There are many ways to build trust with a new or troubled horse. After decades of working with troubled horses, I have developed several tried and tested ways to build trust with horses.
Having a trusting relationship with a horse is very important. Any time you are working together or learning other new skills, you’ll have an easier time if your horse trusts you.
Knowing what to do and how to behave around your horse is a skill that every rider can develop and achieve with time and attention.
So if you are working to build trust with a new or troubled horse, use some of these well-proven ways to improve your ability to earn and maintain trust.
Here are 10 ways to build trust with your horse:
Spend Time With Your Horse
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to build trust is to simply spend as much time as possible with your horse.
The more company you keep, the more comfortable the two of you will be with each other. You’ll each learn the foibles and habits of the other. You’ll start to anticipate the needs of each other.
You will naturally develop a kinship through closeness in proximity. Simple activities that don’t require teaching are a great way to get to know each other.
Groundwork or easy rides around the stable are good options. Another simple, but sometimes overlooked idea is to get your chores done with your horse around.
Instead of cleaning your boots or gear in the tack room, plop down on a bucket near your horse’s stall. Cleaning up around the barn doesn’t require you to put him out to pasture. Hitch your horse to stall ties within ear and eyeshot, and get to your work.
You’ll be happy for the company and he’ll grow more comfortable having you around. Enjoy this step. After all, spending time with each other is the best part!
Apologize for Mistakes When Trust-Building
When mistakes on your part happen, and they will happen, own up and apologize to your horse. You will break trust to some extent at some point. Even if doing so was for a good reason.
An example of the best intentions leading to a break would be a skill such as asking your horse to cross a roadway. He starts ahead, you see a car approaching too quickly, so you abruptly change course and turn him away.
He may likely feel chastised by the sudden change in direction, especially if the change was a hard request for your safety’s sake. No need to worry, this is your chance to make things right.
Immediately apologize with reassurance in your voice and with your hands. If you tensed up in the situation, take a few deep breaths to ensure your body relaxes as well while the both of you mentally reset.
Being attentive to your missteps is the key to success with this. If you are self-aware, and can recognize when you’ve made an error, horses are forgiving and will respond well to apology.
Teach Your Horse With Consistency
Consistency with your trust building works hand in hand with patience. All too often I’ve seen riders who are working towards a goal that requires trust, who will undermine their own progress by deciding to change up the plan and break the trust build.
Every step towards a goal should be consistent. Your repetition builds a sense of understanding. Your horse understanding what you are asking for, learning that it’s not scary or harmful, builds trust with every attempt.
If you’ve spent time trying something over and over again, and then lose your patience, your interruption of the consistency will put you right back at square one.
It’s much better to change tactics after just one or two attempts than it is to spend a long period of time on a trust skill only to abandon your methods to start again.
Reward Your Horse’s Accomplishment
If your horse has trusted you to lead him through uncomfortable territory, reward him handsomely! Everyone likes to be rewarded and horses are no different.
Rewards can be simple, small pats, rubs or verbal praise for instance. Lavish a troubled horse with this kind of reward when working to build trust.
They can also be small treats if the condition allows. Horses hard at work should not get food rewards, but there are many uses for snacks as incentive.
One of my favorite horses may as well have carried around a sign that said “Will work for food”.
That said, be cautious to regularly reward with food as to avoid the horse expecting that kind of reward every time.
The last thing you want is to break trust because you forgot a sugar lump.
Maintain a Confident Attitude Around Your Horse
You can reassure any horse with your demeanor when confident in the situation at hand. The way you physically feel to horses has a big impact on the trust in a situation.
Never forget that your horse will be paying close attention to the way your body is reacting when you’re out for a ride. If you tense up, he’ll tense up. If you’re relaxed, he’ll relax.
Trust is built with an absence of fear. If you are afraid of doing something, you should get your own fear under control before getting anywhere near a horse you are working to build trust with.
Any fear you have will be felt by the horse you are riding. A rider with fear is tense and abnormal, and horses will pick up on those unintentional body cues in a heartbeat.
Start any ride or work with confidence and readiness and you will physically feel more trustworthy to your horse.
Talk to Your Horse
Good communication with your horse is another big step to building trust. Talk to your horse and listen when he talks to you.
When you’re talking, the tone and pitch of your voice sends more of a message than the words. Calm murmurs to reassure, quick clicks to gain attention or over-the-top sounding praises to reward good behavior are all examples of excellent sounds to try.
Your horse will be talking to you as well. Nickers, whinnies or grumbles can give you clues to your horses’ state of mind.
Overall, be aware of the sounds you’re making and hearing. As you each establish a pattern of verbal communication you’re on your way to a trusting relationship.
Pay Attention to Your Horse’s Body Language
One of the easiest ways to know if your horse is comfortable and trusting you in a situation is to pay attention to your horse’s body language.
Tense ears that are rapidly shifting around, combined with a stiff body stance at high alert, are clues that your horse is tense, uneasy and may not be comfortable with the situation.
Keep an eye out for the cues that your horse is attentive and ready. This is especially true when you’re working to build trust with a troubled horse.
Look for ears that follow you and your voice. A stance of readiness that is not tense. Combined with eyes that are alert and focused on you or the task at hand and you’re looking at a horse who is ready to learn.
A trusting horse will look like he’s ready and eager to work with you.
Build a Foundation of Trust with Your Horse
Horses will naturally learn and trust those who don’t ask for too much too fast. When teaching your horse anything that may put them out of their comfort zone, start small.
A common learned skill that requires trust is trailering. There are so many ways to learn and improve this skill, but it all comes down to trust.
Every single method to introduce a horse to a trailer begins the same way. Introduce your horse to the trailer in a small toe-in-the-water step. Too much too fast can be overwhelming and break down the trust you have worked so hard to establish.
Don’t underestimate the small introductions to any new skills and use your first impressions to those skills wisely. Over time, your horse will anticipate the pattern of starting small and will maintain the trust to explore what you’ve got to teach them.
A trusting horse will respond to learning with curiosity and eagerness. A broken trust will likely result in fear or refusal.
Build Trust Back Fast if Your Horse Spooks
Things happen, and horses get scared. Did something he see, smell, or hear scare him?
Whenever your horse gets spooked by something, the faster you correct this critical state, the better. A spooked horse is akin to a scared toddler.
Small scares tend to be quickly forgotten, but prolonged exposure to whatever is causing the spook can leave long lasting emotional trauma that will break down your trust.
When your horse gets spooked, use everything you’ve got to reassure him as quickly as possible. Even if that means getting him out of a situation entirely.
Stay Patient with Your Horse
Being patient is something every rider can and should do when trying to build trust with a horse. Rome was not built in a day and neither was trust between any two beings.
The hardest troubled horses with the biggest fears are the ones who require ultimate levels of patience to build trust.
Generally speaking, the most troubled horses have learned to mistrust certain skills out of a fearful response to a previous situation. They tend to react negatively time and time and time again when working through correcting a poor or dangerous habit.
Wait it out. Dig deep for patience. If you calmly and cautiously try to bridge that gap again and again…you’ll see the patience rewarded.
That first time you see your horse start to trust you to and turn the corner towards overcoming what you’ve been so patiently working towards, it will be a great great day.
Over Time You Will See Success
If you use these methods of establishing good communication, using patient and consistent practices, you will definitely be successful in building trust with your horse.
Be prepared to step forward and step back on occasion. Especially when you are working to build trust with a troubled horse. The path to trust horses is always a winding one.
At the heart of this matter is your desire to grow and bond with your horse. Don’t stress if you don’t see a change overnight. Allow the relationship to grow with your nurturing and trust will follow in no time.