Balanced communication with your horse
Is there a better feeling for an equestrian than the moment when their most challenging horse becomes the most pleasurable to ride? It is that moment of sweet accomplishment when you and that horse have hit a beautiful harmony after ages of toil, reevaluation, misunderstanding, and finally…connection.
When your horse is attuned to you, instead of the surrounding environment, their body and mind is available. By creating singular focus (in a healthy way, not through fear) you’ll discover every aid, movement, and ride gets easier. How do you get your horse in tune with you? Start here:
- Find Your Focus
- Be Attuned to Your Horse First
- Create Pressure
- Then, Release
- Reinforce Small Steps
These past few months, I have been working with a horse who is the complete opposite of my favorite equine personality type. I typically prefer the opinionated over-thinkers: the horse that wants to learn, yet has his own opinion on everything you do, and wants to anticipate your requests before you even mention them.
“Overthinking” horses are my favorite because, although opinionated, they are always talking to you.
The mare I have been riding recently has not only been the opposite personality type, but she is also very green and unsure about everything. Fiery, sensitive, and elusive, Rose will often bite, kick, or stop when she doesn’t understand.
How do you make a horse want what you want?
When we face challenges as riders, we have two choices: we can either make the horse do what we want them to, or we can offer an opportunity to partner with us. The first choice involves a lot of fear tactics, often at the risk of overlooking potential pain, fear, and confusion they already experience. The second presents the horse with the choice to either work with us and be rewarded, or work against us and experience pressure.
Pressure is something that horses instinctually work to eliminate, which is why release is the ultimate reward to teach them. Release, in any form, is a way to show the horse that they are on the right track, without ever having to escalate to forceful training methods. The idea is to entice them in a positive direction, not look for the wrong behavior and punish it.
This Pressure-and-Release philosophy works with sensitive and stubborn horses alike, because it makes the ideal outcome their path of least resistance.
How to connect with your horse
- Find Your Focus: Every rider should know the trajectory of where they want their horse to be. As a lesson groupie, I used to rely on my trainer to tell me what I should expect from my horse. Once I started working on my own, I realized I needed to pre-determine my desired outcome for my horse. Be it behavioral achievements or learning a new movement, all horses thrive when challenged.
- Be Attuned to Your Horse First: Before you can provide any feedback to your horse, you’ll need to know as much as possible about their world at that current moment. Take note of their mood, any change in behavior, whether they seem relaxed or anxious, and if they could be experiencing any pain. Be aware of what they are communicating to you from the moment you walk into their stall.
- Create Pressure: Whatever it is that you want to teach your horse, the key is to apply just enough pressure to encourage the behavior, movement, or pattern. The pressure should be appropriate for the situation. If it’s a movement under saddle, this might be leg pressure and seat weight. If it’s a spooky corner in the trail that’s hard for your horse to pass, it could just be making it a hassle for them to back up or turn around. If it’s reaching farther into their back as they move, lean deep into your back pockets and maintain steady contact with their mouth.
- Then, Release: As soon as your horse takes that first step to accomplishing the desired outcome, release the pressure. Back off of the leg, loosen your body, or release a little of your reins. This will reinforce that the behavior they just performed provides them rest. Knowing this, they will come back to the behavior more quickly next time, because they want to have that experience of rest again sooner.
- Reinforce Small Steps: The wonderful thing about attunement is that the process itself gets easier as you incorporate it deeper into your training. You’re not only encouraging the good behavior or movement, but also a posture of more quiet and attentive listening.
Troubleshooting attunement issues
There are certain things that could inhibit your progress when conditioning your horse for attunement. The most common issues are pain, fear, confusion, and disrespect. After multiple attempts at teaching your horse the next movement or behavior, your horse may still not be responding. But all can be resolved by remaining present with your horse.
Photo Credit: Mya Brathwaite
So ask yourself if there could be any source of pain or fear, whether he fully understands your requests, and if you’ve been to passive in your boundaries recently.
