Gaining the Trust of an Abused Horse

What can you do to gain the precious trust of a previously abused horse – without using manipulation, pressure/release, or other forms of coercion? I recently received this question from one of our fellow Horse Listeners:

“Hello. First thing I wanted to say is that I love what I’ve read/watched in your blog + youtube channel so far.

My two horses were both “unwanted,” and I’ve connected really well with one of them (a 2-3? year old QH stallion who I may geld now that he’s at a better weight; he always follows me around everywhere, and is overall a sweet, well-mannered little guy):

Dylan’s stallion before & after

But I’ve been having trouble with the other one (4 year old thoroughbred/QH/Paint mix mare):

Dylan’s mare

She’ll come up to me sometimes, but if she even thinks I have a halter, she’s immediately running to the other side of the pasture. It’s making it really hard to trim her feet / deworm / vaccinate her, and I was wondering if you had any advice?

Thank you for your time,
Dylan B.”

Beautiful horses Dylan! Let me start by sharing that one of my guys – Jax – didn’t want me to touch him for almost a full year. He would just stand there and watch me do stuff with the others, do chores, etc. But I could feel from his energy (let alone his body language) that he really wanted to be left alone.

So I did. All those things that we feel are so important (feet, teeth, deworm) are actually things that can wait. Or you sedate (talk to the horse before and during, explaining what you are doing and why, apologize, etc) and do them once, all at the same time, and then you can leave the horse alone for a year or so, if that’s what the horse wants.

After 8 months, Jax was watching me teach our foal, Juno, how to lead using hand and voice signals – which I always do before putting a halter on, so I then don’t need to pull on their head:

And for the first time, Jax came over and asked to join the ‘game’. So I played the same ‘follow me and I’ll give you scratches’ game with him. He is super smart and learned everything in 15 minutes. Then he walked away. He then interacted with me once every week or two, for very short periods, but still mostly wanted to be left alone. FOUR months after that, he asked to go outside the pasture with me, wearing a halter, for the first time. I had a friend bring another horse with us and he did just awesome.

My point is, if you want non-dominant relationship with your horses, you MUST let them choose when and how they want to interact with you.

Forget the halter!

So if your horse hates the halter – it’s obviously the symbol/message that “very bad things are now going to happen”. Then don’t take a halter to her. There is SO much you can do unhaltered. In fact, I try to do everything unhaltered! I give worming meds unhaltered, trim hooves unhaltered, do bodywork unhaltered…

If you haven’t already, I would spend my time just doing chores around her – letting her watch you, study you, learn your body language and what kind of person you are.

The next best thing you can do to build relationship with a horse that doesn’t trust you, is to meditate with them. Even if they’re at the far end of the field and you’re sitting under a tree, or in a chair by yourself – they know exactly what’s going on and they are watching/feeling you. If you’re not open to meditating (which can be as simple as feeling the sun on your face, or the breeze in your hair while you take deep, relaxing belly breaths), then find a spot to sit down and read a book. No devices, no listening to headphones, just be in her space and read a book, or think your own thoughts.

Notice those thoughts… how frustrated are you? How impatient are you? Are you planning all the things you’d like to do with/to her? Use deep breaths to just let all that agenda-driven stuff go.

Use this guided meditation (scroll down the page) to help you get really present, then just hang out near her. No need to even touch her.

She may not come near you for 4 months, or 6 months… can you live with that? Just do some deep breathing to become still and calm and then talk to her about your day, tell her what you’re feeling, tell her about work, or your plans for repairs around the place, etc.

I can see from the photo you sent, that she is braced, she is suspicious – if a human is paying attention to her (even just taking a picture) then they want something from her… and that something is not going to be good. That’s probably her story to date. You are offering a different story, but trust is like grief; we can’t tell others how long it should take.

Once she initiates contact, or touch, or play, or scratches with you, you can then keep building on that just by learning where and how she likes to be touched. Again, there is no halter or rope in sight. This is all just mutual respect and building intimacy. When the time is right, you can use my video above to teach her to “lead” using your hand and voice signals. By this time, you’ll know her prime scratching spots and this is ample reward for playing this game with you.

But again, you don’t need to make this leading game a chore (as we humans so often do). And you don’t need to do it regularly – it’s not work. And horses – like humans – learn best through play. So come to her with an attitude, an invitation, to PLAY – not to work. Don’t have a timetable, don’t have an agenda or plan. Just flow with looseness and play.

Have you realized yet that this girl is going to be one of your biggest teachers? And likely shift your life, your being, and the way you express yourself in your life to a whole lot more joy and peace?

