Exercises that Build Trust Between Rider & Horse
The foundation for a functional relationship between horse and rider is trust. Still, depending on a horse’s background (as well as the rider’s), there may be additional challenges laid out for even the most compatible duo.
Recreational equestrians will find trust necessary for even the most basic daily tasks, but professional jockeys will need to rely on their foundation of mutual respect to a greater degree. They need to lead their horse without hesitation, and the horse must follow without a second thought.
But this degree of interdependence is difficult to achieve—especially in steeplechases and dead sprints where the action unfolds at breakneck speed. For a jockey to navigate the stress and normalize to the extremes, they need to be a master of their mental and emotional states.
These types of challenges aren’t unique to jockeys. In 2019, the documentary Free Solo highlighted one free climber’s journey to learn how to work under pressure—even when a challenge is a life or death matter. To a lesser degree, many other professionals, who compete individually, must do the same.
But, once again, the rider’s journey will be more difficult, as they aren’t just regulating their own mental states—they must also lead their horse. Equestrians of all stripes know the basics for establishing the trust to make this happen: maintain a schedule and habits with a horse, emphasizing consistent communication and levelheadedness.
But what about specific exercises that can help a rider and horse build trust—especially those who lack the resources of major stables and trainers? Keep reading for a few helpful trust-based exercises for horses and riders of all experience levels.
Beginners: Figure Eight Runs
Once in the saddle, one of the most basic exercises a rider can start with are figure-eight runs. To set up this common exercise, use barrels, hay bales, or another bully object that the horse is familiar with on opposite ends of a pen.
Guide the horse to walk in a figure-eight pattern around the barrels. Horses who are new to a stable may not be ready for a riding experience; in these cases, simply guiding the horse will help establish one of the very first layers of trust. Be sure to repeat for consistency.
This exercise will depend on the adventurousness of the horse. Simply encourage a horse to put one or all its feet onto a pedestal (or sturdy, raised surface of any type). Many start out with just the front legs, then transition to putting all four feet onto the pedestal.
Once the first layers of trust have been established, a rider will need to push the boundaries with their horse’s comfort level. This exercise will vary in terms of difficulty based on a horse’s demeanor; for those with nervous steeds, the touch game may take more time to accomplish.
In this exercise, a rider will challenge their horse to ‘touch’ a new object they haven’t encountered before. Simply urge the horse forward little by little, until they’re comfortable investigating the new object. Keep in mind that this is a great way to introduce toys to horses, from inflatable beach balls, as well as desensitizing them to ‘odd things’, like an umbrella.
Much like the pedestal push, moving sideways is a great way to build trust between horse and rider. In this exercise, a horse will be asked to take a step to one side. Some riders will elevate the challenge by incorporating a pole and asking the horse to clear the pole by stepping sideways. As always, be consistent with commands and expectations.
The Ultimate Test: Trailer Loading
Few exercises are as challenging as trailer loading. No matter how much trust has been built between horse and rider, asking a horse to enter a trailer can be incredibly difficult—but practice makes perfect!
Whether or not you plan on relocating your horse via trailer anytime soon, using the trailer as an exercise in loading is a great way to build on previous commands. Can’t coax the horse into the trailer yet? Start with getting the horse halfway into the trailer, then gradually progress to entering the trailer, then exiting backwards or walking straight through if you have a front unload.