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February 08, 2022 4 Comments
How do you build a horse's trust? How do you begin to trust him or her to be safe? Trust is a big topic and one worth investing in, because without it, it's simply two individuals doing things together, when one or neither one wants to and that's a whole lot of "not fun!"
Let's start with your horse. How do you help your horse to trust you? Well... it turns out there are a few things that help, and a few that really don't. Let's start with the things that help. One, spend time with your horse. Let him/her get to know you. I don't mean a few minutes a week. I mean a few minutes every chance you get. Also, ask him to do something. Did you know that one of the greatest trust building exercises in the world is to get your partner to do something for you? When they say yes, they show trust. Imagine meeting a stranger and the stranger asks you for some trivial things like sharing a stick of gum or picking up an article of clothing she dropped. If you respond to the stranger by doing what she asks, you immediately feel more trusting toward her. It's ironic, isn't it? By doing something for the other party, you're saying "yes" to a simple request, and that makes you feel like they are worthy of your trust, because after all, you wouldn't do something for someone you don't trust, right?
Master horse trainers know the value of asking the horse for small things. One thing we encourage every new student to do when they halter their horse is to ask the horse to step back a few feet. This simple ask initiates an upward trend toward a more trusting partnership. Couple that with the bonding time you spend as often as you can, you end up with a fantastic horse/human relationship.
Now for the less obvious stuff. Lots of people tend to think that the way you build trust is by never asking the horse to do something uncomfortable. Or by never being firm with a horse in a dangerous situation. It seems logical. Don't upset the apple cart and she will trust you more. Ironically, it's the opposite again. You can't win a horse's trust by being a carrot all the time. Sometimes you have to be a leader. And what is a leader?
A leader is many things, he/she is someone who is caring, yes, but also someone who is willing to do hard things. Someone who doesn't avoid something because it's uncomfortable. I've been criticized for this before. I've been told I'm too tough on a horse because a particular video snippet is taken out of context. One time a horse tried to bowl over me in a panic and I slammed on the breaks, demanding he stop and back away with firm pressure from my lead rope. Soft natured people, kind hearted people, often confuse a moment like this as abusive. And once again, it's quite the opposite. If they only knew the hours I poured into the bonding, non demanding time together, in the pasture, with no lead rope or stick. If they only knew the hours of learning and growing through psychology and leadership training. Alas, it's all quite okay, because nature calls us to react to circumstance. I don't blame them; I hope to educate them. Help them see the moment to moment changes a leader must be aware of and willing to adapt to.
In summary, you build a horse's trust by being nice, kind, time intensive, and... asking for things, even hard things.
Now let's talk about you, how do you trust your horse?
This one's easy. Just ask him or her to perform a task. If he responds positively, then you've got nothing to worry about. If he responds negatively, well then... you may have something to worry about, and you won't trust him until he responds well again. The type of task you ask for matters too. If you ask for him to back up two steps, it doesn't show you much about his trustworthiness. But if you ask him to circle around while trotting or cantering and he happily carries the saddle without hesitation or reaction, then you're probably going to trust him more.
Years ago, I learned a simple concept that brought task/trust orientation home for me. One of my early instructors and I stood next to a ditch filled with less than twelve inches of water. My horse stood just a few feet away, facing the ditch. My instructor took the horse from me and asked the horse to cross the ditch without a rider. My horse exploded over the ditch and I dropped my jaw, thinking I could never ride that. Then he brought the horse back over the other way, getting a similar reaction from both of us. He continued asking the horse back and forth over the ditch with rewards on each side and finally, he said to me, "Have you ever heard of the rock test?"
I replied honestly that I never had heard of the rock test, and asked him to explain...
"The rock test is an idea about trustworthiness, and it goes like this. If I put a flat rock on the saddle, and ask this horse to cross that ditch, and the rock doesn't fall from the saddle, then I bet a person could stay on too."
Moments later that horse stepped lightly into the ditch and through it. I saw how quietly he navigated the obstacle, and I felt a sudden surge of confidence in him. My instructor asked him over the ditch a few more times without any reaction and then asked me to ride him over. I'll never forget how he carefully carried me over the obstacle. The rock test made the light bulbs turn on in my brain. The concept of the rock test is so valuable. Perhaps not always realistic, but without a doubt, one of the best ways to conceptualize trustworthiness. In other words, if my horse responds well with something challenging, then I can trust him or her. The word challenging is the key. If you only ask for simple things on sunny days, you'll build a false sense of trust. This is where people get hurt. It's okay to start there, but don't stop there.
I trust one of my horses more than the others, can you guess why? Because I've spent more time with him, asking him to perform tasks in challenging environments and staying until it all worked out. I have one horse in particular I don't trust much at all. Can you guess why again? It's because I haven't spent the time with him, and his initial reactions tell me I need to spend more time. When I have the time, you can bet that's exactly what I'll do and he too, will become extremely trustworthy.
I'd love to sum it all up for you now. You gain your horse's trust by spending time and asking her to do something for you. When she says yes, she sees you as a leader, someone she can trust. The cool thing is, you also gain more trust in her. It's the nature of all relationships, both horse/human and human/human. Do more together and learn more about each other. Don't avoid challenges, embrace the complexity with grace for each other and before you know it, you've got a rock solid relationship that only breaks down if one of you stop asking questions.
I hope this helps you understand the nature of trust. Comment below and share your thoughts. Also, if you haven't already, check out Mastery Coaching it's available to a limited amount of dedicated folks. Start here.