Halter play

Once she will “lead” unhaltered (see my video above), then you start wearing a halter on your body (tie it crosswise around your torso – so it’s really tied onto your body) so she can see that YOU wear the halter and nothing bad happens to you. Again, keep an attitude of play and lightness.

Then after a week or two of that, you take the halter off your body after wearing it for 10 minutes or so, and hang it on a fence post or tree and don’t go near it until your time with her is finished. And maybe you do that for a couple weeks.

Then you hang it on your shoulder, but again, you don’t touch her with it – if SHE wants to explore it, you let her, but you do NOT try to put it on her.

After a couple weeks of that, you take it off your shoulder and hang it on your head as you approach her – see if she will sniff and explore it. Then maybe you take it off your head and hold it out to her a little bit, so she can sniff and explore it. Then walk away and hang it on the post/tree.

After a couple weeks of that, after she’s sniffed it, you might try to move it toward her withers and if she lets you, you use it to rub/scratch her favorite places. Now you can build the association that the halter is her scratching tool. And you just use the halter for that for a couple weeks.

At that point, I encourage you to watch both these videos and get some ideas for what you feel your mare would respond/like the best:

Emily MacDonald’s method:

My go-by-feel method with Juno:

You just proceed super, super slowly, letting everything be her choice. The point is not ‘getting her to do what you want’. The point is intimacy, trust and real relationship.

Let the horse bolt

When my big Belgian girl, Audelina came to me, she had been semi-feral and never handled or touched. But by the time she got to the auction house she had a super frightening association with ropes. And she wasn’t too keen on halters either; if you managed to get one on her head, she would just take off anyway and not a soul on earth could hold onto her.

So I followed a very similar path with her as I’ve described above. She didn’t even understand scratching at first – as she’d never been touched. So her initial reaction to my attempts to scratch her were met with, “What? What are you doing?? This is really weird! Oh… ok, well maybe that one is interesting… ok that’s enough, don’t touch me.” So everything had to be done very slowly, with lots of love and lightness.

Knowing her fears, the first time I put a rope around her neck, or attached it to her halter, I didn’t even close my fingers around the rope. I just held my palm open in front of her with the rope lying across it and said to her, “You see, I’m not even holding it. If you need to take off, go ahead, no problem.” Then I progressed to holding the rope with just one finger and my thumb. And yes, she’d take off and I’d let her go, no worries. And that didn’t “teach her bad habits”, that taught her she could trust me. Letting her bolt when she needed to, taught her that I understood her – and that it was no big deal. When a horse realizes they don’t have to fight to get their needs met… the need to fight greatly reduces, or disappears.

By the time we got out on the road, I wore gloves to prevent myself from getting rope burn if she took off – because I knew that in a panic situation, I would probably clutch that rope (reflex reaction). And sure enough, even though I told her I would let her go, when a car drove by and she got scared and pulled away, I held the rope as my default reaction of trying to keep her safe from the car. Of course, you can’t hold a big Belgian who has the strength to pull a tractor! But even though she got scared and bolted, because of the trust we had forged unhaltered and at liberty, she only went about 10 feet and then stopped and waited for me. And we resumed our walk.

Honestly, I would have felt just fine if she’d bolted for home. No worries, and I would have just given her lots of love and kisses when I got there – and praised her for trying.

Aude out on the road with just neck loop – no more fear of ropes!

If you want obedience, there is tons of “natural horsemanship” instruction out there on how to get that. But if you want her heart, then everything has to be her choice, made out of freedom and not manipulation or coercion. Simply by saying, “How about this…?” And then she is allowed to say:


Not now

Not like that

Yuck! But how about we try this…

and so on.

I encourage you to treat this as a dance, or an adventure – just keep listening to your gut, and listening to your horse and you’ll get there 🙂

Gaining the Trust of an Abused Horse

17 thoughts on “Gaining the Trust of an Abused Horse

  • December 3, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Love your response to the question. I second the “do nothing” approach. It does wonders, and for the first time you get to see who the horse really is as the horse is comfortable with showing you. I once rehabbed a retired senior horse who did not want to be touched. I gave up any idea of touching him, or doing anything with him. In fact, in my mind I said, you can touch me, but I’m not touching you. And then I spent a full year ignoring him. I’d walk right on by and go to the other horses. It wasn’t long before he’d park himself a horse length away from the horse I was giving a massage. One time I was tired, so I took a nap under the trees away from him. He left his own nap and came over and parked 15 feet away from me, facing me and took a nap. There is extensive communication among horses at a distance, that we human tend to gloss over because all we’ve been taught is to pet a horse, groom a horse to put a saddle on and then go ride.

