I was recently reading a blog post written by Stacy Westfall about Connecting with your horse. She discussed ways to recognize whether you have a good relationship with your horse, or whether you are a “dictator or doormat.” She also posed comparing your relationship with your horse to a friendship with another person.
I thought this was an interesting article to reflect on. It made me ask myself, “am I good friends with my horse?” My gelding, Rogue, has been my main riding horse since I was 15. I like to think we are good friends, but I really had to think through a few aspects in order to confirm that we are, indeed, friends. I wanted to share a few of the things I thought about while assessing our friendship.
1. He doesn’t take my mistakes personally. Occasionally, when I’m working with my horses, I’ll make mistakes – put a little too much pressure in the wrong spot, not quit exactly at the right time, bump him in the face with my stick, etc. Whenever I have one of these “oops” moments, Rogue doesn’t take it personally and fly off the handle. We’ve worked together long enough for him to know that when I slip up, he doesn’t need to freak out about it.
2. I don’t take his mistakes personally. On the other hand, Rogue also makes mistakes sometimes (as we all do!). Sometimes, when I ask him to do one thing, he does another. Example: I ask him to sidepass, and he disengages his hindquarters instead. These cues are very similar to each other when I’m in the saddle, so it’s understandable that he mixes them up at times (in fact, horseman Larry Stewart once taught me that the disengagement is a very important piece of going sideways – he says it’s better to have his back end go sideways FIRST instead of the other way around, in which case he would really just be walking forwards). Whenever this sort of thing happens, I’m able to simply adjust myself and ask him again. Usually he’ll get it right.
My point is that I don’t need to get frustrated when things like this happen. In fact, when it DOES happen, I usually blame myself for not being clear enough.
3. He tries new things I ask him to do, even if he’s scared. As an example, trailer loading is not a thing Rogue especially likes to do. Way back when, he was forced into a trailer a few too many times – my 4H club members didn’t understand the approach and retreat concept, so they kindly helped me chase my horse into the trailer when he refused (I appreciate they were trying to help, but they really made things worse). When I started practicing loading him in a way where he was given a choice as to whether he would get in or not, he was obviously scared and not too willing. But he still tried. I’d let him get in and out, and eventually he didn’t feel like it was too bad. He’s still not the best, but we’re still working towards the day when he’ll jump in and not have to get out at least a few times. Because I don’t put constant pressure on him to get in that trailer, he sees me as a leader and a friend, as opposed to a predator trying to corner him.
4. I have confidence in him when we try new things. Instead of leading him to new obstacles, I give him the responsibility of being sent to them. I don’t lead him, pet and tell him “it’s okay”; he wouldn’t learn to gain courage that way. I will reassure him if he tries, but my reassurance is a release of pressure to let him know he’s trying the right thing. I put my confidence in him that he can do it without me spoon-feeding him; he can do it by following my suggestions. I also have confidence that he won’t hurt me and that he’ll try to stay in his learning state of mind.
5. I don’t micromanage him. If I did, he would get frustrated pretty fast! With horses, you have to let them make a mistake before correcting it. We riders get in the habit of preventing them from making mistakes – keeping them from eating grass, instead of bringing their head up once it’s down; holding contact on the reins to prevent them from speeding up, instead of slowing them down once they start speeding up. This prevention is really micromanaging – if he never makes the mistake, and isn’t corrected, he’s not going to learn that maintaining gait is expected behaviour. You’ll be stuck preventing him forever, instead of correcting a few times. Preventing him will also get him frustrated, or “sneaky” – he’ll get that bite of grass when you’re least expecting it. Letting him know that he’s expected not to eat grass (unless, of course, you specifically tell him he’s allowed to) will cause your horse to respect you much more, and get you much further ahead in your relationship.
Rogue and I still have a lot of practice on our hands in order to be able to perform riding finesse, tricks, and some other advanced tasks. But, we’ve got a good relationship going and we’re well on our way. The most important thing, which comes before being able to do tricks and all that fancy stuff, is our relationship. Always put the relationship first and one day, your horse will reach for the stars with you.
Does your horse consider you a friend? Do you have a mutually respectful and trusting relationship?