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Bonding 101: How To Approach Your Horse for Success

horse bonding approach
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Written by Lindsey Rains

Lay the Groundwork

Do you have a friend in your life who *knows* when something is wrong before you even need to say anything? Or a spouse or partner who can read your mind from a simple shift in your body language? Or perhaps your parents know exactly how you are doing based on your tone of voice over the phone?

Without even trying, your horse can also pick up on your state of being from your body language, touch, and tone of voice.

Horses are often used in therapy because they’re notoriously intuitive, often picking up on human emotions even before the handler knows it’s happening. Their impressive intuition can be both a strength and a weakness. On the up side, it allows them to be incredibly attuned to humans and create dynamite riding duos.

The down side is that horses often react to even our most subtle fears and anxieties — they assume our fear is always due to imminent danger. They cannot understand the difference between being nervous about an upcoming work meeting versus a a grizzly bear hiding behind a nearby tree.

This is also why horses cannot decipher between us being upset with them, versus being upset about something stressful going on in our lives.

Wanted: A Better Bond

We all want to feel a strong bond with our horses. Yet, as with healthy human relationships, it won’t “just happen.” Forging a bond with your horse requires being intentional and introspective.

In this segment of our Bonding 101 series, we’re going to discuss

how to approach your horse.

horse bond approach

Components of a Better Horse Bond

There are two elements that influence how we approach our horses:

  1. Internal Factors: What is the rider dealing with
  2. External Factors: What is the horse feeling and facing

Read on to learn how you can build a stronger bond with your equine partner by simply tuning your approach.

Internal Factors

The first thing I want to discuss is how we approach our horses internally. By internally, I mean what’s going on with *us* before we even get to the barn. Because horses are so intuitive, they can immediately sense when something is going on with us, whether we’re having a good or bad day, whether we’re nervous, or whether we’re upset about something.

Taken to the extreme, people who abuse animals almost always have internal issues disrupting their own lives. It’s no excuse for their behavior, but it does illustrate how seemingly unrelated challenges can undermine the human-animal bond.

Of course, the vast majority of equestrians have the best of intentions. But we’re all capable of allowing internal struggles to cause tension in our horses.

Pause to Check In

The first — and most important — thing to do before you head into the barn or pasture is to stop and check in with yourself. Before we even see our horses we need to know how we’re doing.

This can be as simple as parking at the barn, turning off the car, and saying aloud:

Hey, how am I doing today?

Be honest about how you feel in that moment. For example:

  • Am I coming with a lot of intense emotions?
  • Am I coming straight from work?
  • Am I stressed out?
  • Am I upset with my boss? spouse? friend?
  • Am I worried about financial matters?

Your answer one day may be that everything is awesome and you’re excited to see your horse. Other days, the answer may be that you’re frustrated and upset about something that happened earlier in the day and feel distracted.

There’s no “right” answer — what matters most to your horse is that you show up authentically.

Leave Emotional Baggage in the Truck

The barn should be a place of solace. If we bring intense emotions to our horses, they’re going to pick up on that and respond in kind. But leaving your problems in the truck is easier said than done, right? Here’s the good news:

You have the power to change how you feel by changing how you think.

Start by simply acknowledging your feelings as valid and accepting where you are mentally. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and set a productive intention for your horse time that day.

Here are a few examples: 

  • I want to connect with my horse on a deeper level.
  • I want to bring my best self to the arena today.
  • I want to show my horse appreciation, love, and grace.

This brief simple mental reset can make a profound difference in how you internally show up for your horse.

Photo Credit: Olivia Garl 

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Be Your Own Best Friend

Sometimes we think our horse is going be our therapist (or should be). In one sense, they are very therapeutic. But your horse can’t solve your very human problems.

In order to be your horse’s best friend, we first have to be our own best friend first.

Too often we think, subconsciously, that a horse should know that we’re having a bad day and magically make us feel better. Depending on your energy, though, they often respond to your stress with tension. By bringing your issues to the barn, you inadvertently added an extra layer of fear or anxiety to your lesson. Darn it!

Don’t saddle your horse with your problems.

Instead, try giving yourself the kind of pep talk you’d receive from a close friend before heading out to catch your horse.

Try repeating positive statements to see which ones resonate most. I’ve even started keeping a list of my favorite affirmations on my phone so I can easily access and read them in times of stress.

Here are a few examples: 

  • I anticipate positive outcomes.
  • I am more resilient than I feel I this moment.
  • Everything is getting better every day.
  • Emotions aren’t facts.
  • All is well right here, right now.

By refocusing on your strength, resiliency, and creativity, your brain can switch from “problem mode” to “solution mode.” Simply by being mindful and intentional with our thoughts, we can approach our horses from a healthier mental place.

External Factors

After considering our internal issues, the second thing is how we approach our horses externally.

We’re all guilty of rushing home from work, throwing on our riding clothes, racing to the barn, grabbing a halter, and heading straight to the paddock. Even if you’re in a great mood, your horse may feel like you’re “coming on too strong.”

She may give you a wary look, back away, and try telling you to ratchet down the intensity, thank you very much!

how to think like a horse book

Click to see it at Amazon

Breathe to Relax

The best way to slow things down and relax is to breathe. It sounds very simple, but the secret to good horsemanship is to take a deep breath and relax. (Translation: exhale slowly.)

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you’ll be familiar to this kind of focused breathing.

Body Language

Next, pay attention to your body language. Horses are always studying us, and a few adjustments can make them far more comfortable.

If I move towards the horse sharply and aggressively, for example, she will feel uneasy and worried. If I’m calm, steady, and unassuming, she’s going to be more relaxed around me.

Tone of Voice

We also should consider our tone of voice. We want to convey tranquility and matter-of-factness in our tone of voice.

If we come to our horse with, say, a high pitch in our tone of voice, or anything that conveys that things are not ok, the horse is going to pick up on that vibe.

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Gentle Touch

You want to touch your horse first on the neck or shoulder. Don’t immediately reach for any horse’s face.

After you stroke the neck, and your horse is clearly comfortable, you may move to the face, which is a more sensitive and vulnerable area.

horse gentle touch

Your horse will tell you what he likes. (Pixabay)

Watch and Learn

The last tip for approaching your horse externally is simply to observe. Is your horse calm? Is she excited? Does she seem happy to see you? Does she appear agitated or in pain? Or perhaps she seems nervous or steps away from you when she normally steps towards you.

Some things will be more obvious — like if your horse is lame, you’ll see her limping.

But even small movements and behaviors can tell you a lot about how your horse is feeling on a particular day. Observe and take inventory of what you notice — it’s going to affect your whole experience.

Just like us, our horses have good and bad days.

If you observe indicators of agitation, any sort of tension or fear or hyper-vigilance, those are all indicators that you might need to take things more slowly that day.

An Art Not a Science

In summary, how we approach our horses internally and externally has a huge impact on whether we have an enjoyable riding experience or a bad one. But learning how to shift your emotions and behavior takes time, patience, and a healthy dose of trial and error.

When we learn to be more aware of how to approach our horses, we lay the foundation for a stronger bond. After all, only when horses are at peace will they offer you the best of themselves.

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About the author

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Lindsey Rains

Lindsey Rains is the owner of Hoof Print Marketing, a boutique equestrian social media agency serving clients like The Plaid Horse, Savvy Horsewoman, and (of course!) Horse Rookie. She resides in Post Falls, ID, USA, with her husband, where she loves taking jumping lessons.