It’s the invisible force that makes champions.
When it comes to success in any equine discipline it takes talent, skill, and practice; all of which can be honed over time to help a horse-rider team reach success; however, one key ingredient that often goes unnoticed is the strength of the bond between them. The connection shared by riders and their equine partners has an immense impact on performance – it’s what allows human-equine teams to go beyond satisfactory results into true championship form.
Having a deep connection with your horse can give you incredible insight into their emotions. You can use your connection to understand how your horse is feeling, which enables you to anticipate behaviour that might lead you down the wrong path and diffuse it before any tensions arise. You can avoid overworking your horse by tuning into how he is feeling. By being able to read the signs of fatigue, you’ll know when your horse has reached his limits, and this will help you to know when to quit for the day.
Horses have their own unique personalities, but you can use your bond with your horse to your advantage by intuiting when and how to avoid resistance or ‘unwanted’ behaviour. It can also help you build confidence and trust in your horse by being able to read their signs of fear and teaching them to look to you for comfort and reassurance.
When you have a strong connection, your horse will look to you for safety and reassurance
A good example of why it’s important to have a strong connection is with two of my horses who came to me last year when they were 8 and 6. Shilo is the older of the two, and the leader of his mini herd of two. The other member is Twyla, his younger sister. Before coming to me, they’d had very little human interaction at all, and no groundwork. Neither had formed any connection with humans so did not look to humans for leadership, protection, or safety, or to have any of their needs met. Essentially they’d been left to fend for themselves for most of their lives.
Since they’ve been with me, my goal has been to build a connection with them, while getting used to interacting with me and learning basic groundwork. They are both very different personalities, so I tailor my interactions with them to suit their individual needs.
Initially, Shilo was hypervigilant, with a strong instinct to go into flight mode at the first sign of what he perceives as danger. Knowing that about him I make sure I’m grounded, calm and present whenever I’m interacting with him, keeping my energy soft and quiet. Because horses view humans as predators, I don’t do anything that he could interpret as predatory behaviour, as it could easily send him rocketing into a state of fear. During the process of building a connection with him my goal has been to create balance, by preserving his natural sensitivity with learning to look to me for safety and comfort whenever he feels anxious or threatened. I want him to willingly do what I ask of him because he trusts me and feels safe to do so.
In the early days Shilo tended to flip out when something unfamiliar was going on in his environment. Whenever that happened I knew he was not paying attention to me. He was not used to turning to humans whenever he felt threatened, he was used to operating on pure feel and instinct. But as we’ve built our connection, I’ve learned to intuit the signs when he’s worried about something, and he’s learned that he can turn to me for reassurance when he is feeling anxious. This prevents him from flipping out.
Knowing when he was getting worried, meant that I could help him stay calm and relaxed and we could generally work through it. He has built up a lot of confidence and trust since he’s been here and is a much calmer horse. There is the odd occasion when we’re doing something together and I sense that my reassurance is not going to work, so I quit whatever I’m trying to do, knowing that we can always start again tomorrow.
Twyla is the more relaxed of the two. She is used to looking to another for guidance, protection, and reassurance which I believe has made it easier to form a connection with her and gain her trust. By using patience and being present in all that I do, I have been able to gain their trust and build a connection with them. Whenever I introduce them to something new, I use their natural curiosity to gain their interest. By taking one small step at a time in the process, I can stay tuned into how they are feeling and aware of how they are responding to whatever I am introducing them to, and back off whenever I sense they are reaching their limits. That way they can go at a pace that is comfortable for them.
Connection enables you to know whether your horse is enjoying their work
Another advantage of having a strong connection is that it enables you to know if your horse is enjoying their work or not, or whether they might be better suited to another discipline.
For example, we bred an Arabian mare whose mum came from a long line of successful endurance horses, but her sire was used to a show/stud career. Our intention for our young mare was to introduce her to endurance. Her early training involved ponying her alongside her mum on our morning training ride through the forest surrounding our farm. But it was clear from her behaviour out on the trails that she was not cut out for endurance, she resisted the whole time we were out. So we decided to try showing her instead, with a view to training her for dressage. She seemed much happier doing this kind of work, and excelled, even taking out Champion Hack Mare during her first time under saddle at the East Coast Championships.
