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And more importantly, does your horse trust you?

By Kenda Lenseigne

Photos By Amanda Ellis

She was a new girl in a new town, and unlike anyone I had ever met before.  She was kind and encouraging, and was trying to get me to jump into the water along with all of her friends.  I tried to overcome my panic, then justify my fear, but everyone was watching.  All I could feel was my heart pounding in my ears like a bass drum and my feet cemented to the ground.  I was fear-frozen.  She wondered why I didn’t trust her, and I felt her disappointment.  But I knew it was all me.  It had nothing to do with her.  What this little piece of upbeat sunshine didn’t realize is that I had a past.  The over-50lb kind of baggage—the kind that costs a lot to carry around.  I had only been near this kind of water once before, when I was young.  I was pushed in without knowing how to swim.  I gasped and gulped for air, before finally clawing my way up the bank, exhausted and trembling.  I was convinced I’d had a near death experience.

She was persistent, this one.  She had all the confidence in the world and for the first time in my life, she made me believe that I could.  I’d never felt this before from anyone and it was overwhelming!  One toe in, then my foot…pretty soon I was up to my knees!

I leapt in and swam like a champion.  My 4 hooves in perfect cadence with the flow of the water.  I did it,  I really did it!         I marched my way on to the shore triumphantly; it was a new beginning.  I breathed in a giant, validating sigh as she patted me and said, “Good girl, you did it, I’m proud of you.”

Cowgirls.  We love our horses, sometimes more than our friends or spouses.  Don’t feel ashamed; deep down you know you might be one of them.  “Love me, love my horse!”  reads the sign hanging in your barn.  We spend more time in the stable than we do in the house, and shop incessantly online for toys and treats and horsey things that sparkle.  We feel a strong emotional bond to our horses and treat them like family.  We recognize their personality; maybe we’ve even placed a party hat on our favorite steed for their birthday.   With all this giving, it’s no wonder we expect the same kind of love back from these pointy-eared, soft muzzled stacks of goodness.  We know wholeheartedly that our horses can trust us to care for them and keep them from danger, but is this a one-way street?

Do we really trust each other?  Trust goes beyond the emotion of love.  When it comes to woman vs. beast, how do we know our partner will keep us safe?  The topic of trust comes up in every relationship.  It’s the glue that holds us together, and glue takes reapplication and time to dry before it is strong enough to withstand the rigors of life.   How do we establish trust, and how is trust broken?  Can it ever really be repaired?

TAKE THE REINS OF AUTHORITY

“He’s not going where I want, he’s not doing what I want!”  It’s a statement heard time and time again.   After all, we need to place the blame somewhere, right?  Ladies, it’s time to take a hard look in that mirror hanging in your tack room.  Is the woman you see willing to step up and commit to the work (and the time) it takes to develop a leadership role with your horse?  Don’t fool yourself.  If your gelding or mare doesn’t comply with your directives and respect your personal space, you can bet—when push comes to shove—you won’t be able to trust your horse, no matter how much you love him!  Too often, potential calamities are created by our lack of trust in our own directives and abilities, which is picked up immediately by our four-legged partner.

We all enjoy the ride, but are you a passenger or a driver?  If you’re a passenger, you’ve handed over the keys to your horse, and he’ll take you where he wants, when he wants.   Taking back the driver’s seat will gain the respect of your horse; he will then look to you for guidance, ultimately trusting you to make safe decisions for your team.  Yes, easier said than done because, after all, your horse has a mind of his own.  So how do we do we ensure that the keys stay in our possession?  Every single time you are handling your horse, take small steps to reinforce your authority.  Something as simple as asking your horse to back a few steps, reestablishes your authority and your position as “driver.”  You don’t have to ask insurmountable tasks of your horse to start.  One wouldn’t have success asking a horse to jump a 6 foot fence until he can walk over a cavaletti.  Work in small steps, with easy and achievable tasks to build a bond of trust with your horse.

