We’ve all seen those ‘Horse for Sale’ ads that read: “So gentle children can handle.” However, sometimes it ends up that the only people who can handle the horse are children. The horse refuses to let any adult into its airspace. Why is this?
Both children and horses live completely in the moment. They are not burdened by past mistakes, worries about the future, or running around with a list of things to accomplish before day’s end. We adult humans tend to be very direct-line in our thinking and actions and our horses pick up on this energy. They are also very perceptive to our intent. So, if we’re distracted, worried, or carrying around residual emotions from the day, how is the horse to know it is not directed at him? Similarly, if we are approaching the horse with a focused, ‘get it done,’ attitude, this can be perceived as aggressiveness.
One of our rescue horses, Jake, was especially sensitive to changes in our energies and intent. He was also less inclined to trust men than women. There are several things you can do to help a horse like Jake through this.
Simply spending some undemanding time can work wonders, and the less focused you are on the horse, the better. Go sit in or outside of your horse’s paddock or stall and read a book. Reading a book can make a difference because your thoughts are not focused on the horse; your attention is on what you are reading. Horses are so perceptive they can notice the difference, even if you are sitting there not even looking at him. They are that finely tuned to nuances and focus in our body language.
Once you do begin to approach your horse, do so in a wide arc towards his head. Don’t sneak and don’t approach him from behind or from the side–this is how predators approach their prey in the wild (and horses are, after all, prey animals…and we humans are the ultimate predators). Walk casually and have the attitude that you are approaching a much-loved friend or family member. If your horse turns or walks away from you, you walk away too in the opposite direction; then start again. You can even begin walking a series of tracks back and forth in front of your horse, instead of approaching him directly. Pretend you are looking for a lost shoe or halter; this takes the pressure off your horse and will bring his curiosity up.
Another method is to turn and walk away as soon as your horse faces you. This will also bring his curiosity up and he’ll want to follow you to see what you’re up to. This works best in a smaller enclosed space, but can be helpful in creating positive habits and teaching your horse to “catch” you as you can see in the following series of photos with Jake:
Once you can approach your horse, begin by just walking up to him and putting out your hand for him to sniff it; then immediately walk away. You can also just visit to give him a treat. From there, as often as you can, go out to your horse, put his halter on, give him a treat (you can omit the treat if you wish and it will be just as effective), then remove his halter and walk away. We did this with Jake several times a day and this hard-to-catch horse was soon walking up to anyone who approached him. Then came the acid test: we had Caleb, who had not been able to approach or halter Jake previously, go out to see if all this practice would result in a successful catching and haltering. It was a smashing success, especially considering that Jake had been in the stone-dust paddock all day and the grass was an enormous temptation.
A quick word about treats: some people say never to use them as this is just bribing the horse (and of course if the horse is or becomes mouthy, you wouldn’t want to treat until you’ve established a solid foundation of respect). But for the skeptical horse, it can be a gesture of goodwill–just as when you bring baked goods or a bottle of wine to a gathering. It establishes you as a source of good things. Think about it from the horse’s point of view: exactly what is in it for him to do our bidding? He’d much rather be out grazing with his buddies. But if we can establish ourselves as trustworthy, consistent, and the bearer of good things, it will go a long way towards growing a bond that will create in the horse a desire to be with us.