by Laura Crum
Not too long ago I read some interesting blog posts about “trust” on (and linked to) Kate’s blog “A Year With Horses” (listed on the sidebar), and this has prompted me to do some thinking about what I believe on this subject and why I believe it. I really enjoy these complex subjects Kate brings up and her thoughtful way of discussing them. And I don’t entirely disagree with the idea that if one puts out trust in a horse the horse may return that trust. I’ve had that experience. I liked the posts I read and thought there was some real truth there. However, I do think the discussion has tended to focus on the favorable possibilities, and not the negative outcomes that are also possible. And once you’ve had a serious injury (or worse) you may wish you had thought about the downside. So, I’d like to bring this up today.
As I wrote in my post titled “Reprimands”, I feel that staying clearly in charge is our best place when it comes to staying safe while working with horses. This has to remain true both while we are on the ground and while we are on the horse. This is accomplished in many ways, but the bottom line is there must be a good working partnership between horse and human, where the horse accepts that the human is in charge and obeys him/her. Ideally the horse is “willingly compliant” and throws in—but, in any case, the horse must not feel free to disobey the human. Horses that feel free to disobey and not respect their human endanger both themselves and the handler/rider. It is not a workable situation in the long run, even with a pasture pet. The day will come (and I’ve seen this) when that pasture pet runs over the person feeding, or strikes at them during an attempt at worming, or kicks them when they aren’t paying attention. Sometimes with dire results. And all these behaviors arise out of a lack of respect on the part of the horse for the human.
Before I discuss my thoughts regarding “trust”, I want to say that I come from the position of forty years of owning, riding and training horses. I no longer break and train young horses, but I have started over fifty colts in my life and ridden and trained at least fifty more green broke horses (riding for other trainers, for myself, and for friends). During these many years I saw many wrecks, and many people injured; I knew a few who were killed. I saw many horses badly injured, such that they were never sound again. Over time I refined my ideas about training and working with horses—by paying attention to the horses. I never bought into any one trainer/clinician’s theory, though I learned from many. In the end the thing that means the most to me is to be able to work with and ride horses in a way that keeps me and the horse safe. I have a pretty good track record here (knocking on wood). I’ve never been seriously injured, never even broken a bone. For the last three years I’ve gone on well over three hundred trail rides (solo, with my young son, in a group), and met various unexpected obstacles (as you inevitably do on the trails). And no one, horse or human, was hurt. No one came off. No one was ever even scared. Every single ride was “successful,” though naturally some had more interesting moments, so to speak, than others. These are the results I aim for, and my methods and thinking are geared to that end.
I find that many people today are interested in various methods of horse training espoused by various trainers/clinicians that basically deny the premise that the handler/rider needs to stay in charge. What most folks are forgetting is that the guys who are teaching this stuff are (mostly) pretty damn experienced horsemen. When a much less experienced horseman tries these methods, the result is frequently a horse that feels free to try to dominate the handler/rider. For those of you who have the expertise to apply these methods in a way that produces horses that are reliably “willingly compliant”, that’s great. But I have very often seen people who use this sort of thinking end up basically afraid to ride their horse (for good reason), unable to load their horse (except when the horse happens to “want” to load), and in general being directed by the horse’s wishes instead of vice versa. And the horse itself was a pushy, mouthy, disrespectful pain in the butt. And that is not a basis for a safe, effective working partnership.
The best way to forge this working partnership is to have the skills to understand what a horse is communicating. This takes a long time to learn, and if you are uncertain, you may want to work with an experienced horseman on “reading” your horse. If you are to be in charge you need to know when a horse is testing, when he is disrespectful of you, when he is afraid, when something is physically bothering him, when he is lazy, when he is ignoring you (which is disrespectful), when he is too scared to listen, when he is angry and “on the fight” and rebelling against you…etc. As well, you need to read the signs that tell you when the horse is accepting, when he is submitting, when he understands and throws in, when he is content, when he is curious and interested, when he wants something in particular, when he is relieved, when he is intensely focused on something other than you, when he is playful and enjoying himself, when he is working hard to do as you ask, when he is growing bored and resentful…etc. All these things are telegraphed loud and clear by a horse, once you get to know that individual. Some horses are harder to “read” than others. I can be unclear what a horse is saying when it is a horse I don’t know. I am almost never confused about what my own horses are saying, and any other horse that I do know well. I sometimes don’t know “why” they are saying it, but I can read what they are expressing. The foundation of all I do is based on understanding what a horse is communicating.
