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How to bond with your horse

What determines whether the horse enjoys being with us and is it possible to deepen the horse-human relationship? We ask Elke Hartmann, docent in applied ethology at the Swedish University of Agriculture (SLU), who researches the needs and behaviours of horses.
How to bond with your horse

Many horse owners strive to optimise their relationship with their horse. But how the horse looks at us and how it attaches itself to specific people is not easy to research.

There have been occasional studies on horses' behaviour and stress levels when they have been handled by the owner/trainer compared to an unknown, but horse-accustomed and calm, person. There, no significant differences have been seen that indicate that the horse chooses, becomes safer or performs better with someone it knows. But more research is needed to be able to draw general conclusions about connection.

Elke Hartmann

Swedish University of Agriculture / Docent

Horses are neither dog nor human

Equating the relationship with the horse to the one we have, for example, with a dog can be difficult. Dogs are a completely different species and create a close bond with "their" human in a more visible way. In addition, dogs live in the house and thus live closer to us.

"Everyone says they want a close relationship with the horse, but scientifically we don't really know how horses show that the relationship with an individual person is good," says Elke Hartmann and gives an example:

  • Research has shown that a horse that is trained with positive reinforcement seeks more contact with people than other horses do. But is it because the relationship with the human is extra good or because the horse is motivated by food and is looking for its reward?
  • Another example is a horse that comes running when you pick it up in the paddock, or whinnies when you enter the stable in the morning. It is something many of us interpret as a sign of a deepened relationship.- the question is, however, what it can mean. Is it because the horse likes us, or is it nagging because we are a resource associated with feeding or with being allowed to come to the friends?

Be sensitive and start with yourself

Horses are individuals. Many of them are curious and they like to approach us humans. When they don't want to come, it's important to be sensitive and try to understand why. Is it because we associate discomfort, such as exercise that induces stress, or are there other reasons?

"If the horse chooses to be with me, I can interpret it positively, as if it likes my presence. But I can also be happy that it chooses to be with its friends in the paddock. It indicates that I give it a good horse life," points out Elke Hartmann.

Elke herself does not focus so much on the relationship itself when she spends time with her horse, but more on what she needs to do to be a person she can trust. This is so that the horse becomes safe, understands what the owner expects and so that it feels motivated to train.

7 tips from ethologist, Elke Hartmann, for you as a horse owner

1. Good horse welfare in everyday life

"Before we even start thinking about training horses, they need to feel good and have their needs met when it comes to horse management" points out Elke Hartmann.

"Start by evaluating the general welfare of your horse. Is it healthy and does it get full social contact with conspecifics, adapted feed, sufficient eating time, freedom of movement and so on?"

2. Listen to your horse's signals

Always try to get better at "reading" your horse. For example, if it turns its bottom when you come, analyse why. How is your horse today? Are they motivated or is the upcoming exercise associated with discomfort? Could they be hurting somewhere?

Another example is a horse that gets excited. Does this mean it is happy or could it be a sign of stress?

"Many see it as mischief and joy when a horse bucks and needs to run away before a training session. But excess energy can also be interpreted as something in the horse's posture not working. Does they get enough time outside together with friends, on surfaces where they gets an outlet for their need for movement," Elke Hartmann thinks.

3. Motivation is essential

Think through how you can motivate your horse to want to cooperate with you, we want to give it as positive an experience as possible when it is being trained.

"Here it is important to acquire knowledge about horses' learning, so that we understand how to reinforce a desired behaviour. Horses are motivated by working for something. But what? If motivation is lacking, it is important to be inventive and to build up your training system according to what suits the individual," says Elke Hartmann.

Elke trains her own horse with positive reinforcement, i.e. with clickers/reward words and various feed rewards, in addition to training with pressure – concession. Some horses are motivated primarily by feed, others by petting or getting a break. While monotonous training without breaks and change lowers motivation.

4. Give your horse a choice

Many traditionally schooled horse people are not used to thinking that the horse should be given a choice. But Elke Hartmann believes that we should take into account the horses' feelings and daily mood, that we do not force ourselves on them. Is your horse "having a bad day", perhaps you can replace the training with a walk?

5. Consistency and clear signalling

When it comes to training, according to Elke Hartmann, it is crucial that you are consistent and build up a clear signal system that the horse understands. Many conflicts are based on misunderstandings, causing the animal to become confused and stressed.

"We must not mix up signals so that there are different languages for the horse on different days. And it is important to have the right timing with concessions and rewards."

6. Form behaviours gradually

Horse rarely instinctively understand what we humans want, it is important to have a training plan and to work with what is called "shaping". So that we shape a behaviour step by step, for example a dressage movement.

"We do this by reinforcing behaviours that lead the horse in the right direction, so that it gradually approaches what we are looking for. Break the exercise down into parts that are then put together. It should be easy for the horse to succeed," says Elke Hartmann.

7. Consider safety for you and your horse

Sometimes you hear calls that we should "play" more with our horses. Maybe it's actually a rewrite so that we humans will dare to relax and make more reasonable demands on ourselves? However, regular play between horse and human is not something the ethologist recommends.

"It is easy to compare the relationship we have with dogs to the one we have with horses. But why would the adult horse want to play with me as a human, when it can hang out with conspecifics instead? The safety aspect also comes into play here. A foal may want to play with us, but we will need to set boundaries because the situation could become dangerous."

Instead, Elke Hartmann thinks we should focus on the scientifically based training principles that ISES, The International Society for Equitation Science, has compiled. They aim for a positive, safe, clear and safe interaction.


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