A Beginner’s Guide to Building Trust in a Horse
Equestrian Bloggers have only become a popular phenomenon in the last year or so. Lately, many riders with a gift for pen and paper (so to speak) have not only begun to chronicle their journey with horses, but also to form a network of authors to bring riders together from all over. I met Heather Wallace of Bridle & Bone through a Facebook group centered around encouraging one another in our equine blogging journey. She has asked me to share today about kind practices with horses that apply to all experience levels.
Developing Trust from Day One
There are so many things to learn as a new rider. Basic safety is enough to make your head spin. Don’t be loud? Don’t stand where? Do what if my horse goes nuts? Then you have the technical aspect: how to get on the horse, where your feet go, how to hold the reins. Though you receive so much input as a beginning rider, there is one principle that is equally or more important than the rest: developing trust in the horses you encounter.
When I was a novice rider, I spent several years in show parks. I worked with competitive trainers who were show-focused with their pupils. As a result, I learned a lot very quickly about the showing world, terminology, and making the horse do things. When horses misbehaved, the quickest route to “fixing” them was through escalating punishment, where we started small and got more exaggerated the longer they didn’t listen. Kicking, spurring, smacking, and crops were all involved. I eventually became a ball of nerves before every lesson, because I hated having to do this.
The worst part of it all was playing Russian Roulette with their emotions. The horses could explode at any given time by taking off around the arena, bolting, bucking, rearing, flailing. And when those times came, I held on for dear life while trying to get them back under control. Eventually, I stumbled upon a trainer who was different. She had horses who were equally relaxed and polite as they were talented. She spent time communicating and listening to her horses, instead of focusing on making them perform.
It wasn’t until she taught me about trust and communication with horses that I really blossomed as a rider and deeply loved the time at the barn. All horses that I encountered from then on were gems with their own history, personality, and strengths. Through a trust-oriented approach, even the most challenging horses could become delightful to ride. The beauty of this principle is that you can begin to practice it from the very day you begin horseback riding. Here are four areas to build trust with horses, no matter how much or how little experience you have.
This is where most beginners’ questions start, and rightly so. There are a few things that everyone should know to not accept from any horse. Things like running past you when you lead them, biting, kicking, and impatient stomping. There are also more nuanced boundaries, like what kind of attitudes you will and won’t accept. Think of the horse as a 1,200-pound toddler, capable of fits when they don’t get what they want, invading your personal space, and insisting on calling the shots. These dominance struggles can be curbed quickly with a jerk to their lead rope or quick circle in the arena.
Without boundaries, there is no trust. Horses, as much as people, need to know what to expect of you and what you expect of them. To do this, you need to know ahead of time what you will and will not accept behaviorally from the horse. If they struggle with dominance, there may be some arguments from them at first, but in the end, every horse is more settled knowing their limitations. If you are weak in your expectations and inconsistent with your punishments, the horse will be confused.
Confusion in a horse spawns fear, which at the very least will cause an attitude, and at the very most, an explosion of bucking, rearing, or taking off. Most horses you will encounter as a beginner will know the basics of politeness and under saddle training, but every rider is responsible for towing that line of acceptable behavior. In doing so, the horse will feel secure by knowing the comfort zone of their boundaries.
Kindness is perhaps the most intensely effective practice among horses, yet it is not widely taught as such. This is where I see a lot of riders trained wrongly in their approach. Kindness is the balance to boundaries. Often when riders are new, they are taught consequences for their horses violating the basic boundaries outlined above. Consequences should be fair, consistent, and far from harmful. Kindness is the practical buffer in boundaries because it bars cruelty from entering the training process. So, when a horse misbehaves, don’t let it define your whole lesson or experience with that horse. Correct the behavior; don’t let your punishment escalate. This is where people become harsh: when turning the discipline into a power-trip. The notion sounds silly, but it is actually very easy to do. Read more about this phenomenon in my article, Punishing Your Horse is Not the Point.
When we work with horses, especially at the beginning, we juggle our own fears and doubts: “Am I doing everything correctly? What am I missing? Does the horse even understand what I’m trying to communicate? What if he tries to buck me off? Or run over me?”
These fears that creep in make us feel vulnerable. And what we humans do with vulnerability is either back away in timidity, or overreact in aggression, hoping that the horse will be afraid of us enough to mind us. But the alternative is to be kind: even in our discipline, to ask questions of the horse. Your horse isn’t always misbehaving to be ornery. There could be underlying fear, pain sources, or general inexperience. Discipline when necessary, but otherwise be gentle, patient, and considerate of your horse’s circumstances. Considering the horse’s needs and potential fear factors could help understand any underlying behavioral issues. This will enhance the trust between you and your horse, because they will know that even in correction, you have their back.
