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.