Trust and Team Building with Your Horse

A foundation of trust and team building is important when learning how to bond with your horse.

Foal

Starting sooner in life rather than later helps when building trust with your horse.

Photo by Gregory Johnston

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Almost all horse lovers share one thing in common: We dream of riding like Annie Oakley, galloping over rolling hills, or dashing through forests on our fearless mounts in perfect harmony with our horse and the world. Unfortunately, these dreams sometimes go unrealized, instead turning into nightmares. As our horses behave instinctively like prey animals, we lose confidence, desire, and sadly sometimes our health in pursuit of our dreams. This can be the result of failing to build a trusting relationship that is the bedrock on which the bond between you and your horse rests. Only a horse that trusts its rider can make the dream a reality.

Why it’s important

Why should I want my equine partner to trust me? If having your dream realized isn’t enough, there are plenty of other good reasons to want a trusting horse. A trusting partner will easily load into a trailer. He will stand to saddle, clip, bathe and mount. A trusting horse is less likely to damage property, and requires minimal tack and gadgets. He is also more relaxed, and therefore healthier overall. This all means you save time, energy and money.

How do you build trust with your equine partner? Here are four keys to building that foundation of trust.

Slow down

Scratch your head, and scratch his belly. Take time to think for yourself, and allow your horse to think. The first time I tried to mount my horse, Poncho, he would not stand still. Rather than do an awkward dance with him every time I wanted to get on, I simply slowed down. I separated the mounting process into its smallest components and repeated them until Poncho had sufficient time to process the actions and came to expect them.

I started by merely lifting my leg and putting it down repeatedly until he had no reaction. Then I progressed to jumping up and down beside him. Once he stood still, I advanced to placing one foot into the stirrup. Next, I mounted halfway, but without swinging my leg over. Finally, I could swing my leg over and just sit.

I made sure to give him time to consider and accept each step in the progression, ensuring a smooth flowing process in the end. The first day I worked with him, it took about an hour to complete the process. The second day, about 10 minutes. The next 10 years and hundreds of mounts, about 5 seconds. Once you commit to taking the time to do it right, it’s amazing the time you save in the long run. Besides, it’s pretty cool to have a horse that wants to come and pick you up for a ride.

Be flexible

Remember, a horse’s daily agenda is basically to stay safe, eat, eat some more, play a bit, and take a few naps. Our first horse, Twister, was not a partner in our plans. He was incredibly spooky. We desperately wanted to ride him, but it was becoming too dangerous. We made the decision to start taking him for walks rather than rides.

Our first walk was absurdly short. The real problem became obvious just outside the pasture gate, where it was clear that Twister was not at all confident in new environments. So, that first day, with big eyes, a stiff neck, and his head held high, he danced while we did ground work with him just outside the gate until he calmed down. Then we returned him to his beloved pasture.

The following day we made it about 30 yards beyond the gate before he panicked. We stopped there and played until he relaxed, and then we returned him to his pasture and his buddies. The next day we made it across the street. The day after that, we went down the path, and it happened: We went out and just kept walking.

After that, we went back to riding him. We rode many miles on Twister for more than 10 years without any more trouble. He was the most dependable trail horse you could ask for.

By spending just five days focusing on “tomorrow” rather than “today,” and by adjusting our short-term plans to meet our long-term goal, we were able to transform a dangerous horse into a loyal trail buddy for life. Stretch your plans and focus on the immediate problems to avoid jumping ahead. It is true that “your flight might be delayed,” but I’m forever glad we delayed our own flight and stayed safe rather than take an involuntary flight of Twister’s choosing.

Settle down

Aggressiveness is an emotional state of anger or hostility that seeks to force one’s aims or interests upon another. Being overly aggressive involves being pushy, belligerent and antagonistic. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is to be self-assured and confident in behavior. To be assertive is to have firm and focused determination. With assertiveness comes emotional control, ability to manage, and skillfulness in handling. Aggressiveness will break your horse’s trust, while assertiveness will cultivate it.

Horses distrust aggressive humans, perceiving them as unreliable, erratic and dangerous. Assertive humans, though, are like magnets to horses. They are innately attracted to a composed nature, steadiness, predictability and intense focus. The less aggressive and more assertive you can be, the more your horse will trust you.

Steady as she goes

Become positively predictable. Horses do not like surprises. Develop a method and routine to everything you do, including saddling, grooming, mounting and trailer loading. Make sure your attitude is fair and your actions are consistent. This methodology also applies to riding. For example, what is your method for handling a spook? How dependable are you to not spook along with your horse? Do you flinch, tighten up your body, and grasp the saddle horn with your hands, all at the speed of light? All of these actions on your part communicate to your horse that he was justified in his actions, and you are in harmony with his fear.

This is not the harmony you are seeking. Rather, keep your mind and body relaxed when your horse spooks. Steadily back him or bend him in a circle, spiraling in with a slow yet firm feel on your reins until you come to a stop, and rest. Your horse will quickly conclude that his spook was nothing more than a waste of energy. The more consistent we are in responding to situations, the more trust we will gain.  

Time and Treats

Be sure to set aside time that you and your horse can simply be in each other’s company. Whether it’s bath time, play time or otherwise, let him know that the time you spend together will not always be work. And reward him for a job well done. Praise and an apple, carrot or peppermint at the end of a lesson or when he has done what you have asked will help him learn to associate you with positive thoughts.

Moving Forward

My horse meets me at the gate.

My horse tends to be curious about new things rather than skeptical or spooked.

My horse is more playful.

When I am with my horse, his head is down, his neck, lips and ears are loose, and his eye is soft.

My horse lays down in my presence.

As you seek to bond with your horse, remember that a trusting relationship does not develop overnight. It is similar to human relationships, which form gradually and mature over time. With both human and horse, we must be willing to slow down, be flexible, control our emotions, and be positively predictable. The more we better ourselves, the more trustworthy we become, and the faster these bonds will grow. Go out and live the dream.


Jamie Cearley, Ph.D., and her husband, Curt, manage their homestead, Soquili Farm, together. Jamie dedicates her time to horsemanship, gardening, cooking and honing her wide array of fix-it skills. Read her Grit blog at Mental Morsels With Dr. Cearley or Jamie Cearley.