How to make friends with a horse?

„Give him what he needs and he will give you what you want“

I think the quote is by Pat Parelli and it sums up what I think is the basis for a good relationship with our horse: the change of perspective.
In order for the relationship to thrive, we need to put our horse‘s needs first. And I am not only talking about keeping the horse on a pasture with company and feeding it adequately. This is more about what we in our time together can contribute to the well-being of the horse.

If we don‘t walk that mile in our horse‘s shoes and if we don‘t feel responsible to help the horse to be comfortable around us, our relationship becomes onesided. Us humans ask and tell and take, while the horse has the giving part. Constantly. This cannot be a sound fundament for a friendship - who wants to be together with somebody who is only focused on his own issues and advantages and who doesn‘t care about the other that much?

This is how the concept of taking the horse's point of view applies being with horses:

Saying "hello" in a polite manner is part of
a starting a friendship. Photo: Marko
 I not only go to the horse when I want to use him for my pleasure (riding or groundwork). Sometimes I just visit him on the pasture and say hello. Sometimes I bring him to the barn just to groom and feed him and then bring him back to his buddies. I don't want my horse to believe that I only show up when I want him to work for me.

I try to keep him motivated - in our case we rest a lot in our sessions. I've been preaching this for ages but it's a hard concept for some people to grasp. Only if my horse knows that I will allow him to rest, he will not try to do so on his own (breaking gait or just minimizing his efforts). Instead he will be motivated to do what I ask because he can rely on me letting him rest afterwards. 

I try to not make the horse feel bad when he made a mistake (this is hard for me). So instead of: "Come on, how often do we have to repeat this until you finally get it?" or "Can you just for once listen?" I try to say (in my mind) "Ok, that was not exactly what I had in mind. Can you try again please?" or "I am confident that you can do it. Give it another shot". 
I am pretty sure (at least most of the time) that the gelding tries to find out what I want and that he is willing to comply. If he doesn't, often I failed to deliver the information he needed, he is stiff and physically not able to do what I asked - and sometimes his focus is on saving energy (versus expending it). 
I will no reprimand him, up the phases or use the whip but politely ask for another try. Us humans do not always feel fit and we don't always give 100 percent neither (especially not if it isn't worthwhile). I think from time to time we can concede that to our horses too. 

I don't always succeed in putting this mindset into action though. From time to time I become angry and inpatient. But I try to be in control of my emotions. 

Of course, there is way more to building a friendship with a horse. But these three ideas struck me as important. 

How do you build a relationship with a horse?

PS: This text of Anna Blake made me think about the feel I deliver the horse when he does something wrong (in my eyes). It's the inspiration for the final part of this article.

This is the second review of a novel on this blog: Hannah Hooton's "Making the running". You might remember that I already wrote about "Share and share alike", the third novel of her Aspen Valley Series. "Making the running" is part four.

You can read the books individually, they don't base on each other. Still, the novels are interlaced: They feature the same horses and the same people with each book highlighting some of them and the others forming the background and atmosphere for the storyline. This is a structure that appeals to me - and Hooton does a great job diving into the different worlds of the characters, be it stable staff or members of the British upper class.

This is part 4 of the Aspen Valley Series. 
Cover: Hannah Hooton
"Making the running" protagonist Kate Creswell works as a stable lass at Aspen Valley Racing stable. Her dream is to see her favorite horse D'Artagnan run at the famous Cheltenham festival. 
Her attractive and ruthless sister Saskia in the meantime puts all her energy into tempting D'Artagnan's trainer Jack into an affair. She is not interested at all in Jockey Ben who fancies her - and to whom Kate is attracted. That gives her a hard time as she officially is dating Ben's wealthy half brother Nicholas. 
The relationship of the brothers is not the best and also Kate has family issues with a father who left her when she was little and a mother who's an alcoholic. To top it all, she discovers not only a dark side of Nicholas, but also Ben is not what she thought he was. And though D'Artagnan is allowed to race at Cheltenham, it seems he will not be allowed to win. 

Reading my summary that doesn't sound too spectacular. But to me that is the strength of the book. Storyline and characters are credible, and the reader (at least I) can relate to the protagonist's problems. The plot is not artificially structured or overly sophisticated and neither are the characters. But they don't have to. 

I liked the way Hooton manages to connect all the dots and to close the story quite elegantly. The book is an easy and entertaining read and you'll stick to it until the last page. 
I liked it better than part three of the series - which seemed a bit too crafted to me. But maybe, I just felt more related to the protagonists this time. And what really made me laugh were some plain details every horse owner knows by heart: a horse swishing his tail in one's face, a horse with his whiskers full of grain or the fancy horse names that will be familiar to anybody who ever set a foot on a racetrack. 

Click here to visit Hannah's website. You can download the first part of the Aspen Valley Series, "Keeping the peace" for free.

Dear readers,

please don't wonder: This blog is undergoing a design relaunch (sounds great but it's just me and my humble HTML-knowledge trying to work things out). I am sorry if posts disappear or sites cannot be found - I am working on it.

Lately at the barn: The frisian is defiant, too much energy, he bucks and roots his head. After  a good run, we walk around the arena together. Walking, coming to a halt, backing up, and walking again. I pay attention to him reacting instantly and I correct him rather strictly. 

Same task on the way back to his stall (where grain and hay are already waiting for him). Walking, stopping, backing. He obeys right away and adapts to my speed. We arrive at the stall and I expect (and allow) him to walk in. Instead, he stops with me in front of the door and waits for me to signal him to enter. I take the halter off (he starts to fidget but he doesn‘t try to run into the stall) and he walks calmly through the door. 

Those few minutes of leading him consequently have been enough to make him wait patiently in spite of the food in the stall. 
I think that often we underestimate the value of leading our horses. We do it to go somewhere. And it doesn‘t matter really if the horse just stops for a moment to steal some hay from the rack or to have some bites of fresh gras along the way. In the worst case we drag the horse along some steps till we get to our destination. It doesn‘t make a big difference for us - but it does for the horse

Tania Konnerth wrote an interesting article why leading correctly is vital. Unfortunately, it‘s in German but the main point is: The horse asks us questions when being led. And it depends on our answer how he‘ll react and behave. But often we are not aware of his questions. Or we are not very particular with our answers. And the horse thinks: „Ok, if she lets me eat while leading I‘ll try that on the next trail ride, too“. Being consistent when it comes to the details pays off: It leads to obedience in the big picture.

Leading is possible from different positions - farther back it becomes 
ground driving (which is enormously fun). Photo: Verena

There are different ways to lead a horse, and different trainers favor different positions. I personally pay attention to three things.

1. I don‘t lead holding the horse under his chin. Doing that I‘d make the right behavior (following nicely) uncomfortable for the horse as I‘d constantly put pressure on the halter. Also, with a tight rope, I'd pull him right on top of me. I don‘t need that in a horse.

2. I don‘t want the horse to walk right behind my back. I want him slightly to my side. If he spooks, I can spot that in the corner of my eye - and if he jumps forward he won‘t hit my back. I feel the risk of being run over is higher with a horse directly behind me (and some horses take advantage of that position and try to push the human).

3. I don‘t care if I am walking next to the horse‘s neck, shoulder or even some steps ahead of the horse. What is important though: I need to be able to control the horse from wherever I am and the horse needs to adapt to my pace. 

Some horses will like to lead and other tend to be dragged. If I allow the quick walking horse to be up front, he needs to stop when I stop - even with me being further back. The same applies for the lazy one: He is allowed to walk farther behind me, but I‘ll send him forward if he starts to drag. So if my horse prefers one position over another I am happy to let him choose - as long as he is able to walk on the others too.