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How to Gain a Horse's Trust

a white mare

Anxiety in horses, if it's not caused by pain, can be eased quite a bit by performing trust exercises with them. Simply put, trust exercises are designed to show your horse that he can feel safe around you! So if you're wondering how to gain a horse's trust, read on!

Reacting in Turn

In certain situations, for safety reasons, it is important to correct a horse for an unwanted behavior, such as threatening to bite. When you feel you must react to correct your horse, ensure that your reaction matches the "energy level" of your horse.

Think about it this way, if you told a very small lie to your parents, you would feel it was very unfair if they grounded you for a year when they found out. But if you were caught stealing and they merely said to you, "It's not okay to steal" and left it at that, it also wouldn't be fair to you because you would be left feeling that stealing is no big deal.

Horses react to each other in this way as well. If one horse pins his ears at another, the other will do just the same. You don't see an ear pin from one horse result in a full-on rearing, striking, biting attack from the other. Nor do you see a horse who won't defend himself from another when he needs to.

Horses are prey animals, so we must react appropriately to ensure that they feel safe with us. But they are also very large and powerful creatures, and we must make sure that they are aware that certain behaviors are not okay when they are near to us. We don't want them afraid, but we don't want to be getting hurt either!

Desensitization Training

Desensitization training can be a great tool in boosting your horse's confidence in you. It is important not to overwhelm your horse, though, otherwise your horse will feel that you are a person who presents them with overwhelmingly scary objects. As with the overall training suggestions in this post, these suggestions are also designed to be stress-free for your horse. When introducing a scary object, watch your horse's body language, and follow these steps:

  1. Apply Muzzle Butter At-Ease to help your horse stay more calm and comfortable in this scary situation.

  2. Choose your object and bring it near to your horse.

  3. When you see them show they are slightly uncomfortable with the object being so close to them, stop. This could be right next to the horse, or 30 feet away. The important thing is to be aware of your horse's body language.

  4. Place the object on the ground gently and go comfort your horse. Tell them how brave they are and how great they're doing!

  5. Wait for them to "tell you" they are comfortable again. This may be them licking and chewing, lowering their head, or taking a deep breath.

  6. Then take the object closer and repeat until you are able to have the horse touch the object with his nose, and eventually rub it on his body.

Notes for Success: Horses are very subtle communicators. If you are waiting to stop until your horse is snorting or moving away from the object, you've gone too far. Watch his ears for being alert, his eyes for concerned wrinkles, and his head for lifting up. If you show your horse that you are very aware of his body language, he will feel that he is able to trust you because you understand when he is trying to communicate, and know what he is trying to tell you.

Understanding Body Language

Like we mentioned in the previous section, communication is important to your horse. As prey animals, they will always choose subtle communication when they are able. It saves energy and makes them more effective communicators with their herd-mates. However, people tend to only be aware of their horse's communication when it is at level 10, instead of level 1 (thinking biting, bucking, rearing, or bolting). Show your horse that you are in tune with him by being aware of his communication at lower levels, and responding in-turn. Some level 1 forms of communication include:

  • Turning the head away, which can show unease

  • Fast, hard blinking, which can show stress and the attempt to calm down

  • Eye shape; a triangle-shaped eye is worried, a wide-open eye is fearful, and a soft eye is relaxed.

Be Fun to Be Around!

I can't stress this enough! Your horse should enjoy being around you--he should look forward to what you'll do together when he sees you approaching in the pasture! If your horse takes one look at you and runs, that can be a pretty clear indicator of your relationship. Take the time to work on building a friendship with your horse. Teach him tricks, show him manners with treats, enjoy your time together in the pasture, and show him that you're capable of keeping him safe. Here are some ideas of things you can do with your horse that don't involve work:

  • Have a picnic in his pasture

  • Feed him treats (it's important to teach horses manners around treats so they don't become pushy)

  • Teach him a trick

  • Groom him

  • Observe him interacting with other horses

  • Have a horse-led hand-grazing walk

How to Gain a Horse's Trust Conclusion

Trust is something that is harder won in horses than it is in humans. Horses aren't logical animals like we are. They aren't able to rationalize things in the way we can. They judge off of what is right in front of them and their previous experiences. But with hard work and patience, any horse can open up to become calm, trusting, and a great friend!

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