Respect. These seven letters are absolutely essential to a happy, healthy and enjoyable relationship with your horse. Whether your vision with your horse is of precise dressage circles, long ambling trail rides or eventing, if you don't have respect on the ground you won't have it in the saddle. Gaining your horse's respect is a simple and essential part of horse ownership that helps you build a strong relationship with him, and it starts with understanding why your horse is the way he is.
Understanding Your Horse's Needs
Horses belong in a herd; evolutionarily speaking, horses are prey animals that benefit from numbers. In a running herd, predators have trouble focusing on and bringing down a single animal in a group of 20. An essential part of this herd is its hierarchy. If you spend a day watching your horse in the pasture with other horses you will see constant movement; at first this movement may seem random and aimless, but if you look closely you will see that all movement begins with one horse that sets off a chain reaction among the others. Horses will move and shift constantly, from patch of grass to piles of hay to watering trough, moved around by the boss of the pasture; while your horse may favor one section of grass or area of the pasture, the boss can move him off at will, pinning her ears and lowering her head, perhaps with a snaky, swaying movement or teeth bared, moving towards what she wants with very pointed energy. If your horse does not move when presented with these obvious physical signs, the boss will proceed with more physical interventions, biting or kicking to get the reaction she is looking for. If there are horses lower in the hierarchy than the horse that was moved off, that horse will proceed to move another horse, and then another, and so on until they have all moved to a different patch of grass or pile of hay.
The hierarchy of the dominant horse is fairly stable but can change; even something as simple as putting on a fly mask or a turnout blanket can shake up the herd and result in squeals, kicks and challenges until things settle down again with a (sometimes) new boss. As uncomfortable as it may look from the outside, horses feel safer when they understand who is in charge and where they fall in the ranks of the herd. A lead horse not only says who eats what, when and where but also keeps an eye out for predators and keeps track of new foals; this horse also controls the speed and direction of movement in the event that the herd needs to run from a predator.
A Herd of Two
A horse's need to feel safe as part of a herd's hierarchy does not diminish when it is just you and your horse, and there is only one safe way for you two to form your own herd: you must be the boss. If you do not assert yourself, gaining (and keeping) your horse's respect, you will become the owner of a horse who is (or becomes over time) pushy during feeding time, pushy when being led, pushy under saddle and pushy in general. Eventually you will have a dangerous horse that cannot be trusted on the ground and certainly should not be trusted under saddle. Your horse needs direction and guidance, and if he does not get it from you he will assume he is the one in charge and act accordingly.
Where to Start
When we think of getting our first horse, most of us have images of saddling up and riding, galloping across an open field on a sunny day, or completing a lightening-fast barrel run or dressage pattern or meandering along sun-dappled trails through the woods. Reality is something quite different. If your goal is to build a relationship with your horse that will last their lifetime, the first step is building respect, and respect begins on the ground. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that your horse's most basic needs are being met so that he is receptive to this type of basic training. Your horse should be on a sound and regular feeding schedule designed to keep him at optimum health, and even if you have adopted or purchased a horse that is weak from hunger or illness, you can still address some basic respect issues without harming your horse. If you are unsure, check first with your vet to get the go-ahead, and then proceed slowly, being mindful of your horse's comfort and building from there.
For all exercises that follow, remember to repeat them from both sides of your horse's head, and make sure to practice them regularly and consistently; stay calm and firm when you ask you horse to do something, and reward even his smallest try. A horse that lowers his head and begins to lick his mouth or make chewing motions is a horse who is thinking about what you are asking him to do, and this is what you want: a thoughtful horse. If this is your first time doing groundwork, remember that you are training yourself, too; as you work with your horse, your body language and cues will become clearer and easier to understand, and your horse will relax and follow your lead.
The purpose of these first exercises is to show the horse that you control their feet (direction). Going back to the example of the boss horse moving the herd away from their food, remember that the boss was able to get the other horses moving with eye contact and body language. So that's where we'll start. You are looking to get maximum response from minimum pressure, so start small and increase your motions until you get a result, then back off instantly.
