewise, if you’re down, your horse will probably know. This is a big part of what makes human-horse relationships so wonderful.
One of the most wonderful moments of horse ownership is likely to be when a horse you’ve spent loads of time bonding with expresses happiness when you show up at the stables or paddock. This is why, even if bonding with your horse seems to be taking longer than you’d hoped, it’s definitely worth the effort in the long run!