There are a couple of different schools of thought when it comes to horse training. One is to “break” the animal’s spirit so it becomes tame and obedient. The other is to befriend and cultivate a loving, trusting relationship with your horse so it becomes a stalwart companion.
If the latter appeals to you more, then you’re in the right place. We’ll tell you how to befriend a horse rather than trying to dominate it.
Why Make Friends with Your Horse?
Horses are amazingly smart, empathic, and generally wonderful beings overall. If a person’s natural instinct is to want to overpower and dominate another sentient being, then they really need to examine their motivations.
If you were to meet a person whom you wanted to cultivate a relationship with, would you want to establish trust, friendship, love, and respect? Or just force them to obey you so they don’t get punished?
If you wouldn’t treat a person you care about in that manner, then don’t approach horses (or dogs, or any other animal companion) that way either.
Horses are massive creatures and you must be able to expect a reasonable amount of obedience and respect from them. But rather than achieving that through coercion and force, you can foster a healthy, mutually-beneficial relationship.
Tips on How to Befriend a Horse
The tips listed below are some excellent places to start when trying to befriend your horse. Try implementing one or all of these to see how they impact the way your horse behaves with you.
Back off if any of these steps seems to be creating a problem and then try to re-implement more slowly. Sometimes you just need more time to make things work.
1. Spend As Much Time with Them as Possible
This might go without saying, but just like any other relationship you’re developing, the most important thing is to spend a ton of time together.
It doesn’t have to be invasive either. You don’t need to constantly be talking to, touching, playing with, or otherwise fussing over your horse. We all need alone time and horses are no different in that.
They like to be sociable at times sure, but they also like to just be left alone to keep on keeping on with whatever they want to do.
The key is to just be around. Bring a book into the stable or pasture and read it nearby. Or bring something portable that you’re working on that you can do quietly near your horse.
Wood carving, drawing, needlework, etc. are all great options because you can focus on your task and still talk to the horse gently now and then. But you’re not making a lot of noise or sudden movements to disrupt your horse.
Walk around the paddock or pasture with them if they come close to you, or maybe lay a hand on them companionably while speaking encouragingly.
2. Speak to them Gently
Horses easily pick up on your energy and can get spooked just as easily. We mentioned rustling plastic bags in our article on what horses dislike, and how much those bags can freak horse out.
Remember, horses are flight animals. Their entire brain and body are primed to react quickly in the face of any sort of strange sensation or perceived danger. It’s difficult to befriend a horse who is in a fearful state.
When communicating with them, it’s important to keep your tone steady and gentle. Speak to them like you’re communicating with a beloved child or close friend whom you haven’t seen for a while. Compliment your horse, tell him or her about your day, and maybe tell them stories.
They may not understand you, but they’ll understand your intention and energy. They’ll come to associate your voice with comfort and reassurance.
3. Be Vulnerable with Them
One of the best ways to show a horse that you’re no threat to them is to be vulnerable in their company.
Sit or lie down on the ground near them. This should be close enough that they can see you clearly, but not so close as to infringe on their space. They’ll see that you’re posing no threat, and their natural curiosity will undoubtedly draw them closer to you.
It may take them a little while to warm up to you of course, especially if they’ve been abused in the past. But if you do this on the regular, don’t be surprised when all of a sudden your horse comes over and plops itself down near you. When it finally decides that you’re no threat, it’ll likely look forward to your companionship.
Of course, don’t do this around a horse that is nervous, high strung, bucking, rearing, or otherwise acting silly. Even when trying to befriend your horse, safety is always first.
4. Act Like a Horse
Okay, so this one might sound a bit silly but hear me out.
Horses are herd animals, and they feel comfortable and safe when those around them are taking part in similar behaviors. So when you’re out in the pasture with them, bend over and pick at the grass with your fingers. Bring a snack with you and chew it slowly, looking around you.
If it’s a sunny day out, lie down and roll around in the grass a little bit. Not only is this lots of fun (because who doesn’t love to roll around outside on a beautiful day?), it’ll show them that oh, okay, this is a creature that does stuff we like to do too.
It’s a recognizable, familiar behavior that’ll be one more point in your favor about being “horse friend” material.
5. Offer Snacks (and Eat Together)
This works well for befriending pretty much everyone, doesn’t it? In a horse’s case, sharing food together is a great way to establish further trust. It also lets them know that you are a purveyor of tasty treats, which will generally make them more eager to spend time with you.
Keep healthy, tasty horse snacks like carrots and apple slices with you whenever you go spend time with your horse or horses. Then when they’re nearby, you can break or cut pieces off and offer them.
At this point, show them that you’re eating some of it too. This creates a bonding experience while spending time together than doesn’t involve looking around awkwardly.
Think of it as sharing a meal with a person you’re getting to know. It’s an opportunity to lower your respective walls and get to know each other a bit better while also being occupied with something pleasant.
6. Groom Each Other
Normally grooming is more of a one-sided thing, but horses will groom each other when they want to show affection and care.
Make sure to brush, stroke, and generally tend to your horse on a daily basis. He or she will come to associate your company with pleasurable, happy feelings. Your presence equals care and gentleness in their experience. As such, they’ll look forward to spending more time with you.
You’ll know that you’re well on your way to befriending your equine buddy when they start grooming you back. This often takes the form of nibbling on your shoulder or head. Horses are a bit hardier than we are, so they appreciate being chewed on a little bit.
Don’t be afraid to correct your horse if it nibbles a bit too hard. That’s how they learn what amount of force they can use with you. Their horse friends do the same thing.
You might as well get used to the fact that you’ll likely get a bit of a horsey hair trim or have some holes bitten in your clothes during this process. See it as a rite of passage, and proof that your efforts are being rewarded.
Some trainers believe that letting a horse groom you back is opening a door to other types of horse behavior. Like they might try to establish dominance over you by biting or kicking. I have never experienced this with a horse, but if it happens, then it’ll have to be dealt with.
You can never allow dangerous behavior to continue.
7. Stay Aware of Your Own Wellbeing
Stay aware of your surroundings, of course. If you’re sharing space with a 1000-pound animal, you’ll want to know where it is at all times. Furthermore, you should be prepared to move out of the way suddenly if it acts out.
Be open and trusting with your horse, but also take measures to protect yourself against potential injury. This is especially important if you’re rehabilitating a rescue. If a horse has been mistreated by people in the past, it’ll take a bit more time to learn that it’s safe with you.
If it spooks and leaps away quickly, or kicks out in self-defense on instinct, you could end up with some broken bones. So just keep vigilant.
Signs Your Horse Sees You as a Friend
There are some surefire signs that your efforts to befriend a horse are working. For example:
- He nickers or whinnies when he sees you
- They’ll come running to the fence or barn door when you approach
- Your horse nudges you playfully with her face
- It rests its head on your shoulder (basically a “horse hug”)
- He lays down either beside you or with his head on your lap
- She nuzzles in close and breathes in your face
- Your horse is comfortable staying prone (laying down) when you’re nearby
- The aforementioned grooming happens fairly often
Ultimately, if you’re aiming to befriend a horse, your best bet is to just be a really great friend. Be the kind of person you’d want to hang out with if you were a horse.
Bonds of friendship are cultivated over time, and you’ll get a lot more trust and devotion from a being whom you’re kind and patient with, rather than domineering and demanding.
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