Making Your Horse Your Best Friend Safely
By Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard
Making friends with a horse is a compelling desire shared by many horse lovers, but one
that sometimes turns out to be a bit more elusive than we may have thought it would be.
Getting to know a horse, whether through a riding lesson program, a neighbor, at a rescue
organization, or even the one we’ve just bought, is a process that can be full of ups and downs, and surprises of both the pleasant and unpleasant variety. Sometimes things go smoothly, but
other times a new horse is brought home, one that was docile, obedient and sweet at the sales barn, who in several weeks or a month at his new barn may become cranky, pushy, or even
downright dangerous. He may begin to pin his ears when you get him out of the stall, bump into
you, or even step on your foot –ouch! Perhaps he used to politely pick up his feet to be picked
out, holding his leg up steadily, quietly, and lightly, but now he forces you to support his entire body weight (or so it seems to your aching back!) as you drag his resistant, stiff hoof up, and
struggle to hold it while he pulls it away again and again. Or maybe the horse that used to stand politely still, waiting quietly for you to mount may now step away just a the key moment when you
step up on the mounting block to put your foot in the stirrup, forcing you to step down, readjust the block closer to your horse, get up again, and then just have to repeat the same process over
and over. You end up frustrated and annoyed, your much anticipated, stress- relieving ride delayed, much shortened, and perhaps even soured by this disintegration of good manners from
you “equine buddy”.
At this point many people begin to wonder if they’ve made a mistake; maybe this wasn’t the right
horse for them, or perhaps they’re not as ready for horse ownership as they had once thought. Questions begin to form like, why the personality sudden change? Which is his true nature, and
how can we stay safe while bringing out his best qualities, the ones that were so appealing?
Well, the good news is that you’re not alone. This is an experience common to many first time horse owners, or those who have just started to board their horses at home, doing all the care
giving themselves. The bad news (you knew this was coming, right?) is that the new trend towards obnoxious behavior will probably just get worse. That is, unless you do something to
change these new and unacceptable patterns. Ready for more good news? Solving these
problems is not very complicated – turning around your horse’s behavior – earning his respect for
you- is mostly a matter of awareness, commitment to thoughtful changes in your own behavior, and consistency!
Just like in any relationship between friends, there must be boundaries that define what is acceptable behavior, and what is not. Most of us would not tolerate bullying from our best friend,
or rudeness that actually put us in harm’s way; so why do people let their horses do it? Remember, horses in the wild have a herd leader who must be viable and effective in order to
keep the herd safe. It’s therefore natural for a horse to test his leader occasionally, just to make
sure he/she is still in charge. This is what many horses do with new handlers or owners; they just want to be sure that this new person in charge is an effective leader, one who deserves the
responsibility of being “Number 1”. It’s not mean – it’s just about survival.
Many people let these little transgressions go, and unfortunately the little problems usually become bigger problems; that is, unless they are nipped in the bud. Because the single most
important rule around horses is that we must not get hurt, it’s crucial to remedy the situation asap.
Once the horse knows that these challenging actions are not allowed, then he’ll begin to relax and
enjoy the leadership and security you provide. After all, being the leader is a lot of work, and being a follower is much less stressful! Furthermore, because it does take two to tango, each one
of us needs to look at our own behavior to be sure that we are not only expecting the best from our horses, but that we are also treating our horse with the good manners that he deserves, too.
So what do we do to be effective, but not too harsh? The key to a positive, enjoyable friendship
with a special horse is a balance of good mutual etiquette, and firm, clear boundaries that are consistent. It seems that many people with pushy horses are reluctant to reprimand rude behavior,
fearing that this would be cruel, brutal, or even abusive. Of course, there are extreme cases out there. But appropriate boundaries, those that are reasonable and clear, actually help a horse
develop greater respect for you. Remember –if you act like a “pushover”, then your horse will treat you like one!
Horses in a herd do not bump into, pin their ears at or otherwise annoy their established lead horse because they respect him/her, and depend on her for their survival in the wild. This is what
we want –respect, not fear. Anyone who has ever seen the heartbreaking sight of a horse who cowers every time a hand happens to move near her head, or who has a dull, far-away look of
disappointment in people and merely goes through the motions, responding as if from a great, detached distance because she thinks that she will be beaten if she doesn’t, has seen how abuse
can truly break a horse’s spirit. Most horse lovers we know want their horse to enjoy being with
them, and want to learn together. They hope to cultivate genuine trust and willingness, not fear-based, sullen compliance.
