Trust is an elusive thing, both to give and to get. You cannot force or implore someone to trust you, you can only earn it. If you feel as though you have been wronged by someone else, unjustly criticized, punished or lied to, it’s really hard to give them your trust.
Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of people, in my clinics and in my Interactive Academy, who list developing trust from their horse as an important goal in their personal horsemanship journey. It is a good goal, maybe one of the best. Because a horse that trusts you and wants to please you will jump the moon if you ask him. But trust is a two way street.
Although the clients I work with don’t often state this goal (never that I can think of), I often find myself telling riders and handlers they need to develop trust in their horse. I know it’s hard to do, especially if the horse has done some scary stuff in the past, or when the rider/handler lacks confidence. But if you do not trust your horse, why would he trust you?
By and large, horses want to do the right thing. They are willing animals that seek out acceptance to the herd, respect the hierarchy and obey the rules (wait your turn, stay out of the boss’s way, be a good citizen of the herd). Horses recognize strong and fair leadership; they crave it more than anything else in life.
The greatest motivating factors in a horse’s behavior is to feel safe and comfortable. He feels safe knowing he is accepted into a herd, that there is a strong leader watching out for his safety, maintaining order, making good decisions. He gains comfort from having the security to rest, socialize and relax in peace even though the world is full of predators.
I want my horses to give themselves over to me completely and to trust me enough to follow me wherever I go and do whatever I ask. In exchange for that huge gift, I promise to be fair, make good decisions and trust him to do the job I ask without me second-guessing and doubting him. When it comes to trust, it has to be a two-way street.
Can Your Horse Trust You?
Horses can spot a strong leader a mile away, because in their minds, their very life depends on it. I always say, if horses could vote, we would not have the mess in Washington DC that we have today. It’s easy to fake leadership to humans, especially since our lives don’t depend on it—we are far too eager to believe the words coming out of the politician’s mouth, disregarding his actions and judgment. But you cannot fake leadership to a horse; your actions speak louder than your words.
A true ‘Alpha’ horse is propelled into the leadership role by the other members of the herd. I remember a leadership quote that reminds me of horses; “Leadership is borne from the needs of those who follow.” The leader of a horse herd is responsible for the safety of the herd, motivating the herd to flight when necessary, leading the herd to food and water and maintaining discipline within the herd. Horses worship their leader because she’s fair and consistent and gives them a sense of safety and comfort.
To lead, one must have good awareness of the environment, its hazards and its opportunities; plus have the ability to foresee and steer clear of danger. The leader defines and enforces the rules of the herd and disciplines unruly herd mates when necessary. A true alpha horse is not a bully; she’s strong and firm, but fair. I see people fall down on these obligations all the time, with little awareness that they are eroding their horse’s trust in them.
People are often on their own agenda and totally unaware of the environment, so they ask the horse to do things the horse perceives as dangerous, like passing between the wall of the arena and another horse. From the horse’s point of view, that’s highly dangerous, it could result in injury to him and if he questions the rider’s judgment, he gets punished for it. The erosion of your horse’s trust in your leadership ability begins with little things like this.
I’ve seen riders and handlers from the ground both, cueing a horse to back-up when the horse knows there’s a fence or another horse behind him. He perceives the danger of what they are asking of him and he starts to doubt their leadership ability. Same thing with circling and longeing in an arena with other horses—it’s quite easy to end up on a collision course with another horse but the human doesn’t see it. The horse does see it and now he’s pretty sure your judgment cannot be trusted anymore.
People get tunnel-vision and stuck on their own agenda and forget their responsibility to be aware of danger and make good decisions. Then we wonder why a horse challenges our authority and questions our leadership.
Sometimes riders give conflicting messages to horses that leave them not only questioning the rider but feeling confused and frustrated too. How many times does a person have to lie to you before you won’t trust anything coming out of his mouth? One of the saddest examples of this occurs when a reluctant rider asks the horse to canter, then at the moment the horse begins to canter, the rider freezes on the reins and the horse hits the bit hard. The horse feels like he’s been punished for doing the very thing he was asked to do (and he was) and the rider is left wondering why this stupid horse won’t go into the canter anymore.
The same contradiction occurs frequently when a rider asks the horse to go, then pulls him abruptly into a one-rein stop because he was going too fast. Riders are constantly asking horses to go more forward, then punishing him in the mouth when he does. Or asking the horse to turn or flex his neck to one side, then hitting him with the outside rein when he does. This starts feeling like a trap for the horse, not only eroding any trust he may have but also leading to an adversarial relationship.