Why traditional dominance based training methods make connection impossible.
Horses are highly sensitive, intelligent animals with complex emotional needs. They are flight animals whose instinct is to run to safety whenever they feel threatened. Unfortunately, many traditional dominance-based training methods rely on pain, fear, and punishment to ‘teach’ horses what is expected of them. This often results in an animal that is fearful of its human handler, making connection between the two difficult if not impossible.
Dominance-based training methods can create horses that are difficult to handle, unpredictable and resistant. This is because their responses are based on negative reinforcement rather than positive reward-based methods which build trust.
Because horses rely on relationships with other members of their herd for safety and security, the relationship they have with their human handler should be no different. Fear and punishment can lead to a horse feeling threatened and oppressed, which can cause them to become uncooperative, disconnected or shut down.
On the other hand, a more horse-oriented approach involves a patient trainer who will take the time to let the horse learn at its own pace, avoiding using force or punishment to get quick results. Developing a trusting bond between human and horse is key to successful training, and patience allows a horse handler the time to build this bond.
It is also important to remember that horses have their own personalities, just like people. As a result, the same approach will not work for all horses – it is essential to develop an understanding of the horse’s individual personality and use training methods tailored to them.
Using Twyla and Shilo as an example, I believe that if traditional dominance-based methods of training were used with either of these horses, it could have turned them into fearful, untrusting, confused horses.
At its core, the goal of training should be to form a bond and connection with a horse, where communication in a shared language is key. Fear and punishment will not achieve this. A gentler, more horse-oriented approach allows for trust to be built between horse and handler, creating an animal that is willing to cooperate, friendly and responsive.
In conclusion, traditional dominance-based training methods can make the desired connection with horses impossible. Positive reinforcement-based methods, on the other hand, can help to develop a mutual understanding and trust between horse and handler that will build a strong bond for years to come.
How do you build a strong connection with your horse?
One way is by spending quality time with them, just as you would in any relationship you want to develop. People I know who have the best connections with their horses, spend time with their horses and believe it is key when it comes to building a strong bond.
Whenever you are with your horse you should always reinforce that you are the leader of your herd. That applies whether you are trail riding, training, or just hanging out with your horse. It’s important to stay aware so as not to let any of their behaviours slip by – from big reactions all the way down to smaller responses. That way, a trusting relationship between you and your horse can be cultivated.
In my next blog post I’ll discuss leadership in more detail and how having a strong connection with your horse relates to being a leader your horse trusts, listens to, and respects.
In the meantime, here are some more tips on how to connect more deeply with horses.
Take the time to observe – Spend a few moments observing your horse without any expectations or agenda. Notice the little things such as their movement, breathing pattern and behaviour. This will help you to gain insight into how they are feeling and will make it easier for you to connect with them on a deeper level.
Listen with your heart – Listen to what your horse is telling you, not only with their body language but also with their eyes. Horses can give us a wealth of information if we just pay attention and take the time to really listen.
Find stillness – Connecting deeply requires us to step away from the chaos of our everyday lives and find a sense of stillness. When we quiet our mind, we open ourselves up to the possibility of forming deeper connections with horses.
Show patience – Horses are sensitive creatures and need time to adjust to new environments and people. Give them space and be patient with them as they learn to trust you.
Communicate non-verbally – Horses communicate mostly non-verbally, so it’s important to learn how to read their body language and energy. This will help you better understand them and develop a deeper connection.
Spend time together – The best way to form a deep bond is to spend quality time together. Doing activities such as grooming, riding, walking together, meditating, or just hanging out in the paddock and enjoying each other’s company can help deepen the connection between you and your horse. You can’t build a relationship with your horse if you don’t spend time getting to know your horse.
By taking the time to cultivate our connection with horses, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities. We can use this bond as an opportunity to learn about ourselves, show kindness and compassion, and enjoy the beauty of life. It is a magical connection that can bring us countless moments of joy and lasting memories. So take the time to form a deeper relationship with your equine friend and discover how special this bond can be. You won’t regret it!
If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more about how I can help you connect more deeply with your horse, please feel free to get in touch either by booking an obligation free chat which you can do by clicking this link or send me an email so I can answer all your questions.
In the meantime stay safe and well!