In my experience, the most important part of working with any horse is establishing and maintaining a working bond. Regardless of the discipline you ride, this working bond makes life much easier for both you and your horse. By a working bond, I mean that you and your horse have open lines of communication with one another, and that there is a level of trust between you. You might think it odd to have open communication with your horse, but everything that they do is a way of communicating and if you listen hard enough and pay attention your horse will eventually return the favor.
When working with problem horses (i.e., aggressive horses), bonding is always where I like to start. Safety is always first, and if you feel you are not confident enough to handle your horse on the ground safely, contact a professional. There’s no shame in asking for help. It is not worth it to get kicked, bitten, or otherwise (trust me). I generally start by testing the waters a little bit. How do they react when I approach them? Are they swishing their tails or putting their ears back? If they do, I try to figure out why exactly they’re reacting this way because it may very well be something that I’m triggering. The biggest thing for me at this point is that the horse respects my space. They can get as angry or upset as they want to as long as they don’t invade my personal space because at that point it becomes a safety issue. I do try to show them love, especially if the horse had a rough start in life, but I’m still firm when it comes to respect. I am the alpha, and that isn’t going to change, although we can be partners.
Once we’ve established the fact that I’m not all that scary, I move on to touch. Ideally, a horse should be able to let you touch it anywhere without much of an issue. Generally the rule for this is desensitization, which I agree with, but it has to be done slowly and gently in order to prevent more trauma. I usually start with the neck or the back, mainly because the side of a horse tends to be the safest part! Eventually they will get to the point where they don’t mind if you touch them, and some of them start to enjoy and even seek out the affection. Be careful around the feet, they move fast. Don’t squat down when you go to desensitize the legs and hooves, just lean over so that you can get out of the way faster should your horse choose to try something naughty. When desensitizing the hind end, I usually stay to the side of the horse and reach my hand around so I don’t get kicked.
At the end of the day, every horse is different. The things that I use on one horse might not work on another, and some horses take more time to adapt to new environments and new training than others do. Just like human beings they have complex personalities and histories that we don’t get to fully understand. Trust isn’t something that can be built in a day, especially with a horse that has been traumatized, but it is possible if you put in the time and the effort. You may have to try a hundred different things before you finally convince your horse to trust you, but it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Be consistent, be patient, and have faith in yourself and in your horse.