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Starting the Partnership Off Right —
by Emily Johnson

MR. BIG: Ok, I'm here now, what's going on?

CARRIE: I've done the merry-go-round, I've been through the revolving door, I feel like I met somebody I can stand still with for a minute and... Don't you want to stand still with me?

MR. BIG: You drag me out to a park at 3:00 in the morning to ask me if I want to stand still with you?

CARRIE: Yes.

Carrie’s voice: In a city of infinite options sometimes there's no better feeling than knowing you already have one.

[Mr. Big hugs Carrie as they watch the stars.]

From Sex and the City, HBO series

Sometimes, all we really need is a simple reassurance that those we care for are really there, by our side.

In that regard, horses are no different than humans.

The horse yearns for these warm affirmations—not just in their relationships with one another, but with us.

And like any relationship, getting to know each other is the basis for success.

If you are working toward that end, kudos to you for wanting to gain a better understanding of the horse and a greater awareness of yourself as the leader. That is a terrific start!

Now I want to offer you some new ways of actually interacting with your horse that will get the relationship off on the right foot. These recommendations will benefit any horse/human relationship, whether it is a relationship with a new horse or one you have owned for some time.

To start off, I try to do away with the idea that to be with a horse, we have to catch him and actually “do” things with him. Because when a horse senses an unspoken agenda or feels he is simply “a means to your end,” he can become leery. This can show up in the behavior of being hard to catch, difficult to groom or as being barn/buddy sour, to name a few.

Just as Carrie needed reassurance that Mr. Big was there for her, your horse needs to believe that your relationship with him is the “end” to all you do. The “means” by which you can achieve this end is the knowledge and skills that will allow you to become a true horseman or horsewoman.

Another way to think about it is that a horse doesn’t care how much we know, until he knows how much we care. Isn’t that true of our relationship with people as well?

In order to set this kind of tone for each interaction with your horse I offer the following suggestions:

Spend Undemanding Time Together.

I encourage you to spend time with your horse, where there are no expectations or requirements of him. I want my horse to feel that I am pleased to just be with him. Being with him with no particular agenda will blow your horse’s mind and will likely invoke great curiosity.

Going on leisurely walks can be a great way to spend time together. While I always expect polite and appropriate behavior from my horses, I make a point to not teach my horse new things during this time. Remember, the purpose is to be undemanding on occasion. Use this time to simply relax and enjoy one another's company. (Photo credit Fuse Photographic)
Going on leisurely walks can be a great way to spend time together. While I always expect polite and appropriate behavior from my horses, I make a point to not teach my horse new things during this time. Remember, the purpose is to be undemanding on occasion. Use this time to simply relax and enjoy one another's company. (Photo credit Fuse Photographic)

This is also a valuable opportunity for you to simply observe your horse as he is, whether that is on his own, or with other horses. Through observation you can learn a great deal about his person – er, horsenality. Observe his dynamics within the herd and within his environment. Consider these questions: Where does he stand in the herd hierarchy? Does he cause other horses to move (dominant) or do other horses cause him to move (subordinate)? Does he seem confident or unconfident? Is he curious or skeptical about you and objects in his environment?

You may also get some interesting feedback from your horse regarding his opinion of your relationship with him. Does he approach you or walk away when you enter his space? Does he pay attention to you, if even at a distance, while you are there? Or is he unable or unwilling to look at you? In the coming weeks we will look at what the horse is saying through this body language. For the time being, simply observe what occurs.

Grab a chair, a stool, or soft patch of ground and just be your horse. Your horse will be truly mystified if on occasion you just come sit with him and do not try to do something with him, like catching him, grooming him or riding. It is best if this time can be spent in something more spacious than a box stall, but smaller than a large pasture. Do your best with the facilities you have. I recommend bringing some tool with you (leadrope, flag, training stick, etc) that you could shoo horses away with if the safety of your space feels threatened. Also, commit to yourself to not touch your horse unless he touches you first. Trust that the relationship is developing, even if from a distance.

Don’t Approach Like a Predator.

It is in our predatory nature to be direct line thinkers. When we want to catch a horse, this can manifest itself in the direct and matter-of-fact way we approach the horse. Consider how a lion moves toward its prey – in a straight line with a focused intent. Since horses are programmed to flee from predators, it is in our best interest to not act like a predator if we are seeking a connection with a horse.

As soon as the horse looks at you, cease forward movement and instead relax and take a step backwards. This offers a thanks for the acknowledgement by releasing the energetic pressure of your approach. Often times, this simple gesture, can cause the horse to actually walk up to you.
As soon as the horse looks at you, cease forward movement and instead relax and take a step backwards. This offers a thanks for the acknowledgement by releasing the energetic pressure of your approach. Often times, this simple gesture, can cause the horse to actually walk up to you.

Instead of walking directly up to the horse, walk as if you are looking for something on the ground. Doing so will cause you to travel in an indirect serpentine fashion which will convey a friendly, non-threatening feel in your body. This will encourage your horse to be confident and even curious in your approach.

Also, take note of when your horse first notices you. This may happen before you even set foot in his enclosure, so be prepared. As soon as the horse acknowledges you, cease your forward movement, relax your body and take a step backwards, instead of continuing forward. This is your way of thanking the horse for his looking at you, as it offers a release from the pressure of the approach. The horse then feels most comfortable when he is looking at you. If you recall, comfort is high on the hierarchy of needs for the horse. Therefore the behaviors the horse derives the most comfort from are those they will willingly seek out and do. Understanding this concept will allow you to greatly influence and shape positive behavior in your horse.