Many professional trainers recommend using a rope halter with two knots over the nose, and a ten-foot lead rope. The reason for the rope halters as opposed to a basic web halter is that a stubborn horse can lean against a web halter, effectively resisting your cues and making it nearly impossible for you to feel their slightest try. In a shoving match, your horse will win, and that is not the goal in the first place. You are looking to get maximum response from minimum pressure (a "light" horse), and a rope halter helps you to give smaller cues first and feel the response more quickly than a nylon halter. Do not wait to start until you have a rope halter; groundwork for respect should begin the second the first hoof hits the property! You can always get a different halter later.
There are four basic exercises for respect: backing, releasing the hindquarters, releasing the forequarters and leading.
Backing is simply getting your horse to move backwards out of your space on command. Not only does backing reinforce the very basic requirements of respect (for the horse to move away when you ask him), but it also makes him safer to approach in the pasture and during feeding time when you ask him to move away from gates or his feeder. There are two basic ways to back your horse: standing at his side beside his ears, or cuing him from in front of his head, facing him.
For the first method, start on either side of your horse, holding a couple inches below the clip on the halter in one hand, and the rest of the lead rope in your other hand (remember not to hold the rope in loops, with your hand in the middle). Putting slight pressure on the halter, step toward the horse's shoulder. You are looking for one step backwards from any foot. If you need to, jiggle the halter slightly with the hand holding the clip and/or add additional pressure back towards the shoulder. Do not hesitate; be firm and sure. Do not release the pressure until your horse steps backwards, then release it instantly. The release of pressure is their reward for doing the right thing. As you progress, your horse should be taking more steps backwards, with more energy and less pressure. This requires patience and persistence. Eventually you want to be able to step towards their shoulder and have them back until you stop. Whichever side you start on, remember to move to the other side of your horse's head and repeat.
The second method is adapted from several different natural horsemanship trainers; each trainer puts their own particular spin on this method. A rope halter does work best with this method, but again it is not required.
Stand in front of your horse's head, just slightly off to one side (you do not want to be in their blind spot directly in front of them, but you also don't want them to move to one side), about four feet away. The first step to this may leave you feeling a little silly; make eye contact with your horse, and think to yourself as hard as you can "Back up." Try to convey just through eye contact the same thing the herd boss would, to get out of your way or else. If your horse does not respond to this (and many will not the first time out), start to gently wiggle the lead rope with one hand while making "sh-sh-sh" noises. Your horse's head may come up slightly, and his ears may prick forward; his listening. Again, here you are looking for one step backwards. Gradually increase the motion of your wrist and the lead rope so that the halter may end up rubbing all over his nose. This is very unpleasant for your horse, and he will want to move away (back!) from it. Do not move towards him; wait for him to move away from you. The second he steps back, stop all wiggling and noise and praise him. You may have to wiggle the rope with pretty big movements at first, but he will figure it out quickly to escape the rubbing halter. As you progress through this exercise, his head should come down when you ask him to back, with very little pressure required. With this method you may be able to get your horse so light and responsive that he backs when he hears the noise!
Work on backing (either method, or both to mix it up) as long as it takes him to take as many energetic steps backwards as you need; go as slow as your horse needs (be patient) but remember that you are establishing your role as the dominant "horse" in your herd of two. If your horse knows what you are asking but lazily moves back on his own time, or only gives one or two steps, increase the pressure until he does what you are telling him to do. The idea is to first ask, then show, then tell him what to do.
If you start with a horse that really has no respect for you or your space you will need to march him out of your way at first. With the lead rope in one hand and a dressage crop (or similar crop or training stick without a whip attached) begin marching in place, swinging the crop out in front of your knees and really exaggerating a high-stepping march in place, with hands pumping up and down as well; establish a rhythm in place (while your horse looks at you like you are crazy), then begin marching toward him. Continue your rhythm. If your horse does move, he will get the dressage crop on his chest and a hand on his chin. Your goal is not to hurt your horse, but he needs to know you are serious, so if he is not moving by the time the crop reaches him, make sure he feels it. This is the same as the herd boss baring his teeth and biting out. You are not being mean or beating your horse; if you cannot get him to move out of your way he poses a real threat to your safety. He must understand that you are not to be run over or stepped on, and this teaches him that lesson.
