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To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.

 

New Horse or New Start?
Three Tips for building a great relationship

Both are always exciting, a fresh horse and a fresh start. Sometimes it’s a brand new horse. Learning how to communicate with each other and become new best friends can be a little intimidating. Sometimes, it is a horse you know well but the relationship has been less than friendly and you would like to begin again. That is also an intimidating situation as old habits are often hard for humans to break. These three little exercises can put you on a good footing with your horse and lay the foundation for a life-time partnership.

Strive to set up an atmosphere where your horse can feel relaxed, focused, self-confident and confident in you as his leader. Think of yourself as his alpha mare. Always empathize, encourage, and support him as he learns how to interact with you.

The way to keep him relaxed and eager to please is by giving him time to learn to trust you and look to you for guidance and support. Oftentimes, riders are in a hurry to get to work and explore their horses’ potential. It is this sense of urgency that causes both horse and rider to be tense and, rather than establishing a relationship of mutual trust, creates disharmony from the outset. Go slow, do not be in a rush to lunge or ride him. Take advantage of this opportunity to build the relationship of a lifetime. Your goal should be to ask your horse what activities are relaxing and fun for the two of you. Build slowly on those activities. Do not let tension creep into your time together.

Whenever possible, get to know your new horse before you bring him home. In fact, if you can work with your horse several times in his current location before you bring him home his bond with you will already be established. This is a perfect time to turn three ordinary routines into something your horse will enjoy:
• Coming to you when you call his name.
• Grooming.
• Leading.

You will need a halter and lead rope, a fanny-pack or pocket filled with “rewards” (small bits of carrot, apple, or horse pellets), a bucket containing a small amount of hay or pellets, and a bucket of water.

Use the word “Good” to encourage your horse. Say “Nice” when you want to reward your horse for his efforts. Never give him a reward without first asking him to do something for which you say “Nice,” or you will turn your horse into a beggar. Remember that horses, as herd animals, want to please the herd leader. Unfortunately, humans often scold or punish when horses are confused, distracted, physically or mentally unsound, or tired. Keep your sessions with your horse short and fun rather than long and grueling. In fact, several 15 minute sessions throughout the week is much more valuable than a weekly one-hour session.

Coming when you call his name. Your goal is to create such a pleasant relationship that he will fly across an open field when you call him. Stand in front of him, about four feet away, and say his name. When he looks up at you or turns an ear in your direction, say “Good”. Walk up to him, stroke him, say “Nice” and give him a “reward”. Back up a few steps and say his name again; say “Good” when he looks at you. Say “Nice” and give him a reward when he takes a step toward you. Continue increasing the distance between the two of you. Do not play this game more then four times per session.

Grooming. Rather than rushing through the grooming procedure, plan on spending at least fifteen minutes grooming and massaging him. It will pay off in the long run if you show him each grooming tool and teach him to touch it. You can tell him the name of the tool, say “Touch,” and bring the tool up to his nose. As you move the object toward his nose say “Good.” When it just brushes his nose, say “Nice,” and give him a reward. Slowly increase the distance between the object and his nose until he reaches out to touch it. Later on, if he ever appears afraid of something, all you will need to do is ask him to touch it and say “Nice,” and offer a reward when he does.

Leading. Rather than pulling him along, walk beside him. Say “Walk” (you may need to cluck), as he takes a step forward, match his right or left hoof with your same foot. Walk for three strides. Teach him the half halt by saying “A-n-n-d” while squeezing the lead rope and stiffening your body. Say “Whoa” while slowly stopping. As he slows with you say, “Good.” When he comes to a complete halt, say “Nice” and, while standing at his shoulder, reach out to your side in front of him to give him a reward (this keeps him from turning to face you). If you increase the number of strides between transitions and always use the half halt, before long the two of you will be able to walk, trot, and halt in unison. This will carry over to your mounted work. You will not have to pull the reins to stop.

Once your horse has learned a new word or activity replace “Nice” with “Good.” Save “Nice” for new words and activities, after a sequence of activities, and at the end of the session. Replace food rewards. Although the saying “The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” works for all species, even horses can become bored with food. Caresses, scratches on the hard-to-reach areas, hugs, rest, and a moment of grazing, are equally good rewards and should be used after saying “Nice” once your horse understands that “Nice” means that his good efforts were appreciated. Also, as your relationship builds and he learns the meaning of your words, gradually decrease the number of times you say “Nice.”

When you are finished playing with him, bring out his special bucket of hay or pellets and a bucket of water so he can enjoy a few minutes of munching before you put him away.

By the time your new horse arrives home, you and he will have established a friendship that will diminish the impact of transitioning to a new environment. After he steps off the trailer take him for a walk around his new home, matching feet along the way as you have done before. Make sure to have your rewards on hand so that you can occasionally say “Nice” and reward him.

Take him to his new grooming spot for a nice cleaning and body-massage.

Continue to end each session with a little something to eat in his special bucket. It can take a few days for your new horse to adjust to the new smells, sights, and sounds of his surroundings.

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.

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