Some horses are complete ‘fraidy-cats!  They see gremlins in the shadows, and act like little children when facing something they are not familiar with, for example a plastic bag on the ground.  It’s our job to present our horses with positive energy, authority and encouragement, establish a reality that there is nothing to panic about.  Panic is a lack of trust.  Reason shuts down and instead, reactions are triggered by fear.  Trust is built or lost within these situations.

If you have a four-legged, 1,000 pound, emotionally reactive animal underneath you, your safety depends on being trusted as a credible leader.  Your horse is a herd animal, and wants you to let him know things are OK.   With each positive outcome, trust is built.

SO  YOU  THINK  YOUR HORSE  TRUSTS  YOU?

OK, so your horse is doing pretty much what you ask, but how do you know if he or she really trusts you? One of the best ways to gauge is the trailer.  It’s a small, dark box, with no visible escape route.  You’re asking your prey animal to willingly enter a space that millions of years of evolution have established is dangerous.  Then the engine starts and the metal box moves and shakes for…who knows how long?

I recall the last time my horse and I traveled to a mounted shooting competition.  My method is to gently swing the lead rope up and over my horse’s back, and walk side by side with him toward the trailer.  My hands are at my sides.  I don’t have hold of him, but he matches his steps with mine, reading my motion—as he has for the past eleven years that we’ve been a team.  He’s won seven World Championship titles and traveled tens of thousands of miles across the U.S. and back with me.  Yet every time we stroll toward the trailer, he doesn’t know if he is in for an easy five miles down the road, or a strenuous 1,500 journey.  Nevertheless, he always loads, willing and ready for the task at hand.  He trusts me.  It’s evident in his eyes and his quiet pace.  I’m sure those 1,500-mile hauls aren’t the easiest on a horse, (they’re not easy on a driver, either) but he knows that it’s a job he’s been given, and he does it readily.

Why doesn’t my horse object like a child getting ready for a long drive, and why doesn’t he refuse the ramp, or whirl around inside the trailer in protest for the tedium he’s about to endure?  Plain and simple, he trusts me.  He knows that for whatever amount of time he’ll stand in the trailer—watching our country pass by in the window of his stall—we’ll eventually stop in a new town.   He has no “baggage” on these trips.   This experience has always had a positive outcome, so he trusts that there is nothing to fear when he steps into the trailer.

TRUSTING  YOURSELF

My friend is fifty-two years old and taking a riding lesson today. It’s the first time she’s been on a horse in over thirty years.   When she was a kid, she rode her neighbor’s horses during the summer with wild and reckless abandon.  She and her friends would jump on bareback with whatever scrap of headgear they could find and gallop into the hills.  They were only given one rule: the horses couldn’t come back breathing hard, and they had to be home by dinner time.  They had the Queen-of-the-world confidence of thirteen year-olds, and didn’t even know what trust between horse and rider meant—but they had it.  Once in a while,  one of them would get wiped off on a tree branch, or fall while leaping a ditch in the field.  At that age, they simply learned how to stay on better!  It didn’t change the trust they had in their horses, or their ability to ride on through.

So what’s different now?  Why is she so nervous today?  White lipped, she runs through the list of why this might not work:  she’s a lot older now, with delayed reflexes, an aching hip—and more to lose if she hits the ground. She goes on to play out every possible terrifying scenario like a well-crafted television drama.  What it boils down to is this: she doesn’t want to fall, and she doesn’t know this horse.  She no longer trusts her skills or her ability to control the horse.

Meet Joe, a handsome grey gelding with that delicious and familiar horse smell.  He has kind eyes and a quiet manner, and stands patiently while she awkwardly climbs aboard.  Her hands start shaking and fear sets in as she sees the ground far below.   She questions if this sudden streak of anxiety is because she doesn’t trust Joe; after all he has given her no reason not to trust him, he’s been more than trustworthy so far.

