Trust is what horses rely on. What they need not only to keep them safe and happy, but to keep them alive. Wild horse herds trust their band leaders to protect them and lead them away from dangers. A foal trust his mother to teach him the language of horses and guide him through his young years. Horses survive because they have someone to trust. If there is no trust, there is nothing.
But this trust isn’t limited to horse-to-horse relationships. Yes, even a human predator can gain a horse’s trust. No dominance, nor whips or spurs or beating. Simply showing the horse that you are there, that you can be a leader, that you will protect them, guide them, respect them, and love them. What do you get in return? Everything. Trust.
On April 1, I was able to experience the magic of trust first hand through a horse named Ladybug. I went out to Son and Reins Ranch, where I have been learning Natural Horsemanship and volunteering. Today’s goal: introduce Ladybug to her first rider...ever.
Now remember what I said about sitting on a horse’s back being so unnatural. But is it possible? Yes. Without force or pain or dominance? Most definitely yes. I have been working to gain Ladybug’s trust since last summer, trying to show her that I am a friend who will take care of her. The work has paid off. Together with Sharron, the amazing owner of the ranch, we spent time with Ladybug and were both able to sit on her back and walk around a little bit. The entire time she was relaxed, acting as if she had done this a million times. How? Because she had trust in us. Because we had both taken the time to work with Ladybug from the ground; building her confidence and showing her that we were the good guys and would never do anything to put her in danger; earning our spots as trusted leaders.
I was humbled to be the second person to ever sit on Ladybug’s back. To think that this prey animal, who is genetically wired to not trust predators, allowed me to ride her is overwhelming. It has opened my eyes to the amazing feats that can be performed with Natural Horsemanship. How treating the horse with love and respect instead of force and dominance makes all the difference in the world. This relationship all boils down to one element, so powerful it can override any fear instinct.
Ready to Introduce your Horse to a Rider?
Before you even think about trying to mount your horse for the first time, make sure there is a strong relationship. Your horse should trust you and see you as a leader who will guide him and keep him safe. Groundwork is key. Make sure that you are able to properly communicate with your horse, asking him to move forward, backward, and sideways with light pressure. Only when you have a strong relationship with your horse should you prepare him for a rider. Do not rush this process. Sharron has owned Ladybug for three years and only now had she had a rider. It is better to take time so that the transition to a rider is smooth, than to push it and cause stress for both you and your horse.
When it is time to prepare your horse for a rider, take it slow. Sharron and I were able to both get on Ladybug's back in less than an hour, but this does not mean it will be the same for you and your horses. Remember: every horse is different! This process could take hours or days, depending on you and your horse. Only move from one step to the next when your horse stays calm.
1. Begin introducing your horse to having something on his back. Toss a lead rope over his back from both sides. This allows him to become comfortable with an object swinging over him.
Find a helper that your horse knows and also trust who can hold your horse for the next steps. Do not think that you are cheating or showing weakness by having a helper.
2. Either standing on the ground (if you're really tall) or a stool/mounting block, place your hands on your horse's back, as if your were about to get on. Using your weight, push your hands into the horse's back in 4 pules, then remove your hands. (The release of pressure is important!) Repeat a couple times, making sure that your horse stays relaxed.
3. Put your hands in the same place and now jump 4 times, all the while putting the pressure on your horses back. Then, release and start again.
4. Drape your arms over your horses back so that your body is on one side and your arms are on the other. If your horse still remains calm, shift so that your torso also drapes over his back. Be sure to keep your feet on the ground in case your horse becomes uncomfortable. In this position, take deep breaths to keep yourself and your horse relaxed. If your horse is really in tune with you, he will sigh with you.
5. Change your position so that your entire weight is on your horse. Swing your legs over your horse so that they were over the horses tail and you are essentially "playing Superman". Keep your legs together, so if your horse becomes anxious, you can get off. Take deep breaths and stay relaxed.
6. If your horse is ready, allow your legs to move to either side of the horse and sit up. Allow your horse to relax while you sit there so that he can become used to the pressure on his back.
7. As long as your horse has stayed relaxed, your helper can ask your horse to "walk on" and make a couple circles. While on your horses back, stay relaxed.
- Make sure to do these steps from both sides of the horse. Because of the way that their eyes are positioned, horses see something different out of each eyes, meaning there are "two horses in every horse".
- Sharron and I were lucky enough to have this process go very quickly, but depending on the horse, is may be different for you. Don't get frustrated and take your time. This doesn't have to be completed in a day, but always end on a good note.
- You know your horse is relaxed when...he cocks a back leg, lowers his head, is licking and chewing, turns his head to look at you on his back, ears are tilted to the side.
- Make sure that your helper holding the horse also stays calm and relaxed. They do not need to clutch the head rope or hold the halter, as this will only stress out the horses.