    For me with this horse, I played a game with myself to see how long we could go with doing nothing and ignoring him. Rather than try and get to the goal of him being comfortable with me touching him, I turned that idea on its head and thought, I want to set the world record for leaving a horse alone and ignoring them. What ended up happening over the course of 3 years was he put a stop to my world record of his own free will, baby step by baby step.

    Even for me to sit in a field and observe him, I would take one look at where he was and then walk in the opposite direction and find a nice place to sit. I took up drawing and would sit in the field practicing drawing horses. From that distance I started to notice his body language. There were times where he would graze a 20 meter circle around me over the course of 30 minutes. Would he point in my direction as he grazed, or would he turn his hind-end toward me? Horses spend so little time grooming and touching each other in a day. The bulk of communication is at a distance. Thanks to this horse, he open up and invited me into this part of a horse’s world. To me, it’s even more exciting than the “touching” world, as great as that is.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years of rehabbing senior horses is their eyes, and the change that occurs when go from being shut-down to curious again around humans. Curious eyes are big, round, soft. If I saw the eyes of a horse like the mare above, I’d be looking to see how far away from her I could get. There’s no invitation from her to come closer. This is not a reflection on us personally, but rather a respect of her and her space and what she needs to feel comfortable probably because of past history. (One day, when she knows you’ll give her as much space as she needs, I wouldn’t be surprised if she closes that space between you).

    One other thought about the mare above that hasn’t come around yet, but the gelding has. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s the mare that is taking longer. I remember learning from horse ethologist, Mary Ann Simonds that mares are the social glue in the wild, and sometimes in domestication when their social bonds are broken they may take it harder than a gelding might. She even went so far to say that sometimes they think they’ve done something wrong. I don’t know if this applies here, but I thought I’d mention it.

    Good luck to Dylan. A whole new world awaits.

    • December 4, 2017 at 11:04 am

      Oh Mary, that is SO important!! Thank you for pointing that out and illustrating what “connecting at a distance” looks and feels like. I should have talked about that in the post (maybe I will go back and add it), that even though I left Jax alone, he was not only watching me like a hawk, but there was unspoken/energetic dialogue between us the whole time. His witness also made me more mindful of my interactions/signals/energy with the other horses too – made me less likely to slip into dominance or irritation!

      I also appreciate that you shared the length of time your horse needed distance. That’s another important point – that depending on length of abuse, type/intensity of trauma, the horse’s personality, your personality/energy, the herd dynamic, etc etc one horse may need way more or way less time than another horse. I like your approach of telling the horse “you can touch me, but I’m not touching you.” That is just an AWESOME way to safeguard against our own frustration, impatience, agenda. Great stuff Mary!

  • December 3, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Mary, thanks for this story! I remember you telling me about this guy but I love hearing all the detail and nuance. I also have a rescue I have done nothing with…he is a joy and a delight and likes connecting at a distance.

    I really like your emphasis on the fact that horses don’t spent much time close and touching. They certainly do use touch in their relationships, but they put much less stock in it than we do – that’s a crucial concept I hadn’t thought about with that kind of clarity. We think closeness is the goal and the answer but for many horses being given distance is far more compelling and trust-building. But we need closeness and touch…for control! I think that must be at least part of why we assume we need to rush it. Once you get out of that paradigm, the world is suddenly your oyster.

    • December 4, 2017 at 9:54 pm

      Dare I say it’s an illusion of control if we need closeness and touch to accomplish it.
      And at the heart of control is really no control at all. It may look great on the surface and make the highlight reel at the end of the day, but when we really go in there and investigate, anything that is happening is because the other party acquiesed and “gave” us what we think is control. Shedding the control paradigm really does open up a whole new world.

      I remember back in my natural horsemanship training days, Pony Boy once said in a clinic on roundpenning that if you can’t turn the horse from 15 feet away with your own body language then the horse is controlling your movements. They’re not moving how you want them to for a reason, and if they go slow enough and frustrate you they’ll be able to draw you right into their hindquarters. Not a place I want to be, especially if I’m telling a horse what to do, and they don’t want to. It took focus to maintain the 15 feet and then project my presence all the way over to them.

      The longer I’m around horses the more I appreciate just how spacially aware they are. Every movement, or how they place their body at any given time is for a reason. Nothing is haphazard. When I started assuming that with every thing I saw my horse do with how he positioned his body, I realized he was communicating to me all the time.

      My favorite realization came a few months ago when he came over to the gate of his own free will where I was standing with a halter, but he presented his right side, not his left, so I couldn’t easily put on the halter. Rather than reposition him, I just stood there not doing anything, waiting for enlightenment to happen. It took me a moment to figure it out. And then it was like, “duh.” He wanted to go out without a halter.

