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Trust is a Two Way Street


The word "trust" evokes different feelings in each of us; however the most common meaning of trust is to have confidence in another. Whether it's a human relationship or equine, trusting your partner is the key to having a close partnership. As horseman Pat Parelli once said, "A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care."

Whether you own horses for pleasure or to be your partners in competition, forming a lasting bond will only strengthen their desire to want to please their "trusted friend." So how do you build trust with your horse?

Fight or flight

Before you begin building trust with your horse it's important to understand how horses think. By design, horses are wired to respond to the world with fear and run away from anything they perceive as a threat. This flight instinct has enabled the horse to survive in the wild for centuries, however with the help of humans, horses can be taught to control their fear response.

Through their evolution, horses have worked together in herds to protect each other from being killed by predators. Back in the cavemen days, humans were the predators and horses were our prey. Fast forward several thousand years and now we, the predator, are trying to get our former prey to trust us. Cavemen decorated the inside of their caves with drawings of horses with spears in their sides, today we look at this as great art history, however, horses still remember they were once hunted by us.

Herd leadership

When we take horses out of their natural herd environment, we must replace their dominant equine leader with a human. Horses want their person/rider to be their herd leader. To be a leader and build trust, riders must give their horse calm assurance, consistency, compassion and show a strong will.

"Trust is the alternative to fear," says Dr. Paul Haefner, psychologist and founder of Riding Far LLC. "Trust is a feeling as much as a choice and when we can extend trust it is comforting to both horse and rider."

When it comes to accepting a human as a herd leader, horses place a high value on the appropriateness of the leader's actions and reactions to certain events. When something spooks a horse, they will look to the rider and ask, "Should we be scared by this?" If the rider expresses confidence and doesn't get rattled by the spook, the horse will accept the leader's evaluation of the perceived threat and go about their business.

According to Haefner, "One problem when evaluating the level of trust between horse and rider is that the closest we can come to knowing if a horse trusts its rider is looking at how it behaves." We assume if the horse does as the rider wants, that he/she must trust the rider.

Who benefits from trust?

Is trust more important for horse or rider? Trust is first important for the rider. "Trust is a choice a person makes, we consciously choose to extend trust to others," explains Haefner. In that way, building a relationship with a horse is as much about the rider as it is about the horse. If the rider wants a horse to be brave and trust them, they must also be brave and not only trust the horse, but have trust in themselves. "The more secure and confident we are, the easier it is for us to extend trust," adds Haefner.

The ability to form bonds with horses and work on trust issues is part of the reason why equine therapy programs have become so popular with emotionally and physically wounded children and adults. By being able to build trust with horses, therapy patients learn skills to form other relationships down the road.

How do you build trust?

Forming a relationship with a horse is not something that happens overnight. Trust is something that should be cherished and given the opportunity to develop in our relationships with horses. One of the best things about building trust with a horse is that you don't need any special equipment or even special training. All you need is to give yourself ample time to dedicate to this blossoming relationship.

"Remember trust is not something that is "on" or "off", rather it develops slowly over time," acknowledges Haefner. If you can make your horse confident that they are safe under your care, their confidence will extend to your time both on the ground and in the saddle. Some of the best ways to build trust between horse and rider are through bonding time, grooming, consistency, and applying natural horsemanship techniques.

Quality Time

The foundations of any good relationship start by spending time with the other person or horse. This is especially true when you buy a new horse. If you recently bought a new horse and moved it to your barn, the adjustment period at its new home can be a time filled with anxiety and unfamiliar surroundings for the horse. By simply spending time with your new horse, they will learn that you are their new friend/caregiver and will cater to their needs.

Quality time is not just the time you spend in the saddle; it's time you spend around your horse. Go out to the barn on a day you aren't planning to ride and just hang out with your horse. Sit with him while he is munching on some hay in his stall, or climb up on the fence while she is out grazing. By being with horses when they are calm and relaxed, they will associate this stress free feeling with you, the new member of their herd. Likewise, after you ride take some time to graze your horse and just let him be a horse.

Get Your Groom On

Grooming your horse is about more than just brushing the dirt off of its coat. Grooming gives you the opportunity to build a relationship with your horse and learn all its "special spots". It also mimics the behavior you observe when horses are in a herd or turned out with others. Typically, a horse will have a buddy it pairs up with and they will groom each other, speaking in their own nonverbal language and telling each other where to groom. Horses, like other mammals, use grooming as a way to express their trust and love.

Through spending the extra time to properly groom your horse you will also be more in tune with your horse's demeanor and various quirks. This will not only help with trust issues, but will make you more likely to notice if your horse isn't acting quite right and could alert you to a potential health issue.

Do it once. Do it every time

We can build trust with horses by being consistent with our reactions. As riders/horsemen our horses look to us for reinforcement of their behavior both positive and negative. We can't just change our response to suit our mood. Horses require consistency in their lives and it is our job to provide that consistency for them. Remember, you must follow through on your actions if something is negative once it cannot be rewarded later on.

In addition to being consistent in how we react to our horse's behavior it';s also important to establish a routine with your horse. This routine can start by establishing feeding times for your horse and can trickle down to an exercise regimen and riding schedule for your horse. If a horse knows they can count on you at a given time, they will become relaxed and comfortable in their routine.

Training with Trust

Many people are turning to natural horsemanship to build trust with their horse. Southern States customer Kenny Harlow, from Cumberland, VA, has developed a "Training with Trust" program that allows him to build a relationship with horses in a way that encourages compliance and trust. Harlow explains, "What I do differently is to build a relationship with the horse so they have the desire to learn, rather than forcing them to learn. Since it is their decision to learn, without coercion, they not only respond to me positively, but they learn to trust me." Through "Training with Trust", Harlow helps not only horses, but helps the horse owners themselves learn how to solve problems. This leads to a lasting relationship of trust between horse and owner.

Broken Trust

Like any relationship, it takes a while to develop a solid relationship based on trust with a horse, however it only takes an instant to lose. One way to try to prevent a loss of trust is to never put your horse in a situation where they don't trust you. However, this is not always possible. So what do you do if trust has been fractured?

Haefner suggests that we take a look at ourselves before we assign blame on the horse. Did our own lack of skill, consistency or confidence cause the horse to lose confidence in us? Sometimes it is the rider's own fear that can cause a horse to lose trust.

"Trust is not a unitary phenomenon," states Haefner. "It's not all or nothing, even when it's been broken there is still a piece of trust remaining." For instance, you have been consistently doing well with your horse over fences, until one day your horse stops at a jump. The typical reaction is, "I can't trust my horse because he no longer wants to jump" or "If only he would quit stopping I could trust him again."

Rather than building on negative thoughts the rider needs to take a step back and think "where do we still have trust?" Does your horse still trust you to groom, graze, trail ride, etc? Of course they do. "Instead of focusing on the negative issue you need to begin paying attention to the areas where you do have trust and build off that," explains Haefner. Although, the rider can feel defeated, they really shouldn't as the foundation of trust is still there.

Go out and build some trust

Now that you have learned some ways to build trust with your horse go out and try them! Once you build a relationship based on trust with your horse the possibilities are endless. If a horse trusts its rider it will do anything for them. With a little patience, you too can have a wonderful relationship with your equine friend.


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