You also have to learn how to communicate back. Different horses require different methods. A tough minded, cold blooded horse requires vastly different reprimands from a sensitive, reactive horse. Essentially, you need to guide a horse in a way that works for that horse. It is absolutely futile to generalize about what “horses” need in the way of training and cues, and what sort of relationship is possible. Horses are as different from each other as people are different from one another. You are not going to be able to have the same sort of relationship with a man who is physically abusive as you might have with a gentle sensitive soul. You can treat them both equally well—it doesn’t matter. They are who they are and all the wishing in the world won’t change that, nor patience and kindness either (sometimes). This is something we need to accept about both people and animals.
The next thing I want to address is the notion that you can forget all of a horse’s past behavior like it was so much unwanted “baggage” and just “ride the horse you have today”. Sounds lovely, of course, and there is (obviously) some truth to it. We can cause a horse to behave badly, merely by expecting bad behavior. Quite right. It is always good to begin in a confident, relaxed frame of mind. However, it is also true that many horses, like people, have habits that they will not lose easily, and it is best to be aware of this and not live in dreamland while you are working with them. Again, this is the equivalent of the woman with the abusive husband saying that she should not assume he will hit her again—that she just needs to trust that he isn’t the person he was yesterday. This does not usually work out, as I think we all know. I am not saying horses are abusive. I am saying that a horse who has dumped you purposely and repeatedly, or consistently misbehaved in some way, is very likely to try that stunt again.
There are some extreme examples of this sort of thing that I have witnessed, and I want to give one here. A woman I knew very slightly raised horses and had a stallion that appeared to me (and many others) to be dangerously rank. He seemed to be getting worse as he got older—to all around him but his owner. This woman handled her stallion herself and would not hear the many well meant warnings directed her way. She said the horse loved her, that she trusted him, that he was her ‘heart horse” and that his obviously disrespectful behavior meant nothing—just a charade. That horse killed her. I mean that literally. He picked her up and broke her neck. She died.
The point of this story is not that your horse who is acting disrespectfully (in my opinion) will kill you—though she might. The point is that this trust concept can be taken to ridiculously blind and dangerous levels. Trust should ALWAYS be based on a realistic ability to read the horse. If the horse is communicating that he/she does not respect you and feels free to behave in dangerous ways in your company, the next step is NOT to extend more trust. The next step is to let that horse know that behavior is unacceptable…period. Every horse is different, so I will not generalize on what can be done to correct a given horse. If you are not horseman enough to remain in charge of a particular horse, you should probably not be riding/handling that horse. And there are horses that are dangerous for even a very competent horseman to deal with.
(I would like to add in here that, of course, no one is ever really “in charge.” The best horses can do unpredictable and violent things on rare occasions, and hey, guess what, the asteroid could hit the planet while you are out riding. You’re not gonna be in charge then. And certainly, when I was breaking and training young horses, I was not always completely “in charge” at any given moment. That’s pretty much impossible. But I had the skills to deal with this and guide the horse toward a working partnership with me as the leader. By “in charge”, for the purposes of this post, I mean that your horse accepts your leadership and respects your direction. I think it unwise for a person to handle/ride a horse that feels free to disobey said rider/handler, unless that rider/handler has the skills to train the horse not to do that.)
And again, just thinking/believing/hoping that a horse who is habitually spooky or cinchy can be “different” today—that the past is not a predictor of the future—can be dangerously naïve. We can say that about people, too, but I’m afraid that, though it can be true that people change, it is more often true that they behave in the ways they’re familiar with. This is true of horses, too.
