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The Goal: Look in the Same Direction
Building the desired horse-human relationship right from the start is the hardest part for some horse owners, new and old. But it doesn’t have to be. And since everyone wants some sort of relationship with their horse, this topic is absolutely necessary, albeit not an easy or short one to address.
Currently, four of my clients have new horses, and since each is in the process of defining the kind of rapport they want with their new horse, this article seems most pertinent. Interestingly, each person sees their developing relationship as being the best and worst part of getting a new horse. So what is the magical formula that allows the connection to be built quickly and easily?
Like any new relationship, the getting to know you portion of the two is most important. But how long should that take with a horse? Basically, the more a horse has changed homes, herds and hands, the longer it will take for him to decide he’s safe enough to form bonds. Why? Fear. Pure and simple, he’s afraid to connect with a human because he has learned it won’t last anyway.
In the United States, horses change hands on average of every two years so it’s no wonder that the animals have learned a more self-reliant emotional existence. As herd animals, they want to bond, to have the family ties that give them a feeling of safety and predictability. Add in the hundreds of training methods and the diverse ways we humans have of communicating our demands to horses and it’s no wonder that many people find their new horse doesn’t want to be part of a two-way bonding experience. And it becomes our biggest challenge to show the horse he’s safe.
To break through to a horse who is wary of any bonding experience, I find it’s best to find a commonality—just as I would if meeting a person who speaks a language I do not; I must find some way of being understood, and I must be able to understand. This takes time and it also entails a lot of thinking outside the box. If I make everything look the way it always has to the horse, he’ll react the way he’s learned. Which may or may not be my own desired outcome during the exchange. You know how people always say, “Each horse is different,” and that ushers the usual nod of agreement? But then you watch that person interact with every single horse in exactly the same way and you wonder what in the world!
With a new horse, whether or not any history is known, I begin by observing and if possible, not letting the horse know I’m watching them as they settle in to their new home, or if in training at their own known home, I still need to get a feel for their own level of security. I’m looking for clues as to what they worry about, what calms them, how much they care about other horses, whether they are eating, drinking and any other tell they’ll offer. The horse may need more or less time than any other horse to begin feeling comfortable. During this transition phase, I spend time doing things with them, while they are at liberty. I don’t ask much of them, other than to give me room if I’m walking past. The one thing all horses need to know is to not stay on top of any person, to give distance, to not crowd. This is for my safety and for all human interaction. It doesn’t need to a negative experience, either. You can teach them your comfort zone using all positive reinforcement or by stopping and moving the horse away if he begins to crowd.
Just that lesson can and does cause angst in the human. The horse, not so much, but the person worries about getting bumped into, run over or even stomped or kicked. The rise in heart rate, shortness of breath, increased tension—these all lead to the horse thinking to himself that something is wrong, The problem is that usually, he doesn’t know what to be wary of, and will many times begin to fear the person in question. Bad way to start a relationship, right?
With any new horse, I spend time with him loose in his safe spot and that’s usually where he’s living. Just he and I, hanging out, doing chores, cleaning a water tank, or whatever. The point is to keep my energy level below his at all times. The energy level discussion can be a touchy one for the unicorn-loving among us. The belief that our energy is the only thing that influences the horse is a misconception because yes, it counts, but no, it is not the end-all. The horse is able to process his world on so many more levels than us simply because he’s more aware and in tune than we are. He sees, feels, hears, touches and smells his surroundings, but he’s also in tune with his herd mates on a whole other level. Heartbeat to heartbeat, breath to breath, they can communicate with each other silently and easily and they do this with us as well. Can we understand everything they transmit? Maybe. But our increased angst and energy is definitely and always felt, registered and processed by the horses we are around.
So why even talk about this invisible part of the horse and how he interprets his world? Because if we can learn to pause, slow, and to be more attentive, we can also feel what the horse transmits through his body language, but more so through his energy and tension or lack thereof. It’s communication I’m talking about here, but not the verbal way we humans go to first while dismissing the feeling we get in our gut if we notice an uneasiness around certain people.
***Part Two of this piece is on my website here: www.TanyaBuck.com
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Happy Holidays and keep riding, Happily Ever After!