It’s something we’re sure every horse owner wants — a true bond with your horse. Nothing is more rewarding than hearing a whinnied greeting from your four-legged favourite, or have him approach you in the field eager for a scratch.
For horse trainer and equine adventurer Emma Massingale, building a bond with your horse is linked not just to the hours you spend in the saddle, it’s also everything in between.
“We’re all looking for those special moments with our horses,” Emma says. “You can tell your horse is comfortable with you if he’s consistently relaxed, with a soft eye and low head. When a horse really likes you, he loves to interact.”
Take a beat
A horse owner’s schedule rarely has wiggle-room, but Emma says making time to break the monotony of your horse’s day goes a long way.
“A lot of us fall into the mindset that most worthwhile time we can spend with them is in the school or out on a hack. So, we get to the yard and we get busy to squeeze everything in. And, while we want our horses to respect and listen to us, leaders in natural herds aren’t the best liked – it’s the horses who are catalysts for fun who have the most friends!”
Making time to interact with your horse without asking anything of him is a great place to start.
“Allow your horse to see you in a non-demanding scenario,” continues Emma. “If you don’t have time to ride, but do have a few minutes to scroll or have a cup of tea, spend that time in his stable with him. If you’re grooming, don’t just groom to get him clean. Notice how he reacts to certain brushes, keep your eyes peeled for any favourite scratching spots and spend a few extra minutes on them.
According to Emma, you can bond with your horse in your ridden work, too.
“If your schooling session goes well, wrap up early and spend that extra few minutes hand grazing,” advises Emma. “Similarly, if you’ve had a really good hack where he’s been braver than usual, jump off and walk the last few minutes as a reward. There are so many day-to-day things you can do to show your horse you’re more than just the person who comes with the tack and asks him to work.”
Look at lifestyle
Emma approaches bonding with horses holistically, taking routine and management into account.
“I always ask: is the horse happy in his whole life, and what can I control?” she says. “For example, look at his stable- and field-mates. In the past, I’ve used a screen between a stable partition when a neighbour became anxious around food. Similarly, consider your horse’s field companions. Horses like to feel safe, so ensuring he’s with the right kind of playmates will help shape the behaviour you’d like to see.”
Addressing your horse’s happiness and comfort more generally works because horses, says Emma, are like elephants.
“They don’t forget anything. Just as they know we give them food, they know if we’re leading them into a situation they don’t like. So, if they’re not keen on their neighbour or field-mates, they won’t thank us for placing them in those environments. However, if you’re leading them to a happy place – just as if you end your ride positively or scratch their itchy spot for a few moments – they’ll associate that good feeling with you.”
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