Let me give some examples. My horse, Gunner, who I loved dearly, was a huge spook. He never dumped me—mostly because I was always prepared for him to spook. Gunner always meant well; he was a sensitive, reactive horse with a very sudden startle response that was easily triggered (this is also what made him an effective cutting horse). Gunner did not run away or get out of control; he made one big jump and that was it. My uncle, an experienced horseman, wanted to rope on Gunner. I said sure. I warned him that Gunner was a huge spook, and he pooh poohed this. My uncle, the tough rodeo cowboy, was not worried by my spooky but gentle gelding. Well. Uncle Todd roped on Gunner and Gunner spooked and Uncle Todd, not prepared, came off. Next practice, same thing. Next practice, again. And Uncle Todd got up off the ground and swore he’d never ride Gunner again. Me? I roped on that horse for years and never came off of him. Why? Because I was always ready for him to spook…and ready to grab the saddle horn. I did not “extend my trust” or assume Gunner wouldn’t dump me. I assumed he’d do what he usually did…and we got along fine.
Every horse is different. Its really important to understand the message that your horse is sending you and respond appropriately. A horse can be afraid to get in the trailer. And a horse can refuse to get in the trailer, not because he’s afraid but because he doesn’t want to. He’s been hauled before and hauling just means going somewhere to work. He doesn’t feel like working today. He doesn’t choose to get in that trailer. This happened to me with a strong minded gelding named Lester. I was alone. I knew what was in Lester’s mind. I whaled on him with the end of the leadrope a bit and he gave it up and stepped into the trailer. Then he put his head under my arm. “Sorry, you win, boss.” Lester never resisted being loaded again. I hate to think how that smart little guy would have behaved in the future if I had not understood that he needed to be reprimanded that day.
Many horses will stop on an uphill climb and “ask” to take a breather. I always understand this request. I don’t always honor it. Here’s why. My Sunny horse is a basically lazy critter who will ask for a breather before he is even close to being out of breath (on a given day, in a certain mood). If I always allow the horse to stop when he chooses I would shortly have a horse who stops ten times in fifty feet. The next thing that happens is the horse resists going on when you ask him to. This horse has now decided he’s in charge and he’d rather not climb this hill. If you do not respond to this balking behavior with a very firm reprimand, you will find yourself going back towards the barn against your will. And once that happens, your horse and you have a dangerous problem.
On the other hand, I always understand what my horse is asking, and if I feel his request is legitimate (he is huffing and getting out of breath) I let him stand and take a breather. I absolutely never push my horses past what is good for them. But anyone who supposes that a horse only asks for a “breather” when he is truly tired has not ridden very many horses. It is important to remain in charge and be able to say, “no, we’re not stopping here,” and have your direction honored if you wish to have a good working partnership.
How about spooking? In my experience, spooking is usually a genuine startle response and should mostly be handled by the rider sitting loose, not pulling on the reins or gripping with the legs. Basically the rider responds by “ignoring” the spook, remaining calm and confident and relaxed, allowing the horse to take a good look and realize its not a big deal, and then asking the horse to go on. If the horse attempts to run off after he spooks, he should be stopped, if possible (duh). (Usually one rein is best for this.) If he won’t stop he is either panicked or disrespectful of your leadership, and you really need to be horseman enough to know the difference if you want to ride such a horse. I do not think it wise for anyone but a deeply experienced rider to ride a horse that has the potential to bolt blindly out of panic. Habitual bolters are almost impossible to cure—many of them learned this behavior because they did not respect their rider. The in between is a horse like Sunny, who will (rarely) spook and offer a “mini-bolt” –a second jump away from the “scary” object. This is testing behavior. Sunny is mildly startled (if that) and is using the spook as a way of seeing if I’m still in charge up there. I ignore any one jump spook (a startle) and carry on; the spook with a second jump gets a reprimand (in this horse’s case). Why? Because I am reading the testing for dominance in the second jump. Sunny is not truly afraid. How do I know I’m right? After the reprimand (a sharp one rein pop), he marches right by the supposedly scary object. You can read his body language perfectly. Relaxed, confident, accepting. OK, boss, you win.