Related: Boundaries in horsemanship
This method of creating a release in our training reinforces both our leadership and trustworthiness in our equine partnership. Instead of forcing your horse to do anything, you’re creating a circumstance where they can continue their behavior and maintain a state of discomfort and annoyance, or they can let you lead them to the next level, where they will restore the restful state they prefer.
Showing them that your behavior is predictable will reinforce their loyalty and respect for you over time.
In essence, you are conditioning them to understand that meeting your requests is the path of greatest reward. Additionally, your horse will come to see that you will always treat them kindly, even if they don’t want to give at first.
Now that Rose has caught on to the pressure-release dynamic, she is so much more willing to offer curiosity instead of fear in new challenges. Her development into a relaxed, sweet, and willing horse is a beautiful thing to behold. The fun part about training our horses is when we get to celebrate those victories together. But more than that, it’s about the memories and report we build with them over time.
Given time, consistency, and kindness, your horse will undoubtedly offer their best efforts in return.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you get a horse to pay attention to you?
Horses, similarly to humans, have varying attention spans. If your horse is not paying attention to you, try to figure out the root cause—is the horse distracted by something else? Since horses are prey animals, they are constantly on the lookout for threats. If your horse’s attention is directed towards something outside the arena, you need to redirect their attention back to you.
Try asking for something more mentally demanding, such as circles or figure-8s. Could your horse’s lack of attention be caused by boredom?
If you have been repeating the same exercise, switch it up. Instead of circles, add in a stop and back. Change up the gait or ask for a faster or slower version of the same gait. It may even be time to just call it quits and come back to the activity on another day—it’s important to end interactions with your horse on a positive note.
How do horses bond with humans?
Not all horses will bond with humans. Some horse/human pairs will never build a good bond. Even among those that will, some can be more difficult to form a bond with than others.
First, you must build trust, which takes time and repeated experiences. The horse must be able to predict how the human will act and react; with repetitive, consistent experiences, it is possible to build trust. Trust is not based in fear; it is important to establish mutual respect. If feeling like you have a bond with your horse is important to you, it may be helpful to work with a trainer to establish better communication with your horse.
Do horses get attached to their owners?
Horses can definitely form attachments to their owners and handlers. In their natural environment, horses live in family group herds and maintain long term bonds. These behaviors can be mimicked with people.
According to a University of Sussex (UK) study, horses have the ability to read facial expressions, remember a person’s emotional state, and adapt their behavior accordingly. Another study by ethologist Carol Sankey of the Université de Rennes (FR) looked at how well horses remembered a female trainer after being separated for 8 months. The horses responded to positive reinforcement and gravitated towards the experimenter, supporting the theory that horses can remember individual humans.
How do you get a horse’s attention?
There are several different ways to get a horse’s attention—by sound, visuals, or touch. If the horse is loose, such as in a field or corral, you could use sound to get their attention by calling their name or whistling. Another effective sound might be the noise of shaking grain in a bucket. Horses respond exceptionally well to body language—the visual component.
Learning how to read your horse’s body language will help you figure out what they are paying attention to, whether it is you or something else. Touch is an effective way to get a horse’s attention. For example, if you are riding and your horse is obviously distracted, using rein or leg pressure to turn them and redirect their focus might be effective in getting their attention back on you.
Do horses know when you’re sad?
Horses have the ability to pick up on human emotion, remember that emotional state, and change their behavior accordingly. A University of Sussex (UK) study showed horses a picture of a human (either happy or angry) and then measured the response to the same human in person with a neutral facial expression.
The horse reacted according to the picture they were shown, supporting theories that horses can read human emotion, and remember faces. Sometimes, horses can pick up on our emotions, such as sadness or nervousness, before we have even registered these emotions ourselves. Horses are very attuned to human emotions, giving us a powerful tool to better communicate with them.
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[UK, Smith & McComb] https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna35911274