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Five Tips for Getting That New Horse to Love You

by Franklin Levinson
Reprinted from Trailblazer Magazine

People oftentimes start out on the wrong foot with a new horse, which quickly escalates into a major battle that the horse usually wins by employing scare and evasion tactics. Here is a brief discussion on this topic and five or more ways you can bond with your new animal so he "runs to greet you, rather than away from you"

When I greet a horse for the first time, any horse of any age, gender or stage of training, I connect from a polite distance before I get within the horse's ‘personal space’ or range. I direct some 'thoughtful, kind' energy towards the horse verbally and with my body language (I don't square off to the horse, I let him experience my side or profile). I make certain I am centered and focused and that my breathing is relaxed. I endeavor to be in a calm but very aware state of mind. Horses greet us consciously and expect us to do the same. Also, a degree of confidence within the human helps the horse begin to feel confident about the human. As feelings of safety and peace are so very important to a prey animal like the horse, it is important to try to help the animal maintain those positive feelings. My only agenda is for the horse to feel safe and confident that it will be safe with me.

Beginning a relationship with a new horse is a lot like beginning a new relationship with a human. A few basic ingredients will help to insure a positive experience for all. First of all show courtesy, respect, thoughtfulness and kindness. Do not enter the horse's personal space unless invited to by the horse's welcoming attitude. Don't put your hand on the horse's face or crowd his head. Stand by his shoulder as to not make him feel any more claustrophobic than he already naturally is. Speak in a soothing and confident tone. Keep your hands down. It’s thoughtful and respectful to learn something about his language before you attempt to communicate with him. Gain an understanding that the horse wants to connect with you and how to do it. Don't just wing it. Do a bit of homework first; read up on horses or watch an educational film. It will help you and the horse to understand and feel good about each other easier and faster. Once invited to come closer to the horse by it's attitude and body language, do so but only for a few seconds and then retreat or back away from the horse. Wait a bit and then go closer, after a few moments and maybe a little scratching gently on the horse's shoulder, back away again. You will see the horse begin to watch you as you move back and forth and follow you intently with his gaze and head. This advance and retreat behavior you do around the horse actually helps the horse feel safer with you and rather curious about you at the same time. It is very unpredator like. Horses like that.

Frequently humans over-input a horse even though we think we are just showing affection. Think about how horses greet each other in the wild. They share breath and then generally give each other some room. Horses being affectionate scratch each other with their teeth usually for only a short period of time. I have seen humans endlessly patting, rubbing and scratching a horse and the horse is actually leaning away from the human and would move away if it could (usually the horse is tied), but the human ignores the horse's response to the constant touching and keeps it up. Humans are usually very thoughtful about how they touch another human's body, but not so when touching a horse's body. They just do it and usually right on the horse's nose (a very sensitive and private body part). You never see horse's scratching each other's noses. Sometime a horse will love to be scratched for quite a long while or touched a certain way for an extended period of time, but we humans need to be sensitive to the horse’s responses just like we are with each other and wait to be invited to extend physical contact and then pay attention to the response of the animal as to whether or not our touch is appreciated.  

I met my Colorado horse, "Sweet Pete", when his name was "Pistol Pete". I was told the horse was uncatchable, couldn’t be ridden safely without rearing, unloadable, dangerous, vicious, not to be trusted and, as one person who saw the horse hurt another person put it, "was a candidate for the firing squad". When I heard that, I couldn't wait to meet him. What I saw was one of the most fearful animals I had ever seen. He was 9 years old, beautiful, but so full of fear of humans he couldn't get far enough away, fast enough. Someone must have really hurt him badly over time.  Anyway, I got him herded into a round pen where I promised him I would not approach him unless he invited me to or he came to me first. I sat down in the center of the ring and waited. Sometimes I walked around, I talked to him a lot, always reassuringly. I never squared my body to him. I sat again for a while, I walked for a while. Sometimes I moved around him, never right at him. I wanted him to feel free with me, that doing anything I wanted had to be his desire also. I continued this process for two days. At the end of the second day, Pete was following me around. He just started doing it, I never asked him to. I never pushed him around the round pen. Eventually, he invited me to touch him which I did on the shoulder and briefly. We had begun our relationship in ernest. When we got to the trailer loading sessions, he gave me the longest trailer loading session I have ever had, four hours before he got in. Now he leaps into the trailer when I point to it. When he is with me at a program I am presenting he is loose by my side all the time. He'll go and stand somewhere if I ask him, but he rather be right by my side. He finds me, he catches me, he is free to make this choice himself and he does. If you do your homework first, then show respect to the horse, kindness, thoughtfulness and the leadership of a great parent, you will be rewarded with one of the greatest relationships that exist in Nature. 

So what are the five things to get any horse to love you quickly?
Besides apples, carrots!

  1. Kindnes
  2. Compassion
  3. Respect
  4. Patience
  5. Great Leadership