      Great conversation, Jini and Kesia.

      • December 5, 2017 at 6:52 pm

        Yes! I learned the same ‘move them with just my energy’ thing during my natural horsemanship training too. At the time I thought it was so cool. Also learning that a horse’s energy body extends a few feet out (in front and behind) so if you throw your ‘stop’ or your ‘ask’ right where their physical body is, it’s too late as they’ve either already run through it, or you’re asking at the wrong place to apply pressure. Course I eventually realized that it was just another version of, “Look what I can make my horse do!”

        Yeah, okay, great – I’m the boss, or the more politically correct term, ‘leader’. Now what? Am I bored yet? Yes I am. 🙂

        • December 5, 2017 at 9:40 pm

          I hear you on the natural horsemanship. For me, it gave me a starting point to begin to learn to read a horse’s body language. No other circle I ran in at the time mentioned the horse much at all, except natural horsemanship. Once I had some basic experience and understanding, the horses themselves opened up this other world that is so far beyond anything I learned in natural horsemanship. I am grateful for the introduction natural horsemanship gave me to begin to understand how to read horses. And today, the horses themselves are taking the story in a whole new direction that I’m thrilled to be a part of. It’s one fascinating journey.

  • December 3, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    This default to dominate thing is so interesting! I like that you both catch it, with Zorra’s prompting, and that you can also just let it go and move on. It really exemplified for me just how much comes from dominance – certainly I notice it in myself all the time! Luckily my critters are more likely to raise an eyebrow than comply…gotta love how patient they are with us. It’s both very hard to let go of and so easy at the same time!

    • December 4, 2017 at 11:22 am

      Hmmmm, I didn’t know that about you! Perhaps your brain liked this one because I left the videos in real-time?? AND showing the process/struggle, not just someone doing everything right and the horse responding perfectly?

      I find the horses are always refining me; inviting me to be a better version of myself. I had Blair (soft-spoken, gentle soul) out as I was teaching him how to care for the horses while I’m in Mexico. And even something as simple as putting the grate over the hay and closing the lid on the slow feeder – Aude showed me how much BETTER Blair’s way was then mine! How his soft, slower movements resulted in HER feeling much better and moving her head out the way QUICKER than my robust, barking notification that the lid was coming down!

      After I told Blair what Aude had just pointed out to me, he shared what he’d been saying to her in his head, as he lowered the lid: “Ok the lid’s coming down, I’d like you to move your head, but if you don’t, I guess I can hold it here for a while…” Made it even more of a teaching point (away from dominance and bossiness) that she responded by moving her head quickly and smoothly out of his way. Whereas with me, they linger, they try to snatch bites, the lid presses on their head or neck (so I can show I’m serious that I’m closing it and they better get out of the way!).

      So even in this simple act, that takes place every day, Aude showed me that my default setting of, “Think! Move! Let’s go!” is just not efficient, nor enjoyable for either of us. And of course, that’s a behaviour/energetic default setting from my childhood – a father that was dominant/abusive. I thanked her. My cells thanked her (all that tension is just not good for the body!). Now to practice. And look for all the other ‘small’ ways this default behaviour shows up 🙂

      • December 4, 2017 at 7:07 pm

        Yeah I have just realized the video thing about myself! I think it’s just because this video is actually relevant and familiar to me! I prefer text because I can skim it and grab what I “need” – cause I am way too overloaded with info and stimulation in this digital age! So when something actually slows me down and pulls me in, it’s gotta be good!

        I watched myself a lot in the summer and fall being way more dominant/my-way-or-the-highway with the animals, which I noticed because it’s not how I usually am. As winter settles in, and quite a pleasant one here so far, I am naturally slowing down and rediscovering that quiet flow with everyone. And you’re right, it is way more efficient! It’s funny; I think of you as very patient and egalitarian with your herd, but maybe because we’re always so chill when I’m there 🙂 But it does go to show how incredibly entrenched dominance can get – even when we “know better”.

        • December 5, 2017 at 6:47 pm

          Yeah, you haven’t seen me doing chores much, especially when I have limited time because some kid needs picking up somewhere! That’s when I move into ‘let’s just get ‘er done’ mode.

    • January 31, 2021 at 6:33 am

      Hi there.
      I love your posts and info. A well known horse trainer helped me and sold me a farm working horse. Palomino… Every little girls dream. He said the horse is solid and tamed. But now at our plot I realised that this horse is so afraid of human touch. He got a saddle sore on his back. His moith got marks from wrong bit. He cant be catched unless vornered or roped. Im so sad. This horse was used to farm workers handling him wrongly. And the trainer told me he is a tamed horse.
      He does not trust people. About 9 to 10 y old. Do you suggest I leave him and make him use to people that just wants to lovr for him. He is backed but so so scared of human touch. He pulls his bums on us.

