Why is trust important? It’s no surprise to us equestrians that we are working with a very large animal. Our horses are created mentally with a flight or fight reaction and will almost always react in such a way when they are frightened or nervous.
We need to be our horses safe place, a place where they know that whatever may be going on around them that they are safe with us and can trust us. There needs to be a partnership or a teammate understanding between us and our horses.
We cannot expect them to just agree with everything we say and do, they have a mind of their own. Unless we learn to understand that we are not creating trust, but rather forcing our horses into who we think they must be. Here are 5 things that have helped me begin to build a more trusting relationship between me and my horse.
1. Start on the ground
This may sound boring to you, but this is a key building block for our horses. In the wild you don’t see horses carrying each other on their back. You see them all on ground level eye to eye.
Our horses need to know that what they are seeing and feeling we are seeing and feeling with them. Horses are naturally bred to be a herd animal. They are created to follow one another and lead one another. When a horse is nervous about something they turn to look at their other herd members to see their reactions.
We have to build that bond so that they look to us before reacting in a negative way. That can only happen when we are at their level.
Start by free lunging or lunging your horse in a field or arena. Let your horse move freely with you and show that you are not a threat to them but a partner. Walk your horse through different things that might be scary to them, allow them the time to see that you are safe in that environment and that it’s not a danger to them.
For example my gelding used to have a fear of walking through puddles. He was very unsure of the reflections that he would see in the puddles. At first I was very frustrated by his fear because he would have no problem cantering through the river but when a puddle would show up he would become very stiff and nervous. I soon learned that just sitting on his back and trying to kick him through it wasn’t going to get us anywhere. So I hoped off and decided that I would show him that puddles could be lots of fun.
I began by holding my reins and just kneeling near the puddle and letting him bring his head very low to the ground so he could see that the reflections and the waters movement wasn’t going to hurt him. When he felt comfortable with that I stood up and walked back and forth in the puddle with him still standing there and watching me.
Again when he was comfortable with me doing that I began to dance and splash around in it, yes I was getting wet and muddy but I was determined to show him that it was ok. After a few minutes of me making a fool out of myself he decided to put a hoof in the puddle and started pawing at it. It brought a smile to my face to see him try it all on his own and not to long after that he was splashing me.
We had finally reached an agreement that the puddles were fun and harmless. Yes it might have taken time out of our ride but what we overcame together was well worth it.
Some of our horses fears may take more than just 30 minutes to overcome but don’t give up. Always end on a positive note even if they haven’t overcome the whole fear. Leave when you feel they have taken a step in the right direction. Let them watch you as you shown them that what may be scary to them is really ok.
2. Learn to listen
As horse people, we know that horses don’t use words to communicate. Their language is solely based on body language and a few sounds. For us humans this can be very frustrating or hard to understand. In order for our trust to go deeper with our horses we need to work hard at understanding what they are trying to tell us.
When they feel they are free to communicate with us it changes their whole world. Last weekend I had two amazing ladies come out to my barn to do an assessment with my horse (Clever Riding). He wasn’t acting like himself and I needed another set of eyes to help me understand. They did a bit of massage therapy, and I could see so much change. Before they left, they gave me some homework to do with him and it’s something every horse rider could and should do with their horses.
They called it Hand Grooming. This is an excellent way to begin listening to your horses body language and get down to their level of communication.
Hand Grooming is just like it sounds, grooming your horse with only your hands. Forget the brushes and sprays and elastic bands. This is cheap and easy and will bless you horse in so many ways. As you rub and pet your horse watch their expression. Watch for signs of relaxation and happiness, like their eyes closing, lots of chewing and licking, yawing or even trying to rub their heads on something nearby.
When you find a spot where any of these signs are shown, pause there and mark that spot as a sweet spot. A spot that your horse enjoys and you can come back to it regularly to treat them.
Taking time out of you riding schedule to spend a few minutes doing this will help you begin to listen to what your horse is telling you, what they like or even what they don’t like. When your horse knows that you understand them their trust in you grows.
3. Positive reinforcement
This is another great thing to do when working on a trusting relationship. Using praise, treats or a good rub as a reward will allow your horse to know when they have done something right.
Instead of using punishment when they have made a mistake try using something positive when they have done something right. Once your horse knows that they are working to find that positive reward they will no longer fear making mistakes but rather enjoy trying new things to find where the right answers are.
If your horse is food motivated carry a pouch of small treats or grain along with you and use them. If your horse has a very accessible “sweet spot”, that you may have found while working on your hand grooming, use that as much as possible when your horses has done something right.
Create an environment where mistakes are no longer punishable and where desired behaviours or moves are rewarded as if they won the lottery.
As you do this the fear your horse may carry or hold when trying new things will slowly disappear because they know that you are their safe place, a partner who loves to make them feel good as they try their hardest.
4. Calm your energy
This is the hardest thing for me to do and I constantly have to work on it. As I said before horses speak through body language and our energy or emotions are portrayed through body language. In order for our horses to trust us we need to be able to show them that the scary things they are feeling are not scary to us.
Like in my first point I talked about how my horse had a fear of puddles. If I would have gone into that situation being nervous and afraid of the puddles like my horse was, we wouldn’t of been able to overcome that fear.
My body language, emotions and energy showed him that puddles are not harmful and that they are safe and fun. A lot of liberty work that you see or hear really uses this point.
To create more energy in your horse, you have to create more energy and the horse will pick up on it. This is a key factor in becoming a partner with your horse. High energy horses don’t always need to be hyper when they are comfortable and trusting in their lower energy handlers or riders.
I can give you a little example of how I put this into play when I’m riding.
I am currently teaching my gelding to extend and collect his trot. When I ask him for the walk to trot transition I take a deep breath and use my body to move him forward. When I want him to extend his trot I take another deep breath and use my body to help his body move forward. Then when I ask him to collect his trot I blow a deep breath out and relax my body as much as possible which helps him relax and brings him down.
This exercise is teaching my gelding to feel and listen to my body’s energy and copy it with his own.
5. Lead by example
Leading by example can fit into all of these points. Our horses are born followers and leaders. Let them know that they can trust your lead as you trust theirs. Be a constant safe place for your horse to trust in. Allow them to feel comfortable and heard in all aspects of their life.
Never force your horse into anything but rather take the time and allow them the chance to see that you are comfortable with the task you may be asking.
Being an equestrian is a team effort. Both our horses and ourselves need to be on the same page if we want to have a relationship built on trust.
Trust has to be the foundation that we build our riding career on. We are asking a 1,000+lb animal to let us to sit on top of their backs and listen to our ques.
Allow your horse the chance to trust you first before expecting everything from them. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and what has worked for you?