There are several schools of thought when it comes to horse training. One is to “break” the spirit of the animal so that it becomes tame and obedient. The other is to befriend and cultivate a relationship of love and trust with your horse so that it becomes a loyal companion.
If the latter appeals to you more, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll tell you how to befriend a horse rather than trying to dominate it.
Why befriend your horse?
Horses are incredibly intelligent, empathetic, and generally wonderful beings. If a person’s natural instinct is to master and dominate another sentient being, then they really need to examine their motives.
If you were to meet someone with whom you would want to cultivate a relationship, would you want to establish trust, friendship, love and respect? Or just force them to obey you so they don’t get punished?
If you don’t treat a loved one that way, then don’t approach horses (or dogs, or any other animal companions) that way either.
Horses are massive creatures and you should be able to expect a reasonable amount of obedience and respect from them. But rather than achieving it through coercion and force, you can foster a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship.
Tips for Befriending a Horse
The tips below are great starting points when trying to befriend your horse. Try implementing one or all of these to see their impact on how your horse behaves around you.
Back off if any of these steps seem to be creating a problem, then try reapplying them more slowly. Sometimes you just need more time to make things work.
1. Spend as much time with them as possible
It goes without saying, but like any other relationship you develop, the most important thing is to spend lots of time together.
It also doesn’t have to be invasive. You don’t have to talk, touch, play or tend to your horse all the time. We all need alone time and horses are no different.
They like to be social sometimes, but they also like to be left alone to get on with what they want to do.
The key is just to be there. Bring a book into the barn or pasture and read it nearby. Or bring something portable that you are working on and can do quietly near your horse.
Woodcarving, drawing, sewing, etc. are great options because you can focus on your task and still talk softly to the horse from time to time. But you don’t make a lot of noise or sudden movements to disturb your horse.
Walk around the paddock or pasture with them if they approach you, or give them a friendly hand while talking encouragingly.
2. Speak softly to them
Horses pick up on your energy easily and can be spooked just as easily. We mentioned rustling plastic bags in our article about what horses don’t like and how these bags can scare horses.
Remember that horses are flying animals. Their entire brain and body are primed to react quickly to any kind of strange sensation or perceived danger. It is difficult to befriend a horse that is in a state of fear.
When communicating with them, it is important to maintain a steady and gentle tone. Talk to them as if you were communicating with a beloved child or a close friend you haven’t seen in a while. Compliment your horse, tell him about your day, and maybe tell him some stories.
They may not understand you, but they will understand your intention and your energy. They will come to associate your voice with comfort and reassurance.
3. Be vulnerable with them
One of the best ways to show a horse that you are not a threat to him is to be vulnerable around him.
Sit or lie on the ground near them. It should be close enough that they can see you clearly, but not too close to encroach on their space. They will see that you pose no threat and their natural curiosity will undoubtedly bring them closer to you.
Of course, it may take them a little time to adjust to you, especially if they’ve been abused in the past. But if you do it regularly, don’t be surprised when all of a sudden your horse comes up and drops close to you. When he finally decides you’re not a threat, he’ll probably be looking forward to your company.
Of course, don’t do this around a horse that is jumpy, skittish, rearing, rearing, or acting stupid. Even when trying to befriend your horse, safety always comes first.
4. Act like a horse
Okay, this one might sound a little silly, but hear me out.
Horses are herd animals, and they feel comfortable and secure when those around them engage in similar behaviors. So when you’re out in the pasture with them, bend over and pick up the grass with your fingers. Bring a snack with you and chew it slowly while looking around.
If the weather is nice, lie down and roll around in the grass for a bit. Not only is it great fun (because who doesn’t like to roll around outside on a nice day?), it’ll show them that oh, okay, it’s a creature that also does things we like to do.
It’s a recognizable and familiar behavior that will be one more point in your favor for being “horse friendly” material.
5. Offer snacks (and eat together)
It works well for befriending just about anyone, doesn’t it? In the case of a horse, sharing food together is a great way to build extra trust. It also lets them know you’re a purveyor of tasty treats, which will generally make them more eager to spend time with you.
Keep healthy and tasty horse snacks like carrots and apple slices with you whenever you spend time with your horse or horses. Then, when they are nearby, you can break or cut pieces and offer them.
At this point, show them that you eat it too. It creates a bonding experience while spending time together, which doesn’t involve looking around awkwardly.
Think of it like sharing a meal with someone you’re getting to know. This is an opportunity to lower their respective walls and get to know each other a little better while taking care of something pleasant.
6. Prepare for each other
Normally, grooming is more of a one-way thing, but horses groom when they want to show affection and attention.
Be sure to brush, pet and groom your horse daily. He or she will come to associate your company with pleasant and happy feelings. Your presence is synonymous with care and gentleness in their experience. As such, they will be eager to spend more time with you.
You’ll know you’re on your way to befriending your equine companion when they begin to heal you. This often takes the form of nibbling on your shoulder or head. Horses are a little tougher than us, so they appreciate being chewed on a bit.
Don’t be afraid to correct your horse if he bites a little too hard. This is how they learn the strength they can use with you. Their horse friends do the same.
You might as well get used to the fact that you’ll probably get a horse hair cut or holes in your clothes during this process. See it as a rite of passage and proof that your efforts are paying off.
Some trainers believe that letting a horse groom you opens the door to other types of horse behavior. Like they’re trying to establish dominance over you by biting you or kicking you. I have never experienced this with a horse, but if it happens it will have to be dealt with.
You can never allow dangerous behavior to continue.
7. Stay aware of your own well-being
Stay aware of your surroundings, of course. If you share a space with a 1000 pound animal, you will want to know where it is at all times. Also, you need to be ready to pull away suddenly if this happens.
Be open and confident with your horse, but also take steps to protect yourself from potential injury. This is especially important if you are rehabilitating a rescue. If a horse has been mistreated by people in the past, it will take a little longer to figure out that he is safe with you.
If he scares and jumps quickly, or instinctively fires off in self-defense, you could end up with broken bones. So stay vigilant.
Sign that your horse sees you as a friend
There are surefire signs that your efforts to befriend a horse are working. For instance:
- He giggles or neighs when he sees you
- They will come running towards the fence or barn door when you approach
- Your horse playfully nudges you with his face
- He rests his head on your shoulder (essentially a “horse hug”)
- He either lies next to you or has his head in your lap.
- She snuggles up to you and breathes your face
- Your horse is comfortable lying down (down) when you are near
- The aforementioned grooming happens quite often
Ultimately, if you want to befriend a horse, your best bet is to simply be a really good friend. Be the kind of person you would want to date if you were a horse.
Friendships are cultivated over time, and you will gain much more trust and devotion from someone with whom you are kind and patient, rather than dominating and demanding.
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