The most important tool I have in my toolbox for training horses- can you guess? It’s not some magical bit. It’s not a perfectly fitting saddle. It’s not a special formula of training. It’s not even words of wisdom from a great trainer. While some of these things are on the top of my list, they’re not the most important. My most important tool is building trust in my horse. It sounds cliche, it sounds cheesy. I’m not going to go on full on relationship advice on you here. But, what is the base for all great relationships? Trust. Your relationship with your horse should be no different.
Why is it so important that your horse trust you? Well, I don’t know about you, but when I climb on a 1200 pound animal, I really want it to do what I say. We all know that if the horse does not do what you say, it can end very very badly. Like I’ve said in some of my previous posts, I’m 5’3 and about 120 lbs. If the horse that I am riding decides for some reason, that they don’t trust me, and that they should make their own decisions, I’m going to get hurt. Some riders that were blessed with 6 ft long legs might be able to hold on and “muscle” their way to making the horse listen. Yeah, not an option for me. But that’s not the only option. I believe so strongly in the importance of building a relationship with your horse, and most importantly, building trust.
Example. Say you hired a personal trainer. If your personal trainer came in and immediately asked you to do 100 push-ups and then go run 8 miles, without knowing if you can do it or not, are you going to trust him the next time you come in? Probably not. But if your personal trainer started from the beginning, doing a light warm up, assessing what you are capable of, and then slowly building strength, never asking you to do something that he knew you would struggle with, he would slowly build your trust. Before you knew it, he would be asking you to do things that you weren’t sure if you could do, but you knew your trainer knew your capabilities so you would trust him and try it.
As riders, we have the horses well being literally in our hands. We have a big challenge. A big challenge to earn the trust of a 1200 lb animal. I personally think that a lot of this trust is formed in the barn, before you even put the saddle on. I’ve always groomed my own horses, and a lot of the times, been the one feeding them and taking care of them. I completely understand that a lot of trainers simply don’t have the time to tack up each horse that they have in training. But I believe there is a lot of bonding time there. Again, not trying to be a relationship advise column here, but you truly are building a relationship with your horse and that also requires time to bond. In the 20 minutes it takes to tack up your horse, you will learn a lot. You’ll feel his whole body as you brush him, you’ll find out if he has any sore muscles or swelling in the legs. All things that you will need to take into account before you start your work session. Personal trainers are able to ask a person how they are feeling, if anything is hurting and they will get a verbal response. Unfortunately for the horse, that’s not an option, so it is our responsibility as the rider, to figure out how they are feeling and if anything is bothering them. If we don’t pay attention to these things, and then get on a horse with a sore back and ask for a ton of collected work, we’re not building trust. When I start training a new horse, I immediately start to find his limits. When I’m riding, how much pressure can he take? I don’t want to push him past his comfort zone and make him nervous about new things in training. I try to make it as playful as possible, making it more of a game instead of intimidating him into doing something. We have to let our horses know we are putting their best interest first. Not just physically, but also mentally.
When I took my stallion to his first show, when I first sat in the saddle, I could feel his tension. We all know that feeling. The feeling of “I’m on a very nervous 4 year old and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next”. I had two options. I could continue to feel nervous myself and not give him any reassurance. Or, I could take a deep breath and be his mom. I took option 2. How could I ask him to preform and act like everything was ok when I was nervous myself? I sat up, took a deep breath, loosened all my muscles, gave him a big pat and said you know what you’re fine, trust me let’s go. And my little baby stallion took a huge breath and relaxed his whole body. That was a proud moment for me. I knew I had 100% of his trust. He was scared but because I said everything would be ok, he trusted me and went on to work. Now, as a 6 year old, he rarely gets scared of anything. Because he knows that I wouldn’t ask him to do anything that I knew would put us or him in danger.
Bottom line, trust takes a long time to build. We have to earn it. And we have to continue to work to keep it. Spend time with your horse. Learn what he loves, learn what he hates. You will both be happy about the results!