One crucial factor in achieving genuine trust is communication. Because people and horses are obviously two different species, this can be challenging (yes, even more challenging than
surmounting the human male/female communication gap can be at times!)…. (ok, sometimes less challenging, depending on the parties involved!!!). If we want to communicate with our horses ,
we must learn to become articulate in their language; body language.
“But people use their bodies to communicate! We make gestures… we emphasize our talking
points with our hands!” you think. Yes, we do, but people are rank amateurs compared to horses in this department. We rely predominantly on verbal language with other people, and often even
with our horses! We have known more than one rider who, when having a difficult time with his horse, would dismount and have a talk with him. For example, the horse would constantly pull the
reins out of the rider’s hands as he grabbed for grass on the trail. Our friend would get off and have a talk with his horse and then remount, hopeful that there would be a new clarity and
cooperation in his mount.
Now, let’s consider this from the horse’s point of view. “Hmmm… every time I pull for grass, my
rider gets off. He comes to my head, pets me and makes some strange sounds (yak, yak, yak…),
I get a break from carrying him around, and then he gets back on. I think I’ll do it again so I can
get another break!” And who can blame the horse? His logic is flawless, his behavior sure to be repeated .Why? Because his action of grabbing for grass (or going to the gate, or refusing to
move) actually got him a reward, or relief from pressure. This rider’s simple mistake was trying to
communicate with the horse on people terms, rather than on horse terms. Ok, you are probably chuckling at this rather extreme example, but many of us do something similar (if less obvious) at
one time or another.
Horse communication, or body language, is rich with subtleties. Because they are prey animals,
and we, as humans are predators, horses observe everything; our facial expressions, body position, posture, even which part of the horse’s body we look at, all send a message to the horse
. We, as humans, are not used to being so very aware of all of these slight variations in our movements and facial expression . We don’t worry too much about who is watching us, or feel
very threatened if we notice someone glancing at us, unless we are in a vulnerable situation. Horses are constantly vulnerable, and must always be aware of what nearby predators are doing,
lest they decide to suddenly have a horse for lunch! Sound crazy? It isn’t – horses are eaten by
people throughout many countries, including France, Iceland, Japan, and many more. Thousands
of years of successful survival instincts don’t just become irrelevant simply because most horses are domesticated!
We have established why people who want to establish a positive, willing relationship with a
horse need to learn to communicate effectively in a way that horses understand. But wait –it gets
better! Horses are constantly learning, and have amazing memories. Think about the impact of
this statement for a minute. For example, a horse can be taught to wait politely for his feed by one
caregiver, and show these good manners for many years. Then let’s say a new person takes over
the feeding chores – this person may inadvertently teach the horse to get pushy and aggressive around his grain, simply because he is not consistently expecting good manners from the horse!
Or what about the horse who is groomed by a considerate, effective groom? This person is
careful to brush gently but thoroughly, to pick up the horse’s feet respectfully, allowing the horse
to rebalance himself on three legs before fully moving the foot off the ground, picking efficiently
and then placing the hoof down gently. The saddle is placed lightly on the horse’s back, and the
girth is secured in several gentle increments. This horse enjoys the well-mannered human, and looks forward to being handled by this person.
Then one day a different groom arrives. She rushes, abruptly shanks on the lead rope to get the
horse to move, brushes harshly, drops the hoof onto the concrete floor when finished picking, and
slams the saddle on the horse’s back, and tighten the girths forcefully, pinching and annoying the
horse. This horse may respond to the ill-mannered person by developing avoidant behaviors, becoming turning away when a person enters his stall, or even threatening to kick or bite.
Good manners must go both ways –people who want well-mannered horses must have good
manners, to. And no, we don’t mean say “please’ and “thank you!” We do mean to consider
things from your horse’s point of view. Commit to learning how to use body language to convey your expectations, and to give meaningful feedback – to let your horse know when you are
pleased, and when you are not. Don’t be afraid to have high expectations for your horse, as long
as you are willing to hold yourself to high standards, and to help your horse learn along the way. Friendship and trust between people is hard enough to develop – genuine trust between two
species is even harder to cultivate, and far easier to lose. A horse need to believe in the reliability
of their person in order to trust him/her to be the leader. Horses know that their lives depend on it!
©Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard, August 2006
Contact: Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard
168 Tamms Road
Middletown, New York 10941
Phone: 845- 692-7478