The bond between a horse and a human can be truly special. As with most things worth having, it takes time to develop. For some, there is a defining moment when it all falls into place and for others it is a series of baby steps.
Either way, you reach a point where you feel in tune and your horse seems to just know what you are thinking. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Horses communicate by showing intention through movement and body language and finding different ways to bond with your horse will teach you to speak this magic lingo too!
Bonding can happen in many ways; through touch, like grooming or stroking and patting your horse. Through observation; watching how he reacts to different situations, learning what his likes and dislikes are. Through riding; going on adventures means you naturally face new situations together. And – believe it or not – through playing games.
Playing games with your horse is fun and can provide a welcome break from training or relief from boredom. It’s also a great way to learn together. Horses and humans are more relaxed when they are enjoying themselves – making them more willing to overcome challenges or try things they haven’t before.
Your horse will have games he plays with the herd when he is in their company. It would be dangerous for you to try and join in with these as they involve big teeth and hooves that we humans are no match for. So, we need to devise different games that make sense in the context of our human-horse relationship.
General Tips for Playing with Horses
- Rewarding your horse is important when he does what you ask. You can reward with praise, touch, or food, depending on what works best for him.
- Be clear and consistent with your signalling. A clicker is a really good way to achieve this. If you don’t have one, here’s one with a practical wristband so you can keep your hands free while you play.
- Be patient when asking for something new from your horse. Take your time and don’t get downhearted if it’s not right the first time.
- Change it up if your horse is getting frustrated. Switch to a different game that he already knows and enjoys. Only return when he’s relaxed and focused again.
- Keep it simple. You want your horse to get it right and win the reward, so don’t make anything so complex that he loses interest before that happens.
- Short and sweet … wins the treat. Playing little and often is more beneficial than trying to keep your horse’s attention for hours on end.
- Look here … looking at what you want your horse to do will help him to succeed. Remember, he is looking at your body language for cues.
This is a leadership game, where the objective is to get your horse to follow you wherever you go.
How to play
On the ground, have your horse on a loose lead rope and step away from him. Ask him to come to you and as soon as he takes a step towards you, or even half a step, reward him.
Once your horse has understood that you want him to come towards you, you can start moving away from him, asking him to follow you.
Eventually you will be able to ditch the lead rope and mix it up by moving in patterns or building in obstacles such as cones for weaving through or poles to jump over.
This game encourages your horse to see you as the leader of your miniature horse/human herd. It builds trust so he will be more likely to respond positively to your instructions when out riding or when facing something new for the first time. It might even make him easier to catch and bring in from the field if he’s prone to running in the opposite direction!
This is a touch game, where the objective is to get your horse to ‘boop’ something with his nose.
How to play
Place one or more objects around an enclosed area. Lead your horse to each one and encourage him to touch it with his nose. Reward him as soon as he does, so he understands what you want him to do.
Start with an object which is around the same height as his nose, so it’s easy for him to get it right and get his first reward. From there, you can progress to lower or higher items that he has to dip or stretch for.
Once you have mastered ‘Boop!’, you can move onto asking your horse to mouth the item instead of just touching it with his nose; let’s call this one ‘Chomp!’. All you do is wait for him to make this natural progression and then start rewarding him for that instead. Eventually, you can build in actions or word association so that he can differentiate between the two desired behaviours.
This game builds confidence as your horse gets close to and touches items that might not appear in his everyday life. It gives him something to concentrate on and gets him listening to you.
It’s an ideal way to break-away from an intense schooling session or if he is getting frustrated with ridden work as it refocuses his mind by giving him something else to think about.
Horses figure out what stuff is and how safe it is by touching it with their nose or mouthing it, so you are encouraging him to explore the unknown with you by his side.
We all know that dogs love to fetch – but what if your horse could do that too?
How to play
Your horse has an item in his mouth, and eventually he’s going to drop it. When he does, ensure your hands are waiting underneath to catch it and then reward him until he understands that he only gets a reward when the item passes to your hands.
Once he is confidently doing this, you can move the item away from him and walk with him to the item, rewarding him again when he picks it up and gives it to you.
Finally, move the item away again but this time stay where you are and wait for him to bring it to you.
Mastering the different stages that lead to a successful game of ‘Retrieve’ is going to take some time and require both of you to be patient with one another, which will naturally bring you closer.
Playing a game like this will increase your horse’s focus and tenacity but there are also great practical benefits. Imagine dropping something while out riding and he just goes ahead and picks it up for you! Bliss!
You’ll need a giant ball like the Jolly Mega Ball.
How to Play
Left to his own devices, your horse would probably play with the ball alone, eventually.
If you want to be involved, it’s best to introduce yourself and the ball together from the start so that you can make sure the play is on your terms.
Begin by getting your horse comfortable with the ball by just holding it and walking around him and then you can progress to bouncing the ball on the ground nearby. Eventually you can start rolling the ball between his legs and touching him with the ball – try walking in a circle and see if he is interested and calm enough to follow you as you do.
Once your horse is happy with being around the ball, you can start the exciting bit where you teach him to chase after it, nudge it or kick it – you might even end up kicking it back and forth between you.
Here is a great demonstration from Maranlene and Jay of how to play ball:
This game encourages agility, precision, and obedience and is also just a great way to have fun together!
The name of the game here is to get to the stage where your horse is happy stepping up onto a platform.
How to play
Start with a mat on the ground and have him step on to it, rewarding him for doing so.
Once he is comfortable with this, you can try with a raised surface. Begin with something small like a tire and make the aim of the game for him to put one hoof on and hold it there.
Eventually you can progress to a raised platform like a trailer ramp. Start with just his two front legs and then finally all four legs.
The obvious benefit of this game is that it will help with loading your horse on to a trailer. It will also get him used to putting a hoof up and holding it there, simulating the action required of him when he gets shod. Less obviously, but just as importantly, trust is building between you as you teach him these new actions.
You can adapt these ideas as needed, to suit you and your horse. They’re not a replacement for the bold, boisterous games he plays with other horses as these have a different purpose altogether, and you want to encourage calm and quiet behavior when he is around you.
But get creative with it – doing different activities with you is great stimulation for your horse, increases his capacity for learning, and will make him more relaxed and receptive to you when you’re in the saddle. Being able to anticipate one another and understand intentions is the stuff that world-class dressage tests are made of!
Above all else, just have fun – after all, they do call it horseplay!