After your horse takes multiple, energetic steps backwards with minimal pressure from you, try backing over trot poles, or try varying the direction by moving your focus further back on his body to his hip (so he'll swing to one side or the other). Once he has learned to back and respect your space, keep his refresher training sessions short and effective so that he stays engaged and willing. It is best to apply these skills to real situations, so after you catch him in the pasture back him for a few steps when you open the gate, or back him into his stall at night.
Releasing (Disengaging) the Hindquarters
The second stage of gaining respect by controlling your horse's direction is getting him to release his hindquarters on command. A horse that is soft and supple in the hindquarters is a horse with beautiful lead flying lead changes, instantaneous sidepass, seamless direction changes and a spook that happens in place, instead of down the road. Some trainers will have you work on lateral flexion (bending their heads softly to one side or the other) prior to moving the hindquarters, but this method can get you moving their feet before they are completely flexed in the neck. As you work on perfecting this you can add lateral flexion, but as our goal is respect and establishing you as the dominant horse, we'll start with movement of the feet and add flexion in next steps.
Start on the near (left) side of the horse, facing his head and standing behind where the girth would be; hold the lead rope in your left hand and place your right arm on your horse's back, without crossing over to the other side. Apply pressure to the lead rope by pulling back slightly, just until your horse turns his head; once the horse turns slightly, release the pressure and let him straighten up. Repeat at least three times on each side. The goal in this case is to get your horse flexing to the side, not to touch their side completely; you just want to see their eye facing you. After the third time, hold the horse's head slightly flexed, drop your right hand down to the side where a rider's heel might ask for movement, and bump his side slightly with the heel of your hand, keeping gentle pressure on the lead rope. Here you are looking for your horse to release his hindquarters, crossing his left hind leg in front of his right hind leg. At the beginning, look for just one step across, and not a shuffle; you need to see one leg cross in front of the other one, not just shuffle around. When you get it, instantly stop bumping and release all pressure, praising verbally and rubbing the spot you were bumping with your hand. Repeat this exercise as many times as necessary to get that one step with light pressure. Eventually you will have a horse who releases quickly, pivoting on the front legs. Remember to practice this on both sides of the horse, and alternate releasing the hindquarters with backing.
If your horse moves forward as he releases, he is really just walking a circle around you, and you are looking for a swinging hind end. Release some of the pressure on the halter, as he may think you are trying to walk him, and raise your hand in front of his eye to stop him from walking toward you. Make sure he can feel you bumping his side; you're not playing patty cake. You should definitely reward the try, but make sure your horse understands you mean it when you tell him to do something. You can also step towards his hindquarters with a big movement, and he should move out of your way.
When your horse releases his hindquarters with minimum pressure, pivoting or moving very little with his front legs, add a backing exercise to the end. Give him a little more lead rope, and when he swings to face you, begin to back him up using whichever method works best for you.
Additionally, for a good stretch, you can begin to ask your horse to flex his neck in either direction to touch his side. Stand beside your horse either facing his body or his head, close to the point of his hip, drape the end of your lead rope over your horse's back. If you start on the near side, slide your left hand down the lead rope towards the clip, and when you get about a foot and a half away, pull back and slightly up towards the withers (this is where you would pull towards in the saddle). When the horse stretches back towards his side by any amount, release instantly and let him relax for five to ten seconds before flexing again. Sometimes you can tickle their whiskers if (they have any), and they will reach further; other trainers suggest you take their head in one hand and their tail in the other and get them to stretch to touch their tail. For any of the flexing exercises, a rope halter is almost imperative; a stubborn horse will lie back on the webbing and wait patiently for you to stop asking. If that happens, bump the lead rope slightly and get ready to release if they try even a little. You always want to end on a positive note, right as the horse is working with you and attentive.
Releasing (Disengaging) the Forequarters
Now that you have your horse backing smoothly and releasing the hindquarters lightly, it's time to work on the front end. If the hind is the engine, the front is the steering wheel. Gaining control over your horse's forequarters will give you more confidence when you mount up; he will know you mean business when you are directing him because you laid the foundation of control on the ground.