Natural flight and prey animals, horses notice our nerves. There will be things that happen outside of your realm of control when riding. But if you are already smart about safety and boundaries, you are as prepared as you’ll ever be. So, relax. Horses are more instinctually intuitive about danger than anything else. This is their natural defense mechanism in the wild, so they know how to read others very well. So, to counteract any nerves, take a deep breath, and focus on the outcome you want, not the outcome you fear. Read more about how to deal with riding jitters in my article How to Not Lose Your Nerve in a Lesson.
When fears arise before or during a ride, I have made a habit of noticing and externalizing them quickly. I call them “tape-recorder fears,” because they replay in my mind, over and over again. I fixate on something that could happen, and repeat it to the point where it seems like it will definitely happen. To get that constant narrative out of my head, I say them out loud. If no one is around, I will tell my fears to my horse. “I’m afraid that as soon as we get to the trail, you will spook.” Getting these fears out in the open will help you reason not only the likelihood of the feared event, but also will allow you to make an action plan in the case that it happens, then let it go.
Being relaxed will keep you open to learning. If you work with a trainer or a friend as a beginner, be open to critique. Experienced riders can help you with technique and understanding of the horse. Relaxing will reassure your horse that you have things under control, and that will produce a better ride together. Mutual trust will grow between you and your horse as you walk through new experiences (especially the scary ones!) together.
4. Embrace Imperfection
Let’s get this out of the way. You are not perfect. No horse you will ever handle will be perfect. Riding will never be perfect. But, in all the imperfection, it will be beautiful. The joy of riding is in collaborating with your horse to continue learning and improving together.
Horseback riding comes down to a partnership between you and the horse. Even the most advanced riders will tell you that the sport is not all about talent. They didn’t get to where they are without the participation of a horse with heart. Embracing imperfection will keep you learning and growing without the unhealthy pressure on your horse. Your horse is not an instrument of success, he is your partner in crime. Approaching them this way will keep you focused on building your bond, and not on blaming them for mistakes or lack of accomplishment.
This is how people work with rescues or otherwise troubled horses: Through the trust-oriented approach, they isolate their areas of trauma and gently lead them through it. The fact is, though, that no horse will be perfect and free of fear. You have the unique privilege with every horse to meet them at their imperfections, walk with them through their insecurities, and unleash a resilient horse.
How you choose to handle your horse will define you as a rider. The joy of riding came for me when, after years of doing things the opposite way, I learned to how to proactively build trust in my horses. Any technique applied through this filter of trust will cause every horse you ride to yield long-term results.
In a sea of training methods that teach achievement is more important than connection, be the one who looks out for the horse above all else. You will undoubtedly find yourself in love with time at the barn, and cause you and your horse’s talents to rise to the surface.
Would you like to learn more about horse communication and connection-based riding?
Author Bio: Lindsey Rains is an equestrian blogger and creator of Alta Mira Horsemanship. She focuses on communication between horses and handlers, with an emphasis in kind training tactics. She resides in Auburn, WA, USA, with her husband, and daylights as a non-profit administrator. Visit my blog. You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
What a great piece and lovely to see the Equestrain blogger network creating great partnerships!
Thanks! I really enjoyed reading Lindsey’s post and think that trust is incredibly important. Without trust we can’t have respect.
Wow! I love every word of this. I think the boundaries thing is especially important, although overlooked in our industry. I see so many horses confused about what they can and can’t get away with and it affects their work ethic. A horse that doesn’t understand his boundaries will be constantly testing them to find out where they lie. And teaching boundaries is so easy as long as you are consistent. Thank you for bringing this to the table. i think developing trust should be #1 priority for all riders.
I absolutely agree. Boundaries are incredibly important and to build trust positively but with respect is such a balance. Lindsey gave some great points for us to follow.
” every horse is more settled knowing their limitations” YES! I wish someone had told me this when I first got Vallu as I spent a lot of time trying to get him to like me instead of figuring out our relationship and setting him boundaries which would have helped him feel more comfortable with me!
I think affection comes with trust, time, and patience. I know they don’t learn the same way, but when I brought my dogs home the first thing was teach them manners. They learned to respect their boundaries. They probably love me more than anyone else in the family (except my dad who plays with them constantly). Horses are very similar.
I’d make patience one of the headers too 🙂
Our patience can certainly be tested! The trick is not letting it get to us and color our actions. That never ends well.