Learn why making a psychological connection with your horse matters.

Horses read our intentions. They notice things about our emotional state. It’s important when riding to try and make a connection with your horse. It’s like the first impression you make with another human being—you want it to be positive. Your attitude should be relaxed and enjoyable when you interact with a horse—you want to convey good energy.

Horse History

As long as I’ve been teaching clinics, I’ve seen time and again that horses read people’s energy. I know there are horses that have struggled with being abused by people or hurt, and I’ve seen people who are the same way. Someone might seem standoffish or harsh, but I don’t just write it off as that person being hard to deal with, because you never fully know someone’s history. Similarly, horses handle trauma differently. I’ve seen horses that have had too much pressure too soon, too quick of a start without the right foundation, or just inadequate training. When you ride a horse, take all of that into consideration—their history, prior training, everything. Some horses are very even-keeled individuals and nothing seems to faze them, but most have a quirk to figure out. That’s our job as riders.

When you first interact with any horse, it’s a good idea to pet them and look into their eyes. Slow down and establish a connection. Where people go wrong is not taking time to get a read on a horse. If there is no connection, often running barrels doesn’t go as well as it could have if there was a bond between the horse and rider.

Mutual Respect

Training needs to be a process of establishing mutual respect. When a person’s attitude toward a horse becomes, “I hate this horse,” their actions and mindset convey that emotion. Disciplining a horse when necessary with the attitude of, “Hey, you’re not doing what I want,” and setting boundaries is more effective. I think it was Matlock Rose who used to say, “If you’re mad, it’s better to get off that horse and go drink a Dr. Pepper.” The point is, you must weigh your emotions, as well as the horse’s, for training to produce good results.

Horses know it when people approach them using fear and intimidation, and they have a keen sense of self-preservation. Our job is to set them up correctly, not impede them. When you cause a horse to panic, they quit thinking and lose confidence. For example, if somebody takes a horse and starts it on the barrels to sell, they might put too much pressure on the horse too soon. If a horse gets nervous by too drastic of an approach, a person has to back off and work on their foundation.

Retraining Bad Habits

Keep in mind that habits are created over time. Say, for instance, you had the habit as a rider of not sitting down to prepare your horse for the turns, and your horse got in the habit of running by the barrels. When you learn to sit for the turns, your horse may not respond by turning correctly the first time you sit for the turn. In essence, the horse has been trained to run by, so now you’ll have to invest time in retraining the correct habit. Plus, when you take it to a race where adrenaline becomes a factor, the bad habit shows up even more. You’ve got to change the horse’s mindset. It can be costly and there are no guarantees, but if you stay consistent and positive, odds are in your favor.

Be Analytical

You have to read each situation with a horse. If a horse isn’t responding to your training, ask yourself, “Could this horse need dental work, or is this a training roadblock to figure out?”

Horses have personalities, and you’ve got to deal with each individual’s demeanor. Some horses respond well to kids riding them, whereas some will see an opportunity to take advantage. Some people don’t get along at all with a nervous horse. If you’re buying a horse, personalities must be considered.

Changing a horse’s nature is impossible. You can gain control with a horse that’s been scared—you can work hard to train them not to react out of fear. You can gain their confidence, but when a horse is a nervous type of horse, it’s in their nature. You can, however, make sure a high-strung horse is getting the right nutrition. You can make a horse hotter by feeding hot feed and not working the horse consistently.

Everyone’s horse should like and respect them, which takes getting to know the animal inside and out. You have to adapt. I’m sure a schoolteacher doesn’t take an identical approach to teaching each kid. Likewise, there is no cookie cutter approach for all horses. Every horse teaches you, so be grateful for the chance to learn something that will make you better for the next horse.

The bottom line is the horses we ride are a gift from God, and we should be grateful for the opportunities they provide us to do what we love. You’re better off saying, “I need to do whatever it takes to figure this issue out in a positive way,” than you are if you get frustrated and mad. There are all ends of the spectrum in the horse world. There are people who let their horses get away with anything and apply little to no discipline. There are people who use intimidation. You gain a horse’s confidence not by letting it take advantage of you, but by setting boundaries in a clear and respectful way.

The people I’ve seen have the greatest success are those who give their horses a good, solid foundation and take a consistent, middle-of-the-road approach without going to extremes with training. To do so takes creating an emotional and psychological bond with your horse.

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.