And as for bolting, it is not always a fear response. When I was training a young horse named Danny and had reached the stage where Danny was actually having to do some work, this very intelligent horse tried several evasions. He bucked—didn’t get me off—and then, when I once again kicked this fairly lazy colt up to the lope, he took off, running as hard as he could. I read the testing in his “bolt” and, since I was in a big well fenced arena, I made him run—and run and run. I made him run until he begged to quit. That horse never tried to bolt again. Would this work on all bolters? No. A horse who is bolting in panic—or is not quite there mentally, or is a habitual bolter—is liable to run through a fence with you. Danny was bolting in a trial way, his mind was calm, and he wasn’t sure if he could dominate the situation with this behavior. I showed him he could not. End of problem. Danny was testing me and I read him accurately and was able to respond appropriately. I did not extend my trust and try to believe that Danny meant well and wouldn’t hurt me, nor did I fall for the idea that the poor little guy was scared. I reprimanded Danny in an effective way for this bad behavior (by running him until he was sick of running) and taught him not to do this in the future.
Now I want to get down to something that I have seen with folks who did not either “read” a horse correctly, or believed some sort of fairy tale about what the horse was really about. Like the woman with the rank stallion (who is with us no longer) I have frequently seen well intentioned people interacting with horses in a way that was obviously going to end in a wreck (in my eyes). Most of the time these folks were ignoring the basic rule of staying in charge. They were “playing” with the horse in an attempt to imitate the Clinton Anderson video on the sidebar, or standing in a vulnerable position without paying proper attention to what the horse was communicating, or riding a horse that was ignoring their direction. A lot of times they were taught by some horse guru or other to do these things. And the results were often disasterous. For both the people and the horse.
There is a certain trainer around here who makes a practice of putting inexperienced students up on not-yet-broke horses for their first ride and turning the several colts and riders loose in the arena together—the colts wearing only halters. “Trust your horse,” he says to the frightened riders on the equally frightened colts . Do you know how many people and horses have been hurt this way? And how unpleasant every horse I ever knew that came from him turned out? I don’t want to belabor this point—we’ll just say that many people and horses got hurt and most colts sent to him turned out resentful and pushy. The man himself made a practice of jumping on unbroken colts in the parking lot as the owner dropped them off—again wearing only the halter. Very flashy and impressive when it worked. And then he got dumped and badly hurt. I don’t believe he pulls that stunt any more. And it was all about “extending your trust”. God knows how many people have been injured who were taught by this man (and others like him) to place themselves in inappropriately vulnerable positions when dealing with horses and then “trust the horse”. I don’t think that’s admirable. I think its stupid. And not good for people or horses.
I guess you can see that this phrase, “trusting the horse,” has a lot of connotations for me, and they are not all positive. I have seen this concept used in the worst possible way, doing great harm. I also think it has the potential to do much good. I have myself extended trust to sensitive, willing, reactive horses and seen them blossom into reliable riding horses. I have extended trust to tough minded, solid old horses and had them guide me. Like many things I have written about, it is another gray area. I believe that like most things in life, the best path here is the middle road.
The bottom line is that the most important thing is that neither you or your horse get hurt. Extending trust to your horse is not worth a year in which you can’t ride and can only hobble about painfully. Its not worth it to your horse if he gets hurt and can only hobble. Better to forgo whatever emotional benefit you might derive from “trusting” a horse who is sending you signals he plans on bolting, bucking or otherwise unloading you, and instead try to be aware and keep both of you in one piece. And how do you do this? By staying firmly in charge, and if you can’t stay in charge, not handling/riding that horse until you get some effective help. And if you are in that select camp of very experienced riders (or riders who are young and brave enough not to mind risking life and limb) and feel it is worth it to you to work with very green horses or horses with difficult behavioral problems, more power and good luck to you. I was once in that camp but am no longer. I totally admire those who are willing and able to do this work effectively.
So my message for today is that I believe that extending trust can reap great benefits if the individual (horse or human) is sending you the signal that he/she is ready to be trustworthy. If the message is clearly not that, remain on your guard for the sort of behavior the horse is warning you he may pull. It ain’t worth it folks. Be careful about extending trust to those who are clearly saying they aren’t trustworthy.
And, to close on a positive note, extending trust when a horse is indicating he will come through for you is a way to move forward in your relationship with that horse. You just have to be able to read the horse.
(Please feel free to give your own take on this subject in the comments. I always enjoy hearing other views, even if they don’t agree with mine. That’s what makes it interesting.)