Bonding with your horse is an important part of building that strong relationship we see so many of our equestrian idols sharing with their equine friends. Horses are herd animals and social animals, they enjoy spending time with their herdmates either doing mutual grooming or just grazing side by side. When you get a horse you become part of their herd, and it’s important to both assert yourself as the leader of the herd, and to also work on building a bond based off of trust and respect. The more time you spend bonding, the better you and your horse will work with one another. Below are some ways you and your horse can spend time together bonding:
- Grooming: horses love to be rubbed and brushed on. In a herd setting you may see two to three horses or a mare and foal standing together, nuzzling and grooming each other’s back and withers. A horse that especially enjoys grooming may try to groom you, while not really an acceptable behavior, it is a way to see just how much your horse enjoys being groomed. Massaging their muscles can be a part of grooming they may enjoy as well, and it certainly feels good to them.
- Sit in the pasture or stall and observe their body language and behaviors: being able to learn what your horse looks and acts like when it is frightened, in pain, depressed, irritated, sick or happy is definitely an important part of bonding and building a relationship. Knowing what behaviors are normal for your horse and what behaviors are abnormal so you can be on alert if something is wrong, is something that all horse owners should know. I was always the “weird” kid who spent her free time sitting out in the pasture, eating my lunch, just observing each horse and what they were doing. It can be fun, educational and beneficial for both you and the horse.
- Groundwork: I’m a big fan of doing groundwork with your horse to really work on establishing a relationship based on trust and respect. If your horse doesn’t trust or respect you on the ground, they probably won’t trust or respect you under-saddle. If you can’t get your horse to do certain maneuvers on the ground, you probably won’t be able to do it under-saddle either. The groundwork is the foundation, I think, to building that relationship under-saddle. Ground-work is more than just lungeing a horse in circles until it’s too tired to do anything under-saddle. Groundwork can be anything from lungeing to desensitizing to introducing tack, etc. Lungeing shouldn’t be just working your horse until exhaustion, it should be engaging for the horse physically and mentally. I used to lunge for the purpose of tiring the horse out, but I now try to be more engaging with how I lunge. Instead of just having Zo lope circles in both directions for a half hour, we work on transitions, slowing things down since she and I both tend to rush things, smooth changes of direction, stopping right when I say “whoa”(she prefers rolling stops), keeping her nose tipped to the inside and just relaxing. I know when she’s starting to be more engaged and relaxing when she starts to lick and chew, blow and lower her head on the lunge line. I know when I’m asking too much too quickly, or not being clear when she starts to swish her tail back and forth on the line. We usually spend around 20-30 minutes working on the ground before moving to saddle work. Other things we’re working on is backing up when asked to on the ground and moving her hip over on the ground too. Ground-work is definitely an important part of bonding with any horse, and I don’t think it matters if it’s a green horse or a seasoned, older horse, ground-work is something that is good for everyone.
- Just spend time with them: Grooming and Ground-work and observation don’t have to be the only ways to bond. You can do things like take your horse out for a walk in-hand or just sit in the pasture or stall with them, talking to them or reading out loud. It’s enjoyable for them and can be rather therapeutic for you, the owner.
Things I wouldn’t use for bonding, is giving treats. Let’s be honest, horses love food and most horses enjoy a good apple or peppermint or molasses cookie. But giving too many treats too often can encourage your horse to become mouthy and begin doing things such as trying to search pockets for treats and nibbling at hands and fingers when they shouldn’t. I only give Zoey a treat after a ride or groundwork session and I don’t usually give her too many. If I don’t give her treats then I’ll spend extra time grooming her and give her a long bath(her favorite way to end a ride). Letting your horse use you as a rubbing post for its face, while it may seem cute and sweet at first, that is disrespectful and rude. You are not an itching post and your horse has no right to be invading your personal space in such a manner. Stopping to graze while being led to or from the barn, this is one of my biggest pet peeves—Zoey knows that she is not to go down for grass on her own accord. A horse that tries to go down for grass while you’re leading it, is disrespectful, in my opinion, and that is a behavior that should be corrected. If you wish to take your horse somewhere to do hand-grazing, that’s a different story.
There are other ways for you and your horse to bond with one another—you should work on building a relationship that results in your horse wanting to try its hardest for you under-saddle, whether it’s just for a hack out in a pasture or a world-championship show, your horse should want to work with you and be with you, not the opposite.