Building Trust With Your Horse

Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road
-by TJ Wierenga

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2007)

As it is with other people, trust is a delicate and valuable gift from your horse. It’s hard to establish but once it is firmly developed as part of your two-way relationship, your ability to relax and be confident in your animal will greatly increase your enjoyment of riding him, let alone your performance levels.

Trust is defined as “having faith in”. Belief, hope, conviction, confidence, expectation, reliance, dependence are all words that mean roughly the same thing. Imagine having a bond or rapport with your horse that involves those verbs! If you ask him to cross a creek or river and he’s never stepped into water before, he’ll do it. If you want to start working on cattle and he’s never been around those snorting, smelly beasts before, he’ll do it. If you want him to step up into a strange trailer, or cross a wooden bridge, or allow you to start swinging a rope over his head, or enter an arena filled with lots of activity/horses/people… he’ll do it. Why? Because he trusts you.

Much of our horse training program at Fear Not Horsemanship involved re-training, or dealing with what people termed their “problem horses”. These tended to be horses reacting with strong fear in a particular situation. What we found is that horses which react with apprehension and fright do so time and again because they remember the fear that they experienced previously. It is why many horses are afraid to be clipped, or load in a trailer, or stand tied. We were even brought horses which indicated a fear of cattle, never a good thing in an American Quarter horse! But something caused them fear in that situation and they remembered it.

The way to overcome that negative emotional environment in the horse is to give him a lot of positive emotional memories that will reprogram his mind. Ask him to come close to the scary situation, just to the point where he starts to become anxious – not to the full-blown fear, “fall apart or blow up” part. Then, back down a step and let him relax. Let him take all day if he needs to – if he can’t relax, back down one more step. Then take baby steps, as slow as molasses, until his feelings of calm and safety overcome his previous negative state. Will Rogers once said, “Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.” Apply this to your horsemanship, and take the time that your horse needs to do something right for you.

Even if your horse is not fearful or apprehensive, building a solid foundation of trust in your relationship is a great way to set yourselves up for success down the road.

Develop Trust
a. Consistency is key – be the same person every time, so he knows what to expect.
b. Set him up to succeed – make it possible for him to understand & meet your requests.
c. Be fair – You’re responsible for the team, not him. Consider his point of view.
d. Be the “Safe Place” – no matter what else is going on, be the place where he is emotionally safe. While training your horse is not the time for you to throw a little temper tantrum because your horse isn’t responding the way you want him to just yet. If you’re frustrated, imagine what he feels!
e. Be the Responsible Party – no matter what happens. He most likely did not come get you out of the living room to go play in the roundpen for awhile… you took him in there. So don’t blame him if things go wrong, just find another way to try and fix it.
f. Rhythm and Relaxation are big elements here. If you act like a predator, you will put him in a prey animal response mode. If you are relaxed and rhythmical, you show your horse a predictability that helps him gain confidence and calmness. Remember the speed and rhythm of his tail swishing lazily at flies.
g. Never wreck his trust in you to accomplish one task (like loading a resistant horse in the trailer, or forcing him across a jump or creek he is not ready for, for example).

Your horse needs to see that you are consistent, predictable and fair. He needs to believe that it won’t kill him if he does the strange things that you are requesting. Take into account his feelings and emotional state… while they may be quite simple, horses do have feelings, they aren’t motorcycles. Remember not to give him more requests or to expect more response than he is ready for at the time – take baby steps.

For the rare horse who is actually afraid of cattle (or llamas, goats, etc), the key is to allow him a limited exposure with you firmly in control, and build from that point forward. We would pasture a horse in the paddock closest to our small cattle herd and let him become accustomed to the sights, smells and sounds of cattle in a non-threatening environment where the cattle could not actually approach the horse. This would evolve into putting one weanling calf into our large round corral (80’) and giving the horse the experience of successfully moving the calf. Finally we’d start working one cow at a time, and ending up being able to cut one cow out of a herd, or push an entire herd as the situation warranted. The key is little successes building on top of one another.

Once you start making progress, give him time to figure things out before you move to the next level. Always give him time to relax, at least several seconds, after he has successfully given you the right answer. Try to apply the least amount of pressure possible to show him what you want, and give him the opportunity to think it through and try it before you escalate the pressure. You are setting him up to succeed, and rewarding him with a break, a removal of pressure, when he does. The goal is to make him feel a positive emotional experience, so that he stays “on board” mentally and emotionally with the team. Partnership is different from simple obedience!

And remember to trust yourself as well. You might not have this down pat the first time you try it. You will likely “mess up”. But your horse will forgive you…. forgive yourself, and keep trying.

EXERCISE #1: Lunge Line Confidence – Jumping
Goal – to increase your horse’s confidence in your leadership.
• Begin walking your horse around the roundpen on a lunge line.
• You should hold the lead rope with some slack, and encourage his forward movement with your voice, body language, and a lunge whip (NOT used to touch him!) only if required.
• Get the horse working freely at the walk and trot on the lunge line.
• Ask the horse to jump over a pole or small hay bale set up midway thru the course.
• ADVANCED – You should be able to do this with the horse at liberty (without halter or leadrope).

EXERCISE #2: Lunge Line Confidence – Water Simulator
Goal – to teach your horse to confidently follow your directions when you ask them to cross water, and do so in a calm and steady form instead of jumping it, balking, or resisting.
• Lunge your horse at a walk or trot on a lunge line.
• Ask him to approach a folded tarp on the ground. Let him spend all the time he needs to sniffing it, touching it with his hoof or nose, and exploring. Wait to proceed until he has sighed heavily (if he initially showed any fear or resistance) and looked completely away from the tarp.
• Ask your horse to cross the tarp at a walk. Use your lunge whip only to encourage him, NOT to hit him with! If you do touch him with the whip, do so in a light and repetitive manner on his hip, not below (you’re asking him to move his body forward, not kick out with his feet).

EXERCISE #3: The Dreaded Plastic Sack
Goal – to show your horse that you will not hurt him, that he can trust you, and that it is safe to allow you to touch every part of his body.
• Using a plastic sack attached to a lunge whip to give you an extension of your arm (as well as a measure of safety), approach your horse quietly and begin sacking him out. Yes, that’s why they call it ‘sacking out’.
• Again, you are looking for a big sigh and a relaxed demeanor. It helps if you yourself will keep in mind your own body language. Sighing, relaxing your shoulders down, wiggling your arms, rolling your head will all help you to relax and have the second benefit of letting your horse know that you are calm about this situation too – so he can follow you, his leader.


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