Having Trouble Bonding With Your Horse?

I spend a lot of time on Facebook, reading through the posts on various horse groups. This gives me a really good idea of what people are struggling with, with their horses. The most concerning of the problems that I read see are the ones that talk about a lack of bonding with their horse. These posts concern me the most because a lack of bonding often leads to giving up the horse. Rescues are overwhelmed with these horses and the kill pens send thousands of these horses to slaughter every year, so helping people bond with their horses is my passion. I want people to keep their horses and to be able to enjoy their horses as much as I enjoy mine.

What follows are some of the most common struggles people face that I read about on Facebook.

Horse is sent to a trainer & comes back worse

I’m not sure what mentality produces the idea that you can further your bond with your horse by sending them away to a trainer, but I see this happen far too often. The horse is sent to a trainer for anywhere from 30 to 90 days for a variety of reasons. The horse comes back with the same problems as before he/she left, along with some new ones. Sometimes the trainer gets the blame, more often the horse gets the blame. Occasionally the horse is even deemed “untrainable”, but that’s a subject for a whole other blog post.

Sending your horse away for training means that you are not spending time with your own horse and learning alongside your horse what the trainer is teaching. Unfortunately what takes a trainer weeks to teach can be undone in a day by an uneducated owner. Also, no bonding is taking place while your horse is gone- at least not with you anyway, so when the horse comes back, you’re basically starting all over, albeit possibly with a trained horse. What’s fascinating about this is that when the horse is well behaved, the human will say that they have a close bond. I’m not so sure well trained = close bond.

Training can be a wonderful thing but great misconceptions about horse behavior are rampant in the equine industry. These misconceptions often cause people to allow for various methods of training that are ultimately detrimental to their horse and to their relationship with the horse. What I see happen most often is that the trainer uses more pressure than necessary to train the horse and the owner simply cannot perform the level of pressure necessary to maintain those behaviors, nor should they.

Ideally, if you hire a trainer, the trainer should be including you in their program and teaching you the skills that you need to maintain the behaviors that your horse will learn. The trainer should also be able to explain his/her training, why and how it works, in a “trainer behavior = horse behavior = outcome” frame and not a “dominance + leadership = respect” frame. Contrary to popular belief, training does not require loud voices or big, intimidating movements, even if you are training with pressure and release. Horses also do not require  a “dominant” person to train them. Training should be a teacher-student relationship, not a boss-subordinate relationship.

Owner is training the horse but making little to no progress

The horse world is full of people with only a rudimentary understanding of training, without any real education in behavior or behavior change, trying to take on the task of training their horse themselves. When the training is unsuccessful, the horse, or the lack of bonding is blamed.

In the words of Bob Bailey, “training is simple but not easy”.

Most people have some grasp on the idea that consequences determine future behavior, but their focus tends to be on stopping behavior they don’t want as opposed to producing behavior they do. When they do focus on producing behavior, it is often with the mindset that the complete behavior should happen instantly, and pressure quickly turns to punishment when it doesn’t.

Good training isn’t about just making your horse do what you want. If you want to train your own horse, you should first:

  • Understand how the environment affects behavior and how to manipulate the environment to help you produce the results you’re looking for.

  • Understand how to break down a goal behavior and teach it in small increments (In other words, “reward every try”).

  • Understand how to correctly apply pressure and how to give an adequate release, if you’re training with pressure and release.

  • Understand how to use food or other reinforcers to strengthen desired behaviors, if you’re training with positive reinforcement.

  • Understand exactly how both positive reinforcement and pressure/release training work, regardless of which method you ultimately choose to use.

  • Have excellent timing for either the release of pressure or the reinforcement.


Horse and human aren’t bonding

It’s an interesting thing that so many people can be sympathetic towards an animal in a bad situation, but completely lose any sympathy or empathy towards the animal once they get it home and it doesn’t behave the way they expected it to. This happens with all species of animals, but I’ve noticed it more so with horses than with any other species. People complain of their new horse being herd bound, buddy sour, not bonding with them, etc. after even just a few weeks of ownership, at which point the horse has barely even begun to acclimate to its new home.

Horses are herd animals and thousands of years of evolution has made them dependent on other horses for their very survival. This fact seems to be lost on people who decide they want to hack out alone and discover that the horse does not want to go. Only a human could look at the natural behavior of a horse to live in a herd and form a pair bond and deem them “herd bound” or “buddy sour” and declare it a problem. They’re supposed to be that way!

As with any animal, including humans, being uprooted from your home and losing all of your friends/family in the process, can be very traumatic. Even more so when you’re handed from place to place in a short span of time, as horses often are.  To further add insult to injury, your new home is full of strangers, who may or may not be nice to you, and the two legged ones who don’t speak your language, have different expectations of you that the previous two leggers. Take a moment to consider what this must be like for a horse! They need time to adjust to their new home and many of the immediate problems will lessen on their own over time as the horse learns about his or her new home and begins to feel safe.  

Ultimately, to create a true bond with your horse, all you really need to do is treat him/her well, with compassion, kindness and empathy. Try to understand your horses ethological limitations and spend some time with your horse without expectations or demands. Oh, and food always helps! After all, isn’t that how most people bond with each other? Over a meal?