      In 2 weeks he now comes when we feed the other 2 horses. He takes lusern out of our hands but very carefully. I can stand in his stall with him.. But i must not move alot.

      Will he be safe again to ride? Can he get his trust back? We have 2 boys and i am 47 y and not taking chances anymore.
      What do you suggest?
      I am in South Africa


  • December 4, 2017 at 7:31 am

    Is it just me or does Dylan’s mare look like she has laminitis is her front hooves especially in the front right one.

    • December 10, 2017 at 11:30 am

      I saw it too. I think it would be a great disservice to not trim a horse’s feet for a year so YES sedate if necessary. Perhaps do a few things at once then to minimize the repeated sedation. I get that it’s tricky but no hoof health = no horse health (same with teeth).
      I think this is all super information and I LOVE the conversations. I’m learning some new ‘non-control’ ways myself with a friend’s horse (who is clicker trianed) and had a frustrating time trying to lead last week and almost went skijouring lol. I had him on a long line and it was though I wasn’t even there. It made me feel out of control, angry, ignored and embarrased. I wanted him to be with me so he was safe. I did end up getting his attention back with lots of clicking and treating but part of me wished I didn’t have to do that.
      Such is the nature of retraining ourselves! Frustrating as heck! lol I am a student of the horse.

      • December 10, 2017 at 7:18 pm

        You’re gonna love our Hoof Trimming Series we’re currently shooting Jai – we have one horse who has trimmed his own hooves for 2.5 years and counting. Will he EVER need a human to give him a hoof trim??

        And yes, the ‘no hoof, no horse’ thing came up big time for me when I first started having this conversation with Zorra a few years ago:

        • December 11, 2017 at 5:10 am

          OH that’s so awesome. I almost mentioned the fact that with enough movement on the right ground surfaces they can pretty much trim themselves but didn’t want to overwhelm with suggestions. Plus not everyone has the set up or space to be able to do what’d you’re doing and wouldn’t want to mislead anyone. I’ve seen the tendon and body damage long under run feet can do. It causes a lot of damage and pain for the horse.

  • July 2, 2018 at 7:26 am

    I have recently rescued an 8 month old paso fino/ foxtrotter filly who was pretty significantly abused. She was weaned at 5 months old, had not had any human interaction. She was lassoed, fought until she choked and lost conciousness. Upon delivery to her new home, a 10 foot wide 40 foot long dog pen, with no other horses in sight, her new owners continued to deal with her in the same way, roping her, letting her fight and then choke herself to unconsciousness. Literally, she has never felt a kind touch, has never been brushed doesn’t know apples, carrots or treats. Has had NO vet our hoof care and is absolutely terrified of everything. I have been working with her in the round pen where she is quite observant and smart. As you can guess, I receive lots of unsolicited advice about the best way to break her. Now that she is no longer in a blind panic whenever i go into her pen, we work mostly at a walk, practicing stop, move on, steady etc. Her mane and tail are huge mats, that i can’t wait to get my hands on. I can occ ease up to her, with her permission, to within about 2 feet of her, with my hands at my sides. She can tolerate about 30 seconds before she bolts. I feel like we have built a lot of trust, and I get the feeling that she wants to trust, but she still has too many terrifying memories. We are wearing out our welcome at the place she is currently at and we have safe new place to go, about a half mile away, so there is some significant pressure to move things along. I’d love any thoughts you had. Thanks

    • July 2, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      Hi Bonnie, I think it’s great that you’re taking so much time with her. Removing pressure and agenda is often the BEST thing we can do for these horses. And I wouldn’t worry at all about the mats – our recent wildie Cobra has lots of burrs in his matted up mane and tail. Horses survive just fine in the wild without being groomed. It’s another great challenge/opportunity for us to learn to control our ‘grabby hands’ 🙂 I’ve found that energy healing (EFT or Lazer Tapping, Craniosacral, etc) work really well with traumatized horses. So does being in a safe herd – or at least with one other loving horse that will be with them forever. I think if you just keep watching/reading our work with the wild horses here, you will probably glean lots of ideas. Start with this one:

      SO glad she’s with you and that you have the personal power to resist all the pressure to ‘break’ her. Um, hello people, how do you think she got in this state?? Sounds like you have one of those super special ones who would rather die than submit – they teach us SO much and help us move to levels of mastery within ourselves that are wondrous and very precious.


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