I often get messages and emails asking how to develop a good relationship with a horse. Sometimes the people tell me they can’t catch their horse, or they talk about how the horse ignores them when they are trying to work with them. They will ask how to help a horse that is buddy sweet (or buddy sour whichever way you look at it!) or barn sweet. (This is still one I am working on myself. I read everything I can get my hands on as well as practice many different things to try to help Sky feel more confident when she is away from the other ponies.)
Sometimes people are just looking for something to do with their pony (or horse, or donkey or mule!) that is different than always training.
I have talked about relationship so many times on this blog. Any blog that I wrote about building relationship with my Curly horse, Billy Blaze, can also be applied to a miniature horse, or a pony. (Or a donkey or a mule!) Here are a few if you want to take a little stroll down memory lane:
I think there are quite a few ways to develop a relationship and will share a few different ones, hoping that at least one of them will help. It’s even better if you can do two or three of them 😉
One way to build a relationship with a pony is to separate it from the others for some time. This can be on a short term basis or on a long term basis depending on the individual pony. When Mikey came home he had to be separated for some time so we could work one-on-one. He needed time to bond with me a bit and to settle into his new home. Actually I feel quite strongly about keeping a new horse separate from your existing herd and spending a lot of one-on-one time with them – NOT ASKING THEM TO DO ANYTHING!!!
This is very important when developing a brand new relationship. I’m not saying they should always be separate, but doing that at first allows them to bond with you so when you do put them out with the other horses you have a relationship and they don’t simply bond with one of the other horses and want nothing more to do with you.
A great example of this is Mikey. When he came here he was nearly impossible to catch. Even in a small pen he would think about running away and was very defensive about his hind end. I took it slow with him and made a point of showing him how wonderful it felt to be with me. Now when I go out to the track and call the ponies he is nearly always the first to come to me and sometimes I have to wrestle the halter away from him so I can halter Zorro instead. I love that.
Spend undemanding time with them. Undemanding time can be a few different things:
Spending quite time in their pen. I will often bring a book in, sit and read quietly while they eat. This is best done one-on-one. It’s rather hard to do it in a herd situation, UNLESS you are just spending time with the entire herd and not singling out one.
Taking that one pony out to graze. When I do this I also work on teaching them when it’s okay to graze and when we are moving to the next yummy grassy area. We don’t just randomly wander around. I actively search for the next best bright green grass, or grass that they have had to stand and look at from inside the fence and not be able to reach, or maybe a nice clover patch. (Do this carefully if you have a horse that is metabolic! Be very choosy about the type of grass you allow a horse prone to founder to graze on, or think of a different way to browse with them.)
Take them for a walk. Don’t walk them thinking about all the of the “things” you want to accomplish but make it more about honoring them. What are they interested in?
If its grass then help them find the best grass and allow a bit of grazing. Making it clear when you are asking them to graze and when they should walk. This can be done in a way that doesn’t create anxiety about eating the grass. The #1 way to do that is to allow grazing more often at first so they aren’t so worried about it. Find a good patch, then look ahead a few feet and find the next one. Give them a cue that means it’s time to move to the next patch, I use “Come on, let’s go!” and up comes their head and they eagerly look to me for the next grassy patch. This is what a great herd leader will also do, help them find the best food, so this game makes a lot of sense to them! **I don’t haul on their halter to get their head up but will give them a tap on the butt to move them forward. It doesn’t take too long before they will just move on and you don’t have to tap their butt.
If it’s seeing the neighbor horses then take them over and allow some gawking. I don’t allow nose touching over the fences because I don’t want to be responsible for anyone putting a foot through the fence!! But horses often like to stand and look at each other. Especially if they have been curious.
Sometimes it’s a bit of off roading. Zorro likes to explore the rocks and sage bushes along the road where we drive. I will give him some lead rope and let him go climb around. Sometimes he likes to climb up on a rock and look around. I suppose the world looks different from the top of a big rock! LOL!
What I’m trying to say is that the #1 thing to horses isn’t always grass. And though it will often start out that way, as you develop a relationship the grass will be less and less important (unless you have a Haflinger! LOL!) and they will look to you for what cool thing you are going to do next! This will trickle into your driving or riding as well.
Positive Reinforcement Training (R+) I LOVE positive reinforcement training for horses that have had a hard previous life. Sometimes they are so nervous about doing the right thing that having that marker (the click or the “good boy!”) are key to helping them calm down and feel more grounded.
The kind of treat you use is as important as the timing of the treat. Giving them something that they won’t lose their mind over, such as a few hay pellets, is key. If you are always giving the deluxe “ice cream” treat the game will become more about the treat than the activity.
I also used R+ with Zorro. He was extremely sensitive and I found that working with him at liberty in the track with well timed treats was the answer to many of our bumps in the road. I attribute his awesomeness to this type of start. I am so glad that I have so many different training techniques to fall back on.
The key to that is to not jump around from one thing to the other as this can be confusing and unsettling to the horse. Choose something you would like to try and stay true to it for a week or two. If it’s not working then try something else, but do give it time.
As humans we are very direct line in our thinking and in the way we do things with our horses. This looks like us going to catch our horse, tying it up, harnessing, going for a long drive, coming home, unhitching, then putting the horse away. From one thing to the next with the end result in mind, that we go for a drive.
When I go get my ponies I offer the halter, if they are interested then I put it on and they get a few hay pellets. If anyone else is interested in being haltered I will sometimes take the halter off the one I need to catch, halter one of the others, give a few hay pellets, then go back and halter the one I need again. This gives another pony a chance to earn a treat and it gives the one I need, a chance to earn two treats.
Then, we go out of the pen and I go find a few nice green grass patches. I allow some grazing, we go from one patch to the next. Then I take them over to the tie up spot. Sometimes I have a few grass pellets on the lid of the harness box and I allow them to explore the box a bit.
Then, I tie them up and brush and put their boots on. If they hand me their feet and stand quietly to have the boots put on they will earn a treat.
Next, I get the breast collar of my harness out. I offer it to them to sniff. If they touch it they get a few grass pellets. If they are fine with having it put on then I put it on. If they move away or turn their head away then I wait.
After that, I get the saddle and breeching part of the harness. I offer that to them, if they sniff it they get a few grass pellets. If they stand quietly I will put the harness on. If they move or try to avoid the harness then I wait. Usually they will want to look at it again.
Lastly I offer the bridle. Zorro starts smacking his lips at this point because I offer the but with a small handful of the grass pellets. Sometimes he will scoop up the bit along with the pellets the first time. Sometimes he wants to eat the pellets and leave the bit. Then I offer him some more pellets and that time he will scoop up the bit.
What I am offering my ponies is the chance to have a say in the harnessing process. I take my time and don’t make it about getting the harness on so much as it’s about how my pony feels about being harnessed. Often when we are out somewhere else driving I don’t have to offer any treats at all. I will offer the chance to look at each piece of harness and typically Zorro is quite happy to have everything put on. I try to never rush but to always take my time as even when I’m not giving treats I am still aware of how he feels about everything.
It is so hard to NOT be a direct line thinker. It’s so hard to not make my time with my ponies about the end result. It’s so hard to make my time with the ponies to be about each moment. But I am amazed at how much this means to my ponies.
Does this mean my ponies are always perfect? NO. Sky is a maniac and always very dramatic. Mikey is actually pretty good but he is spooky and can be very attached to the other horses (when we are away from home. At home when I take him away from home he doesn’t care about the other horses at all.) Zorro is mostly good but can be a little stinker sometimes. I’m not perfect and neither are they. But the more I work at being in the moment the more it pays off for me.