Stand on either side, approximately parallel to your horse's ear, maybe a little back. You do not want to be too far back, as your horse will feel like you are driving him forward, and you don't want to be too far in front of him, as he will think you are asking him to back up. With the lead rope in one hand, making sure he has enough room so you aren't pulling on his face, but not so much room that he can just move away and avoid the action, raise your hands to eye level, and begin to rhythmically wave both hands toward him. His head will probably come up to avoid your hands; try to keep them at his eye level. If you horse is especially tall, you may want to add a crop or other training stick to lengthen your arm. Again, you are looking for one step, this time one front leg crossing over the other. Increase the pressure every five or so waves by making them move bigger, or thumping on his neck. Your goal here is not to hurt your horse but to imitate the boss in the pasture; when you say move, he needs to MOVE and NOW. For some horses, this may mean a thump or two on the neck, but do check yourself and make sure you are increasing the pressure because it is time, not because you are frustrated.
If your horse backs up when you are asking for the release, that is okay; he is trying to figure out what you are asking him to do. Do not increase the level of pressure; stay with him, and keep asking. When he stops backing but still does not respond then you can increase your pressure.
If your horse moves forward to run away from pressure, immediately back him 10-20 steps and start over again. Make sure you are not standing too far back (so your body language is moving him forward), but do not otherwise let him move forward. He is entering your space unbidden, and that is not safe.
Once your horse smoothly releases from both the front and the back, alternate between them; release the hind, then release the front. See if you can get him to release by just looking at the point of his hip or his shoulder. Back in between releases, and make sure to praise and give time to rest.
The final exercise for gaining your horse's respect on the ground is teaching him how to lead safely. The reasons for the exercise need little explanation; you cannot have a horse that runs up over you, cuts you off, or steps on your feet when you cross in front of him. In the wild, the dominant horse is truly the one in the lead, and all others follow.
If you watch ten different people with their horses, you will see ten different styles of leading. Some people lead with their horse's head in front of them; some lead walking next to their horse's poll; some lead with the rope looped around their horse's neck; some lead with the horse far behind them. For the purpose of gaining respect, you will learn to lead with your horse behind your right shoulder; if your horse is behind you you will be able to cross in front of him without pushing him out of the way, and he will have space to come to a stop without running over you.
To start, back your horse out of your space and make sure his attention is on you. Hold the lead rope loosely across your right palm with about three feet of lead between you and your horse (hold the remainder in your left hand, loosely coiled). The reason you keep your palm open and some rope between you and your horse is to show him that you trust his ability to follow you, and to not keep him so tightly trussed to you that he cannot move. Remember that as a flight animal, a horse's instinct will make him pull away if he feels trapped, and holding him right under his chin or too close to his halter could produce that feeling. Turn your back to your horse, with your shoulders squared. Look in the direction you are going, and in one smooth movement, step forward with the right foot, click with your tongue, and move your right hand forward slightly. To stop, plant both feet and either say, "woah" or blow out through your mouth, hard. You can add a slight squat to this if you like (similar to the motion of trying to stop your horse in the saddle by sitting lower). Walk in circles, making sure to keep your head up and eyes facing where you want to go (your horse is reading your body language from behind), with your horse behind your right shoulder.
If your horse is not used to following, or is high strung, or does not quite get the idea of staying out of your space, he will run up on your shoulder or try to surge ahead of you. Do not let him do this; be consistent. Stop and back him up, then start again, or lead him in a circle, either in front of him or just to the left away from him. Do not let him lead you, and do not let him place you beside his shoulder. When he does this, he has told you that you are his inferior, and he'll do the leading around here, thank you very much. Back him off and keep him out of your space. Travel short distances at first, and always reward the try.
Long, rambling walks, respectful bonding time: these are your next steps. Practice leading your horse safely wherever you go, and be consistent with his position.
A Respectful Horse, A Happy Horse, A Beautiful Relationship
These are the most basic exercises you can start working on immediately to build a strong relationship with your horse that is based on respect and trust. You will always come back to the basic principles behind them, just as the boss in the pasture reasserts her status from time to time. Combined with bonding over grooming (find his itchy spots!), observing your horse in the pasture and relaxing hand grazing, these simple exercises will strengthen your relationship on the ground, laying the foundation for a long and lasting bond with your horse.