Does Your Horse Trust You?

It's not uncommon for people to occasionally ask me if I trust a certain horse or mule. The more important question is whether my horse or mule trusts me. They say things like trust and respect are a two way street, and to a point I'd agree. But when it comes down to prey-type herd animals, the order of who trusts whom becomes much more important.

Do I trust my animal? How do I know I can? What does trust mean? To me, it means that I know, to a certain degree, how he is going to behave in any given situation. It means that when he gets scared, I can count on him not to buck, rear or run away. It means that if we come to a river, I can expect him to get me safely across without locking up, pitching a fit, or kicking anyone in the vicinity.

What I think most people misunderstand is that you can't trust him until you know he trusts you. In order for him to consistently behave in a trustworthy manner regardless of the scary situation, he has to trust me first. He has to know without a doubt what to expect from me.

If I've put the proper foundation on him, we will have already established mutual respect and trust. I will have taught him the specific skill set he needed to get him to the emotional level of feeling confident both in me and himself. He will know that when we come to something scary like a strange wooden bridge, it's okay, because as his mind races trying to match the sights, sounds, emotions, and sensations to some past experience it won't take very long to find a match. "My person will handle the situation in a way that is safe, as comfortable as possible, and will not lose control of the situation or herself." With a leader like that, why on earth would he not feel comfortable following her? So you see, he has to trust me first. When he does, I can then trust him, because I know he will trust me to make good decisions for us.

Most equines do not want to be the boss, they just assume the position when no one else does, whether they are good at it or not. I think their thought process goes something like this:

"Oh no! We're doomed! I'm not in control! Somebody's got to be in control! Oh no! If you aren't in control, then I'm in control and I'm outta here! See Ya!!"

As you know that is a scene that plays out all too often, sometimes with very painful consequences.

  1. You must respect your horse. If you don't respect him, he won't respect you.
  2. He must trust you. This has to be earned and proven. Once it is, there isn't anything he won't do for you. There's no cheating on this one.
Horse must: You must:
Trust you as leader Be trustworthy - don't be wishy-washy
Respect you as dominant Actually be dominant over him
Have confidence in your reactions and decision-making Stay calm and in control, and don't start acting like a hungry, angry carnivore
Look to you for safety and guidance Make good decisions
Know that you can be trusted not to get all wound up and decide to kill him for not crossing that stream Make it a habit to focus your horse's attention on you in a way that doesn't terrify him

Training horses is the same as raising (training) children. You are not simply their friend; neither are you their subordinate. You are, or should be, strong, loving, confident, courageous, and fun. This means you also have to be firm, fair, demanding at times, and comfortable being in charge.

I'm continually amazed by the number of people who don't really want to dominate their horse. They just want to be their friend. Horses aren't offended or upset by people who tell them what to do unless they've never had it happen before, or maybe it sort of happened -- right up until he kicked that hapless human and taught him that horses rule.

Every time you handle your horse you are training it. Every interaction is teaching him something, whether you mean it or not. It's very important that you be aware of what you are teaching. Remember, no one is better at reading body language than horses. It doesn't matter what you think you are saying to them, the truth comes out in your body language.

There's a saying I've heard that goes "What you do is what you become." If you focus on being the best you possible, you make being successful a habit. If we aren't attentive to our actions and behaviors, we develop bad habits.

We tend to think that people who handle horses, and life in general, well may seem to usually just do the right things naturally, but I've found that's not the case. Anyone can learn successful behaviors. The first step is to become attentive to what you do. Become more aware. Personally, this is a big one for me. The more tired and stressed out we get, the more we tend to tune out mentally. "Zoning Out" becomes a habit, and before long you are just doodling through life going through the motions. This can ruin not only your relationships with your horse or mule, but also negatively affect every aspect of your life. The more we tune out, the easier it becomes to do so. It's a vicious cycle.

Once you've made the decision to become more attentive to your actions, you start noticing what's going on around you more. If instead of getting kicked by your horse and wondering what the heck that was for, you will soon realize that he's been telling you for the past ten minutes that he isn't happy and is going to do something about it soon. But if you see things are heading that direction you can redirect the situation and prevent a blow-up.

I've been on trail rides where some guy would be playing cowboy and irritating the devil out of his poor horse. You know the type: he doesn't want to hear anything about there being a polite way to handle the situation so he just keeps spurring and pulling. The horse "seems" to be tolerating it, so Cowboy thinks he's got it all under control. Meanwhile the attentive riders in the group are all moving to a safe distance away and making bets on where Cowboy is going to land.

Eventually when Ol' Paint has had enough of this inconsiderate jerk on his back, he will "unexpectedly" break and pitch a fantastic fit, launching unsuspecting Cowboy into the nearest Osage Orange tree. As Cowboy screams in indignation, between the cursing you hear him say "He threw me for nothing! That no-good so-and-so just threw me without warning!"

I have found that this is often not the best time to say things like "Well, he's been telling you for the past five miles that he was going to. I'm surprised he waited so long!" or "If I were him, I'd have done that back at mile marker two!" (I'm actually tempted to pack along a scorecard and Sharpie just for such occasions.) I try to be good, really I do… Guess my granny was right - I never did know when to quit (at least as far as some things go).

Which brings me to my next point. You need to know when to quit! How often have you heard "You started it, now you have to finish it." "If you don't get back on and finish it, he'll win!" Well, to a small extent, that can be true in some situations, but overall it's just silly. When a horse gets so excited and upset that his natural instincts for survival kick in, he is incapable of being concerned about winning. In fact, if you get into a huge fight with him, lose your temper, and get emotional, you are teaching him that neither of you is in control and that the "best" thing to do is panic. The old adage "Walk away and live to fight another day" is very appropriate here.

-- Marcie