Trust and knowing are two very important elements in horsemanship. Horse riding is, or at least should be, a union between rider and horse, Ray hunt said “this is my body, my mind…maybe not yet, but one day…” – for the horseman that certainly should be the goal, and one that is far more important than winning awards. When you feel a connection with a horse, it is a feeling like no other.
To get to that feeling you must have trust, to have trust you must have knowledge, you must have some knowledge of how horses think, perceive, react, are comforted, and in that knowledge you must be able to believe your horse will make the right decision. Letting go and trusting is easy for the horse, but it is a real challenge for humans. Humans don’t even trust each other, yet horses do.
Once a pecking order is established in a herd, a horse will trust its leader, when a horse jumps, another horse might react in unison, because they trust that their herd mate saw or heard something (danger). For the horse it is a matter of survival, they know their place in the herd and they trust each other to be vigilant, to be alert, and looking for threats to the herd.
Sadly, perhaps, for humans we don’t trust each other at anywhere near the same level – we are suspicious and cynical by nature. When someone tells you to run, you feel a need to know why you should run – but not the horse, he knows his life depends on his speed, he acts first and asks questions afterwards. Your horse may startle at a squirrel, what you do next will either give him comfort or confirm his fears.
If you startle and pull on him, or spur him, for upsetting you, or grab the reins just to hang on for dear life, you have probably confirmed with him that something scary just happened and he should run. It is that (human) fear of the unknown, the fear that comes from not knowing from not trusting that breaks your relationship with your horse. More than merely confirming his fear you are conveying the message to him that you cannot be trusted.
Ironically, you want him to trust you, but you are not, under those circumstances, willing to share a bond of trust. Many a wreck has occurred from a fearful rider, pulling on the reins at the wrong time to (in their mind) secure their seat and gain control over the horse. Control is not necessary in a trusting relationship. If you take the time to watch a herd in a pasture, one might jump causing the others to jump and start to run, then the first one stops, realizing it was only a squirrel, and the others will follow suit, no one is controlling their behaviour.
Perhaps if you were able to trust your horse enough not to jerk the reins, to have enough self-confidence in your riding ability to ride his startle, or short run, and redirect his energy, you might restore his faith in you. Some people pull a horse around into a very dangerous so called “one rein stop” – jerking their horse off balance in order that they may bail off. If you watch the old cowboy movies of horses dramatically falling at the gallop – they had their heads pulled around.
Another Ray Hunt quote fits the bill; “You say ‘Oh he might spook, he might buck, he might fall down, he might rear.’ So, look what he’s working with. He knows you can’t handle it, and that don’t make him wrong to know that you can’t handle it. And he might do any of those things because something might scare him or he might slip and fall at any time and yet the people can’t handle that, but they want to go on with their horse. If he turns around quick, they fall off.”
Trust is not unidirectional, it cuts both ways, you want me to trust you, but you tell me you don’t trust me, how can I possibly solve that paradox? Most riders learn to ride forwards, they learn to ride at a walk, trot, and lope. Some learn to back a horse up, a few might learn to leg yield, in each case they have only learned to go (or sit) in one direction, forwards.
Horses can turn, they can move quickly to the side as well and they can change leads, they have been doing it their whole life. Perhaps you should catch up, and realize that you never taught a horse to do any of these things, you have only been learning how to request that the horse does so when you ask, and if you ask nicely, it’s amazing what they will do for you – when you know, and they trust that you know. Seek knowledge and trust will come.