One of my all-time favourite things to do with horses is hand walking. The benefits of this are enormous and it’s enjoyable too. Benefits include deepening connection, building trust, increasing confidence both in each other and yourselves, improving bravery, openness to new experiences, increased safety riding out, car training, improving separation anxiety and sharing new experiences. When we walk a horse out things can be new and potentially scary. The horse comes to see you, the leader, as the safe place, increasing trust in you. Walking beside the horse, we have eye contact, promoting connection and communication. The two of you go places together and have moments, beautiful, challenging, relaxing, stressful, fun, building a deep relationship. We also see how they manage things, or don’t, and work out the best ways to support them. It’s best to know what your horse will react to and how, while safe on the ground. This information means less surprises when we ride out, so we can relax and trust them more. I find these benefits strongest when I walk a horse out alone and away from familiar turf. When exposed to unfamiliar places with full support from their person, a horses’ self-confidence increases. Every time they experience something new and scary, and survive, they get a little braver. Some take longer than others, but most start to feel braver and have reduced fear responses after walking out fairly quickly. It also gives the horse a chance to develop acceptance of cars if this is a skill they lack, with you safely on the ground while they are learning. I do not allow horses to eat whenever they want. If it turns into a grazing session the horse will be focused on finding the next piece of delicious grass and will be less focused on their surroundings, with less intake and processing of new information. I allow the horse to eat at some point though, often just before returning home, by using downward pressure on the halter and telling them to eat. This then becomes a reward for venturing so far and promotes a desire to repeat the exercise. When we turn to go home some horses will rush. Hand walking is a fantastic opportunity to work on this safely too. Practicing half halts on the lead shows you just how much and how often they are needed, plus trains your horse to respond to them. All this transfers to riding. You will find after a while the rushing home reduces hugely, until it is almost gone. For horses with separation anxiety hand walking is a safer way to work on this than riding. One trick is to walk the horse away until just before they show stress (or the horse that remains home shows stress, sometimes they are the problem, not the horse you are leading), then return home. Keep repeating this, it doesn't matter how many times. Each time the horse usually goes a little further before the stress starts. This is not a one session fix; separation anxiety is very real for horses as the herd instinct is strong. It may take a while but with doing this consistently over time it can improve. The message to the horses is they will not be separated forever, they will be reunited, they need to know this. Separation anxiety is strongest when there are only two horses, where the entire need for a herd is invested in just one other. Going out into the world with your horse, side by side, has so many benefits for both of you. I did this for months before riding one very green horse out. When we did ride out his confidence was so high, we could go anywhere, just the two of us. If you have not tried this, I can't recommend it more highly. And remember, this is meant to be enjoyable time with your horse, so relax and show them how much fun it can be.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc. Happy Horses Bitless Considerate Horsemanship