I’ve always dreamed of having this perfect relationship with my horse. I want to show my horse I love him and I want him to love me. Of course, the reality can sometimes be much different.
I find this is true if you’re focusing primarily on performance and obedience.
I remember times I would be so wrapped up in getting a perfectly straight line, a good canter transition, a smooth jump that I wasn’t thinking about just hanging out with the horse and enjoying our time together.
So, I decided to incorporate what have become my 5 essential horse bonding exercises into our routine that are non-negotiable. I do a lot more than this now but these I think are the minimums that you can set your intention on to build trust and connection with your horse.
I remember when I was a little girl and just being near a horse was the best thing in the world. I try and embrace that mentality as much as possible now and let go of all the expectations and frustrations that come along with training for specific skills, events and competitions.
How Do You Show Your Horse You Love Them
Maybe if things haven’t been going smoothly, the idea of bonding with your horse is sounding a bit overwhelming and impossible right about now. I’ve found that the 3 secrets to success are: 1) staying present, 2) starting small and 3) having absolutely no expectations.
If you’ve read my series on training my 4-year-old gelding, Rudy, you’ll know that I’m huge on staying mentally present.
When you’re with your horse, try your best not to think about what you’re having for dinner, what if your horse spooks or does something bad, that e-mail that you have to send later, how much that meeting at work annoyed you. Really focus on being 100% there with your horse during these exercises.
Think of being with your horse as a meditation practice. During the time that you’re with them, it’s your time to let go of everything else and show your horse that you love them by giving them your undivided attention.
How to Bond with your Horse: 5 Horse Bonding Exercises
The following bonding exercises have helped my horse and I relax together, connect with eachother more and have actually accelerated our training success. A lot of high level skills that horses perform are actually much easier for them to do if they’re in a relaxed state of body and mind. And obviously, the more trusting and connected they are to the rider, the easier everything becomes.
- Exploring by Hand Walking
- Easy Days Doing Nothing in the Pasture
- Play Time in the Arena
- Finding Your Horse’s Itchy Spot
- Massage Bonding
Let’s get started!
Let’s talk about these first!
Take your horse for a hand walk and explore the neighbourhood or the property.
Let your horse graze, sniff and see new sights.
In the wild, horses travel vast distances and come across different things every day. Your horse will really enjoy exploring new places with you and will start to trust you.
A great idea is to hand walk your horse on a new trail. By hand walking rather than riding, you’re giving your horse a little bit of a break and you’re leading a safe path way through potentially dangerous, new territory.
While doing this, it’s important to stay really patient and don’t let your mind wander.
If your horse starts to spook or gets concerned about something, remember that you’re in no rush! This isn’t about obidience, this is about bonding time. Let your horse take his time, check out whatever is bothering him and when he starts to show you he’s a bit more relaxed, keep going.
If you’re not sure how to read subtle cues your horse is getting more anxious or more relaxed, check out this post: How Do Horses Show Their Emotions?
A trick I use to really stay present with my horse and keep my mind from wandering off to the millions of other things we tend to think about every day, I match steps. I learned this technique from one of my favourite horse trainers, Warwick Schiller.
A Horse Bonding Game You Can Play Anywhere
Essentially what you do is that you mirror what your horse is doing with their front feet with your legs. You’re trying to match the steps so that when your horse steps with his left front hoof, you’re stepping forwards at the same time with your left leg.
Another thing you can do is mirror your horse’s head by looking where your horse is looking. If something catches your horses attention to the right, you can also look to the right to show your horse that you’re paying attention to them and you’re also trying to see whatever it is they’re seeing.
#2. Easy Days
Just hang out with your horse.
I do this with Rudy all the time! If I wasn’t boarding him and had my own stable I would spend an hour a day doing this probably. I’d just go out to the field and have my morning coffee with the horses.
You can sit or stand in your horse’s pasture with them.
There’s no agenda here. You don’t need them to come to you, you don’t need to go to them. You can be closer to them or further away. Whatever you feel like your horse is telling you that day.
You might find that your horse will come over and stand near you and enjoy this “do nothing” time. If not, that’s totally OK too! Remember, there’s no expectations here.
If you’re planning on doing this for a while, you can take a book if you find it hard to just sit. But I find it much more beneficial if you can do your best to stay present and just observe your horse, your horse in the herd and things around the pasture.
By staying present, you’re acting as a valuable herd member and contributing to the safety of the herd. Horses are VERY sensitive to our attention. They know when we’re in the moment and they know when our thoughts are somewhere else.
One thing I love to do is go up to Rudy when he’s grazing, put my hand on his shoulder and just match steps with him as he walks around to graze. This way, I know I’m staying present the whole time.
#3. Play Time (Horse Bonding Games)
Lead your horse to water and let them play. Find a waterhole, river or pond. Take your horse there on a long lead line and let them get wet. Most horses will walk in and paw the water and splash around, especially if it’s a really hot day!
You can also let your horse loose in an enclosed arena and give them some stuff to play with. Rudy loves pylons. He’s even started stacking them if you can believe it! He has absolutely no interest in inflatable balls but some horses love those. Just experiment a little bit and see what your horse likes.
Try and teach your horse something simple using treats. For instance target training or following you around off the halter. Be creative!
But just remember the purpose: bonding. That means no pressure, no expectations, no frustration. If your horse never learns how to hit the targets, it’s fine. As long as she’s interacting with you and she’s getting some treats out of it, it should be a pretty fun experience all around!
#4. Find Your Horse’s Itchy Spot
Rudy has an itchy spot on either sides of the base of his tail on his bum! I know I’ve hit it because he moves his tail over to allow me to scratch more and he’ll stretch out his whole body to enjoy it more.
The three most common spots for your horse’s itchy spot are: the withers, around the ears and the neck.
Research has suggested that scratching the withers of a horse seems to imitate allogrooming (horses scratching each other’s withers with their lips and teeth).
This mutual grooming serves to reaffirm the bond between horse and human.
Given your horse is led by a halter or bridle – in and around the ear area can become sore or sweaty.
Horses have a hard time reaching this spot on their own so this is where you become their favourite tool!
It has been said that the best way to approch a horse is patting under its neck or along the side of it. A horses neck is strong yet vulnerable being so exposed.
Usually at one end or the other you will find a sweet spot. Your your horse will thank you!
#5. Massage Bonding
How to massage your horse? You’ll want to start at the base of the skull and work your way to the hind end. Once you’ve massaged your horse, check in with how he feels under saddle next time your ride. You may find yourself with a more relaxed and supple partner!
The touch and mindfulness of the moment helps to build on your connection with one another and become more intune.
By practicing massage in an act of unmounted horsemanship, you can begin to understand your horse’s musculature and respond to the knots and imbalances with a gentle touch that inspires trust in your partnership.
On the physical side, consistent massage can increase flexibility, releive muscle soreness, aid in muscle recovery, assist in muscle imbalances, muscle detoxification and relieve tension, particularly in the poll area.
In addition to numerous physical benefits, massage can also be advantageous to your horse’s mental state. Once a horse is feeling physically better, we begin to ses changes in their general attitute. This translates into being able to tackle psychological issues, especially those that are rooted in pain.
If you liked this post and feel like we have similar views on horse things, you might like The Confident Rider Bootcamp. Over the years, I’ve come up with my favourite 14 methods to fix what I think are the most common issues riders have in the saddle using clearer communication that will improve your bond!
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More Posts Like This You Might Enjoy…
- How Do Horses Show Their Emotions? [+ Horse Emotions Chart]
- How Do Horses Show Affection? [4 Ways To Know If You’ve Bonded]
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