If we can begin to think from the horse’s point of view and what makes sense to him, then it’s easier to see the mistakes you are making. If a horse is constantly challenging your authority, it’s likely he does not view you as the leader because you are not always acting like one. Rather than looking to change the horse, we must look within to see how we can change and be a better leader to the horse.
Can You Trust Your Horse?
I’m not saying horses are always perfect and never try to get away with anything, but for the most part, they are kind, generous, willing animals that want to be good citizens. But I’d be willing to bet that most everyone reading this article thinks of themselves that way too—a good solid citizen. Yet occasionally we drive a little over the speed limit, run a yellow light or call in sick to work because we want a play day.
Although horses occasionally try and get out of work, for the most part they are willing to do what we ask. Horses prove again and again that they are willing to let you ride them, willing to stop, go and turn when you ask. Any horse is capable of ditching the rider at any moment, yet they not only let us ride, but a horse that trusts you will try and jump the moon if you ask.
On a daily basis, I see riders taking a death-grip on the reins, micro-managing every move that the horse makes—asking him to go, then restricting his ability to move forward with the reins; asking him to turn, then impeding his ability to bend his neck with the outside rein. I see handlers from the ground so afraid the horse is going to leave that they are holding onto the horse’s face with a tight lead (or worse, clamping on the reins, putting his mouth in a vise grip). These are constant ongoing messages to the horse that you do not trust him one little bit.
When a rider/handler does not trust the horse to do the right thing and begins to micro-manage, it sets up a very bad dynamic that leads to frustration and aggravation from the horse and a co-dependency of behavior. An obedient horse goes in the direction the rider dictates and the speed the rider requests. He’s perfectly capable of maintaining whatever direction or speed the rider wants without constant interference. When the rider tries to hold the horse in a direction or hold the horse in a speed, it absolves the horse from any responsibility and tells him that you don’t trust him to do the right thing.
Once I’ve asked my horse to do something for me, I trust him to do it, I give him the freedom he needs and I let him do his job. I praise him and let him rest when he does it well. I correct him if he makes a mistake and ask him to try it again. But I never try to prevent him from making the mistake. If I ask the horse to trot and he misunderstands and takes a canter instead (because I was not clear), I don’t get mad or hold him tighter, I just clarify the cue, correct him and move on. Just like us, the horse learns from making mistakes. But the next time I ask, I have to trust him to do the right thing and let him do his job.
When the rider lacks confidence or has reason not to trust the horse (maybe the horse has bucked or spooked or done something to frighten the rider), it’s really hard to let go and give him the chance to do the right thing. But when the rider sends a constant message through the reins, through her posture and through her actions that she is afraid and thinks the horse is going to be bad, you can see how the horse might have a hard time accepting the rider as the leader.
On the other hand, it’s amazing how willingly a horse will follow your lead when you trust him and treat him as if you are 100% certain he will do as you ask. Horses are incredibly keen to your level of intention, determination and trust, be it high or low. When we doubt ourselves, the horse sees it and begins to question our leadership ability. When you doubt the horse, he feels it and starts questioning if he really does have to do what you ask.
Think of it like raising children. We educate them and teach them how to follow the rules and make good decisions but at some point we have to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, right or wrong. By making mistakes, we learn to have better judgment. If you are afraid to trust your horse and you never give him a chance to do the right thing, he cannot learn from his mistakes and he is reliant on you forever to tell him what to do.
The End Game
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about developing trust in horses and it’s something I’ve worked hard for all of my life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with horses—we all do—but realizing the mistake, owning it, and learning from it so that you never make that mistake again, is the important part. Realizing and understanding the mistake in the first place is the hard part. You have to know you are making a mistake before you can own it. On a daily basis, I see people making inadvertent mistakes with horses that they have no idea they are making.
Most anyone who has been around horses for very long comes to see that 99% of horse “problems” are rider-induced. Yet we as humans have a never-ending capacity to always blame the horse, “my horse has a problem with his canter leads.” Really? Last time I saw him running out in the field, he took the correct lead every single time. Maybe the problem is in your inability to communicate the lead you want to the horse.
When the rider understands that as the true leader, she is not only responsible for her own actions but also for the actions of those who follow her, then real progress can be made. What am I doing that is causing this response in my horse? How am I falling down on the job of leader and causing my horse not to trust me? If I can recognize my own mistakes and take responsibility for my own actions, not only will my horse trust me more, but my horsemanship will drastically improve too. When the rider/handler improves, the horse always gets better.