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developing a relationship

From: Lisa

Hi Jessica! I am a first time reader of Horse Sense----looked through the archives and read quite a few tempting articles, and have a different kind of issue. I was fortunate enough in my first horse to have found a very best friend. I trusted him implicitly because he was always right! Whenever I questioned his judgement (for example on a winter trail ride he wouldn't go to the right, so when the issue got forced and I made him go to the right, I then found out that there was a tree down blocking the trail, or the time I tried to send him through the stream following after the other horses and he insisted on a different path through it and we came out barely wet while the others shivered after getting too wet, etc.) Guy was my best friend from the ground as well as caring for me in the saddle---his ears were always tuned directly into ME eliminating other "bother". (I wish my husband listened as well or as willingly ;-) Guy will be gone 3 years in February since we had to put him down two weeks before his 48th birthday as he had no muscular strength left to hold himself up. He was the truest friend and best horse possible and will always be missed. My new horse Red (Red Velvet) has come along beautifully in all the training that my husband has put him through :) he stands perfectly still at the mounting stairs, is very safe, dependable and trail smart. I do not have trouble with the riding elationship with Red as he inspires absolutely no fear in me and can be totally trusted. I can not find a way to teach him how to have a relationship from the ground though. By this I mean Guy and I spent hours in each others company enjoyably, comfortably, willingly---we both looked forward to each other. Perhaps we'd walk along in the hay pastures munching grass and talking, or with him standing behind me looking at the pictures in a book I'd be reading to him, that kind of thing. Guy was a wonderful companion. Red is insecure in my presence as I'm not there regularly enough (real life invasion--work and no light left after work [no lighting at barn at night to see him] and just everything else there is that must get done). He is often headshy (prior mistreatment, not from us or the barn we board at) and nervous and VERY CONCERNED about the other horses---he always checks behind him for example if I'm feeding carrots to see if any other horse is coming to steal HIS carrots. Sharing is unknown to him, whether it's carrots or companionship. He seems to have had absolutely no real contact with people or horses before we purchased him. He is understanding the other horses better now as he'll be with them for two years in May. He trusts my husband as Jay instructed him. But when it comes to me he tries incredibly hard to find ways to please me and mostly misses. Here is where the trouble lies! I don't know how to teach him what I like, or if I try as in massage/touch there is never any feedback to find out what he enjoys. Most other horses talk with their ears (forwards for positive, back for negative, etc.) or fairly clear body language and Red never seemed to learn this. He speaks another language from what I'm used to with all the others. We don't communicate well as a result from us speaking separate languages to each other. Another example is scratching---even with people/dogs/other horses if you are scratching them and just missing "the spot" they lean into it to get you to just the right place. He will be frustrated for me not understanding where he's itchy, but again, no feedback in normal ways to acknowledge where he wants me to scratch. I'm at a loss to find ways to "get together" with this horse. He's kind and gentle and very willing to please, and I feel so clueless around him. Can you help me learn how to communicate with a very different kind of horse? I want very much to develop into his friend, and create him into a friend for me!! Thanks!!!


Hi Lisa! Welcome to horse-sense. Your new horse sounds interesting -- he obviously wants to please you, and that's always a very good sign. He's awake and aware, although he is carrying some baggage -- but then, what horse isn't?

This horse sounds as though he may have been stall-raised or raised in isolation, and that makes his life, and your job, quite difficult. Horses should be raised with other horses and allowed to interact with them; this is how horses learn to speak "horse". Good trainers speak "horse" too -- and this enables them to deal effectively with most horses, but NOT with horses that don't speak the language themselves. Red is on his way, though -- he's learning "horse" from the others in the pasture, which is wonderful, and he's obviously smart enough to learn it, which is even more wonderful. And he has learned his job as a riding horse -- more proof that he is teachable! What he DOESN'T know yet is that there's more to life with a human than simple obedience under saddle. He doesn't yet realize that a human can make a very good friend, and that's what you need to teach him.

I think that your first step toward building an understanding with this horse will be to spend a day with him -- not riding him or grooming him, but just watching him and seeing exactly what his day is like, what he does, how he eats, when he naps, what his actions and reactions are when he deals with the other horses, where he grazes, what kind of grass he prefers, whether he likes to roll, etc., etc. I realize that you won't be able to do this until there is more light and the days are longer (and warmer!), but when it's possible, it will be a big help. If he interacts with the other horses, he'll tell them where he wants to be scratched -- and you can take notes, and scratch those same spots when you handle him. If he is more nervous when another horse comes up behind him from the left than from the right, or vice versa, you can use that information when you handle him.

In the meantime, approach him with an open mind -- don't expect him to be Guy, or like Guy. Just watch and wait, be patient, and be kind. It took years for you and Guy to develop your relationship -- it'll take time for you to develop a new relationship with Red. And Red has some other issues to deal with -- previous abuse or mishandling -- which will make the process longer.

Here are some basic guidelines for dealing with Red, or with ANY new horse, or any horse for that matter!

Horses perceive you not through your words or intentions, but through your actions. Horse language is very physical, although there are verbal componenets, and horses can learn to understand many words and tones. But in the beginning -- which is where you are with Red -- think PHYSICAL language.

Every movement you make tells your horse something, either about what you expect from him, or about what kind of person you are. So be aware of how you move -- THINK before you move.

Be careful, deliberate, precise, and SLOW. Whatever you are doing -- hanging a water bucket, putting grain in the manger, putting on a halter, stroking a neck, picking out hooves, combing a mane -- do it very deliberately and slowly. Sudden, jerky, fast, or uncoordinated movements will startle and frighten a horse. If you can move as though you were moving through water, there will be no sudden gestures or surprises, and your horse can relax and learn to trust you. You'll be speaking "horse" -- clearly and deliberately and calmly. And in the beginning, make your movements deliberate and slow AND LARGE -- you want to be very, very clear about everything you are doing.

Don't worry, you won't have to stay deliberate and slow forever -- as Red learns to relax and trust you, he will become more at ease with you and your movements, and you won't have to move quite so slowly to inspire confidence. You'll also find that you can make smaller movements as time goes by -- Red will be relaxed and attentive, focused on you, and he will notice and respond to even small signals.

Talk to him! Don't expect him to make sense of it, but use your voice. The human voice can be wonderfully soothing to a horse -- but again, keep it low and slow. High squeaky sounds, shallow breathing, and sudden noises will induce fear and apprehension; low, soft sounds, slow, deep breathing, and constant quiet talk will help Red relax.

Don't be in a hurry -- you're dealing with a horse, and the more slowly you proceed, the more quickly you will get where you want to go. You have a wonderful attitude, and I think that Guy was an extremely lucky horse -- and Red is very lucky too, he just doesn't know it yet.

Let me know how this works for you.


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