With honest self-awareness, she quickly realizes she doesn’t trust herself. Her balance and response time is different at this age, and her abilities are rusty.   The kicker: she doesn’t believe she has the skill-set to get out of a hairy situation if it happens.  She’s imagined a load of  ‘what if’ scenarios in her mind and hefted them right into the saddle with her like a bag of bricks. The lack of trust in Joe rested solely on her own distrust in herself, and had nothing to do with the present situation.   As Joe carries her around the pen, the fear starts to wash away with each languid stride.  Her seat starts to come back, her grip softens, and her hands guide the reins just like they used to!   Many of us can map this story onto something in our own lives, whether it be in the arena or somewhere else.  By taking a leap of faith, being mindful and staying in the present, and believing in positive outcomes, we can rediscover how brave we really are.

IT ALWAYS WORKS, EXCEPT WHEN IT DOESN’T

Even if your horse trusts you most of the time, and vice versa, new experiences often must be worked through, as if you’re relationship is brand new.  I overheard a friend trying to reason with her horse as he refuses want to walk into the wash stall.  He plants his feet and stands at the very edge, wide-eyed like a stubborn old mule.  She tugs on the lead rope, which only lengthens his neck—his hooves don’t move.  I hear her politely attempt to coax him, speaking in tones that are soft and convincing, all to no avail. I ponder at this point, why he does not want to do this.  After all, he should trust that she wouldn’t lead him into danger.   Based on his body language, we see that his lack of trust is coming from a fear of the unknown.  He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him when he walks in, and is not prepared to rely on her to keep him safe.  She changes her tone a little, and adds a little more authority. The horse takes some snorty breaths and eventually walks in, one small step at a time.  She rewards each step with praise and pats. When the horse finally looks around and realizes he’s in a safe place with nothing to fear, he licks his lips and breathes a deep sigh of relief.  She pats him, congratulating his bravery and he responds with a little validating nuzzle in her side.   

TRUST IS CONTAGIOUS,  AND SO IS FEAR

A new client showed up recently at my barn.  She was on a spooky horse with a lot of energy, which seemed to match her type A personality to a tee.  I invited her to go for a ride out on the trail loop with another student of mine, who has steadily been gaining confidence in the saddle.  Minutes into the ride, the new gal began pointing out many potentially dangerous hazards, relating horrific stories about each one. “It’s windy today,” she said.  “One time, a gust came up along with a big garbage bag.  The bag blew right under my horse’s feet which made her jump and I fell onto a pile of rocks.  I broke my tailbone, bruised three ribs and had to walk two miles back to the barn in agony.”

She went on to tell one shocking story after the other.  I turned to check on my student, whose eyes were now the size of saucers.  Her knees were clenched tightly to her horse’s sides, and her fists squeezed the reins.  Her horse, who is normally a steady-Eddie, began to tense and his stiffen his gait.  The animal was more alert than I had ever seen him before, and began to look around for the imminent danger he felt radiating from above his saddle.  It was evident that her trust was shaken from the negative energy coming from the other rider, and she began embodying those fears.   If this type of scenario has ever happened to you, consider a frank look around, to determine if your environment is a positive trust builder or a negative trust buster.  Of course, it’s prudent to be safety conscious, but some people have developed a habit of conjuring up  “worst-case-scenarios.”  They may be sincerely fearful or simply think it’s a way of being social. On the same note, many of us have experienced accidents riding, but sharing the gory details over and over may not be serving our own well-being, or the well-being of our horses and friends.

WHAT TO DO NEXT

Off the cuff, unthinking reactions, whether by horse or cowgirl, can fray the invaluable thread of trust between you and your horse. Taking baby steps is the best way to work with any horse.  Set a small goal each session, and acknowledge the triumph and accomplishment in achieving that goal.  With each small victory, you build the bond between you and your horse.  Remind yourself to speak the words, “that was better”….  and build from there.  Remember, the time it takes is the time it takes.  Your horse may have baggage from a previous owner that you have the privilege of healing. If you have a road-block kind of day, forgive yourself and your horse and go back to where you last felt success and begin again. Soon, you won’t wonder if you can trust your horse, you’ll know you can.