When you do get near your horse, resist the temptation to immediately put the halter on. This again feels very direct-line to the horse and can raise his suspicions. Instead, take some time to scratch and rub your horse in places he likes. I would even suggest rubbing him all over with the halter and leadrope to encourage trust and familiarity with those tools.

Once you have spent some time with your horse and he seems confident and willing to be near you, you may then halter him. In a true partnership we do not need to make a horse be with us by having a halter on them, rather the horse will want to be with you of their own volition.

As you strengthen rapport with your horse by following some of these guidelines, you will find that your horse becomes more receptive to your approach as well as more curious about your presence and desires. This curiosity can lead to your horse actually seeking you out. Having your horse catch you, instead of you having to catch him, is one of the greatest compliments you can receive and is a sign of a thriving partnership.

Do things with your horse, not to your horse.

I will use the example of grooming, as that is what people typically do once they have caught their horse. It is common practice to tie a horse up to groom and saddle. While I am not opposed to tying a horse to do these things on occasion, I believe it hinders the partnership when it becomes the only way a horse is prepared. When a horse is tied up their ability to express their feelings, needs and opinions, is lessened because their movement is limited. Recall that movement is of the utmost importance to a horse. When we tie the horse, restricting their ability to move and then begin doing things to them, we are acting as predators.

To achieve partnership, the horse must believe that although we look and smell like a predator, we are not going to act like a predator. Only then can he fully put his trust in a human.

Grooming in partnership helps a relationship be balanced in trust and rapport. Rather than tying your horse up or holding him tightly in place, drape the leadrope in the crook of your arm, leaving some slack in the rope, while you groom. In this position the leadrope is easy to grab if need be, but does not force your horse to be with you.
Grooming in partnership helps a relationship be balanced in trust and rapport. Rather than tying your horse up or holding him tightly in place, drape the leadrope in the crook of your arm, leaving some slack in the rope, while you groom. In this position the leadrope is easy to grab if need be, but does not force your horse to be with you.

In order to foster communication, respect and rapport with your horse, I propose what I call, “Grooming in partnership.” Rather than tying the horse or having him in a limiting space like a barn aisle, prepare him in a larger area, such as a roundpen, paddock, or arena. Do not hold the leadrope tight, but rather drape it in the crook of your arm with some slack in the rope while you groom your horse. That way, it is there if you need to grab it for safety reasons, but it is not the cause of your horse staying with you.

It is important that your horse is with you because he wants to be, not because he has no other choice.

If your horse is unable to confidently be around you, he needs to be able to express himself through movement so that you may recognize there is a problem and attempt to correct it. Now is a far better time to realize there is a problem with the relationship than once you are mounted and riding.

By preparing your horse this way you are doing something with your horse, rather than to him, because he is given the opportunity to express himself in the relationship.

Once your horse is “catching” you and can willingly and confidently stay with you during the grooming and saddling process, you may then tie him up to prepare him. But I still recommend periodically grooming in partnership in an open area to check in that the relationship is correct and that your horse is choosing to be with you.

Keep it interesting.

While horses do recognize patterns, humans are the ultimate habit-forming creatures. This can positively serve us by allowing us to set up and stick to the schedule of our daily lives, but to our horse, our tendency toward repetition can become monotonous and dull.

If the only time we enter our horse's pen is to do something with them, they can become suspect of an agenda. To keep it interesting for the horse, periodically enter their enclosure to do something other than catch them. In this photo I have taken some time to simply be alongside these horses while they eat. An occasional, unexpected action like this, will keep your horse curious and excited about your arrival. (Photo credit Josh Levin)
If the only time we enter our horse's pen is to do something with them, they can become suspect of an agenda. To keep it interesting for the horse, periodically enter their enclosure to do something other than catch them. In this photo I have taken some time to simply be alongside these horses while they eat. An occasional, unexpected action like this, will keep your horse curious and excited about your arrival. (Photo credit Josh Levin)

I equate it to my days of schooling. It was difficult for me to feel excited about going to my math class because I knew the teacher would not deviate from his usual lecture format, making for a tiresome learning experience. Whereas, the science teacher who started and ended class each day a different way and used many different mediums to teach the material caused me to feel curious and excited about what was to come.

I have suggested a handful of ways for you to interact with your horse. The examples I have given are not meant to be the only thing you do with your horse, day after day. Even good things, when overdone, can become a negative.

My hope is that by helping you understand the “why” behind the actions, you will be able to bring your own creativity into these suggestions, offering your horse a stimulating and satisfying relationship. Try to put a slight twist on these techniques in your implementation of these exercises, while still maintaining the principle concept.

For example, one day I might enter my horse’s enclosure and simply sit on the feed trough. The next day I might pet every horse but him--or pet him, but then walk away. The following time I could casually approach him and give him a good scratch and a treat.

Likewise, when grooming, utilize creativity. Groom him in various locations for variety. Prepare him in the round pen one day, his paddock the next, the pasture the following and so on. I am not implying you need a new routine for every day of the year, just enough variety to leave your horse guessing a little about what you’re going to do today.

A horse that is excited about what is in store for the day will positively anticipate your arrival. To get this you must offer a creative and spontaneous leadership.

In the coming weeks I will provide you with some groundwork exercises that encourage respect and leadership. But, it is essential you recognize that while the horsemanship journey does entail certain aspects of “doing,” you must never let the desire to accomplish tasks overrun your ability to “be” in relationship with your horse. As you continue with your horse, it is of the utmost importance that you understand that it is not about the task, but rather it is about the relationship. Put the relationship first with your horse, and everything else will follow.

This article was featured on MyHorse.com