Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Connection is something you build or destroy over time, often without knowing exactly what is going on. It just happens. I have over the years picked up some connection exercises from online courses and from my own experience, or rather experiments. In this blog, I have summarized 7 practical things you can do to connect with your horse.
1. Use body language
Horses are by nature very friendly and sensitive. Body language is their language. When you know how to use your body to communicate with horses, and what your horse's body language is telling you, it is really easy to connect!
When asking for anything, either on the ground or in the saddle, use body language as your first signal. Clucking and other vocal signals are, by the way, not body language, but sounds. Having your whip behind the horse to make the horse move forwards is also not body language. Finding other ways to ask for, or maintain, forward by using your body is beneficial when communicating with horses.
If you focus on your own feet when handling horses, you might be surprised how easily they follow your feet, making pulling the lead rope or other pressuring aids, unnecessary. Your feet on the ground is like your seat in the saddle. A first subtle signal that horses naturally understand.
2. Be honest
For body language to work as an effective way of communicating with horses, you have to be honest, like they are. Picture the leading mare in a herd of horses. Her walking towards the waterhole with intention, will make the other horses move away. If not, she will pin her ears and so on, until the last thing she does is confrontation.
She does what it takes to get the other horse out of her way, she doesn’t change her mind halfway. That’s why the other horses respond to her subtle body language from far away. She doesn’t lie by saying “never mind,” but she always asks politely first. If you study her, you will also notice that she walks in straight lines, she does not zigzag along. She will also not tell one thing with her ears and another with her body. She is herself and does not pretend to be anybody else, she is clear and honest. That’s what you also need to be with your horse.
3. Do nothing with your horse
We tend to always do something with horses. While horses, on the other hand, spend most of their time hanging out together doing nothing. To do nothing with your horse until the horse relaxes can be very beneficial, but it is not as easy as it sounds. A shy horse might need a whole lot of time with you doing nothing before relaxing in your presence, whereas a pushy horse needs to figure out that the concept of personal space also includes humans.
Bombarding a sensitive horse with tasks might work for a while, but if a horse is only thinking about what your next command will be, he or she is not relaxing in your presence, but being obedient. If you wait, and breathe, you will notice that the starry eyes soften and the high held neck drops just an inch. That's when you are done with the session. Perhaps next time the horse will lick and chew in your presence, maybe even yawn to release tension.
On the other hand, you might want to ask a pushy horse for some space. Getting relaxation while the horse is standing on your foot, rubbing against you, or looking for treats in your pocket is not optimal. To be able to establish a moment of focus, you need to get the horse out of your space and allow the horse to rest at some distance away from you. Then you just wait, and do nothing, until something happens in the direction of the horse being more present and relaxed.
The funny thing is that pushy horses are just as sensitive as other horses, it's just that they have learned to ignore humans. To do nothing with horses like that, and breathe with them, will tell the horse that you are present and worth listening to. It's also surprising to experience how much tension, or rather frustration, so- called insensitive or stubborn horses can hold inside.
4. Scratch your horse
To find your horse's itchy spot and give him or her a good scratch until the upper lip quivers, is an effective way to become friends with your horse. Just as petting or kissing a horse that does not want to, is a great way to tell the horse that you are not aware of what their body language and eyes are telling you. Horses who are friends groom each other mutually, there's a reason it's called mutual grooming.
5. Get rid of magnets
If your horse wants to be somewhere else, it's going to be quite hard to connect with the horse. Because when their mind wanders off, their bodies tend to do the same. If you have the impression that your horse is drawn to a certain place and you have to use your aids to get your horse to move away from that place, or you need to hold your horse back from running to a certain spot, you have a magnet attracting your horse.
To get rid of magnets, you have to overcome the urge to steer the horse to where you want to go or hold them back from going where they want to. But rather make their favorite place less favorable by doing work there, and their least favorite place more favorable by resting there. Turn the horse`s perception of reality upside down, so to say.
You don't get rid of magnets by pulling or pushing your horse to go where you like the horse to go, as this will probably not make the magnets go away but hide them underneath obedience to your aids. Obedience to signals, although useful, is not connection and togetherness. It's when horse and rider want the same thing that they become one. Not when the rider makes the horse do what the rider wants.
I think Tom Dorrance describes the process neatly with these words: "First you go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then you go together." A very straightforward and simple method that does not involve technically advanced riding. But it's the “first you go with the horse” part, that tends to be difficult for most riders. To just let go and see where the horse carries you.
6. Remember that horses are flight animals
Constricting a flight animal to stand still when it wants to move is not very smart and also dangerous. Make sure, when handling horses, that the horse has a way out, and that the way out does not involve jumping on you or someone else standing in front of the horse. Another rule of thumb is that if you can`t do something without having the horse tied up or held on to, don’t do it when the horse is tied up or held on to. Make the horse comfortable with whatever is going on by choice, not by constriction. You can offer a horse to stand still, but you can't force a horse to stand still. This rule also applies when riding.
7. Play with your horse
Play is an interspecies activity that inspires and gives skills. It's also a very powerful tool to connect with your horse and to facilitate movements that come from self, as you can't dictate and micromanage play. When playing with horses, you cannot rule the game by being picky about when to start or when to end, or what happens in between for that matter. Much like when kids mess around. If adults control the game or school the kids while they are playing, it's just not fun anymore.
On the other hand, it's important to stay safe and not get kicked or bitten. Don`t play with a horse that doesn`t respect your personal space and doesn't respond to your body language. Play has the unique power of giving your horse a reason to move that is not you commanding the horse to do so. Playing with objects like balls or plastic bags, is also a great way to encourage your horse to be braver towards unfamiliar and scary objects.
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