By Joanne Verikios
For those who have asked (thank you!) for a copy of my contribution to the Horses & Foals article "34 Equestrian Bloggers Teach You How To Bond With Your Horse", here it is.
We were asked to answer two questions.
1. How do you bond with your horse so that you can get him/her to trust you?
Horses are naturally gregarious and inquisitive. They also respond best when they feel calm and confident. We can use these characteristics to make the bonding process as fast and as durable as possible. To bond with a new horse and get him/her to trust me, I would ideally keep them in a small yard to begin with. This is also a sound idea for quarantine purposes, before you introduce a new horse to an existing community. The yard situation gives me the opportunity to provide everything the horse requires: water, food and companionship. I spend time just watching the horse and hanging out inside or outside the fence, making no demands. Depending on the horse, I may also do some grooming, scratching, cleaning out feet etc. Once the horse is comfortable with approaching me, I introduce a catch, reward and release routine for no particular reason. If the horse is already friendly and well-handled, the bonding can be achieved quite quickly. If the horse is unhandled or fearful, the process can take a little longer. When the horse greets you with a smile and a whinny, you know you have the beginnings of a successful relationship.
2. What is your best tip for bonding with a new horse?
My best tip leverages two elements: time and pleasure. By giving the horse your time in a quiet and undemanding manner - just observing them as I like to do, or sitting and reading a book, or mediating, you show them that you pose no threat, you are a friend and that they can relax and simply enjoy your company. This is an intangible gift to the horse and very, very powerful. Do whatever it takes so that you can hang out with them for as long and as often as possible. A few minutes once or twice a day will be enough for some horses; others with major trust issues will need longer. Once the horse accepts you, you make the connection pleasurable by providing more tangible things the horse will enjoy, such as grooming, exercise, mental stimulation (ie, teaching new things) and the occasional earned treat.
Quick story: Some of the visiting broodmares sent to my Warmblood stallion, Highborn Powerlifter, were not very well handled. I remember one couple dropping their mare off with the instructions to never remove her head collar and never let her go in a big paddock. When they came to pick up their now in-foal mare about six weeks later, they saw to their dismay that she was grazing down the far end of a large paddock and furthermore, was not wearing her head collar! I could see them exchange panicky glances which clearly said, "Oh no! How long is this going to take?" Their expressions changed to relieved amazement when all the horses cantered up the hill when I whistled and I was easily able to catch their previously elusive mare. How did I do it? They were keen to know. Apart from the steps outlined above, I would also catch and release her once or twice while she was eating or just for fun. No big deal and she soon came to consider it a pleasant part of life.
By Joanne Verikios
One thing you may not know about me is that I studied Russian at University, coincidentally during the Cold War. My interest was sparked by purely cultural considerations and had nothing to do with politics. Think vodka and balalaika music, not collective farms and five-year plans!
I loved reading the great Russian novels and was struck by Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina:
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
The sentence is a metaphor for many things, including the bond (or lack of it) between horses and humans. Tolstoy's own writings show that he was clearly in favour of the sensitive and empathetic treatment of animals, including horses, so I don't think he would mind if I paraphrased it to say:
"All happy horse-human partnerships are alike; each unhappy horse-human partnership is unhappy in its own way".
I was recently fascinated to learn that there is such a thing as the Anna Karenina principle.
To quote Wikipedia: "The Anna Karenina principle was popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond uses this principle to illustrate why so few wild animals have been successfully domesticated throughout history, as a deficiency in any one of a great number of factors can render a species undomesticable. Therefore all successfully domesticated species are not so because of a particular positive trait, but because of a lack of any number of possible negative traits."
Horses have proven to be good candidates for domestication and the rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking of history, there is a tendency for each new generation to claim certain beneficial outcomes as their own and the horse-human bond is no exception. It is easy to find new advocates for the humane treatment of horses and who speak and act as if it was they who invented the emphasis on bond rather than bondage. To an extent they are right, as everyone must discover something for the first time, but they are by no means pioneers!
Turning to documentary evidence, the Greek general Xenophon, who is credited with the first ever manual on selecting and training riding horses, wrote during the late-5th and early-4th centuries BC:
“For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.”
Use this link for instant download of "On Horsemanship" by Xenophon (eBook format with a foreword by author Joanne Verikios).
Well before Xenophon, horses feature prominently - even to the extent of being deified - in an ancient Indo-Aryan sacred text known as the Rigveda, which is thought to have been composed between 1500 and 1200 BC.
The close association - or even fusion - of horsemen and horses with godlike qualities is apparent in other traditions too. The Greek myth of the winged horse Pegasus and the hero Bellerophon is perhaps the best known, early example of a supernatural relationship between horse and human.
Around the same time as the Rigveda, a man named Kikkuli, who was hailed as "the master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni" compiled a comprehensive program for conditioning Hittite chariot horses circa 1400 BC. The methods advocated were strikingly similar to "modern" interval training techniques and included advice on the regular feeding, exercise, and care and of the horses, including the important, bond-building, contact time involved in warming down, washing, stabling and rugging.
When you read 34 Equestrian Bloggers Teach You How To Bond With Your Horse, I am sure you will be struck, as I was, about the timeless principles expressed by so many and the essential, "secret" ingredients: time spent with the horse and the human's attitude and demeanor in the presence of the horse. Enjoy!
From a very early age I have been able to tune in to what horses and ponies were thinking and what they were likely to do next.