Developing Trust with Your Horse

Haflinger jumping four feet

Pippin, age 6.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to ride at the Washington State Horse Expo. With the help of my Haflinger Pippin, and friends Kelsy and Huxley, we demonstrated and discussed trust between horse and rider. Here’s a summary…

Trust (verb): to rely upon or place confidence in someone or something.”

For human beings trust is twofold:

  1. We can experience trust as a feeling; an emotional experience
  2. We can also choose to trust or choose not to trust using rational decision-making skills

But horses don’t have the same brains as people. They don’t have the highly developed prefrontal cortex like we do, allowing us to use sophisticated reasoning skills. In all likelihood then, trust for horses is strictly a feeling. And since horses are prey animals by nature, for them to feel trust in us they must feel safe and secure in our presence.

Getting Your Horse to Trust You

When people ask me how do you get a horse to trust you, I usually answer by having them answer for themselves. Like this:

  • Think of a person who you trust; someone that you feel you can trust with your own safety, even with your life
  • What characteristics does this person exhibit?

Many people will describe someone they can trust as:

  • Dependable/reliable/predictable
  • Fair/honest
  • Someone who looks out for your best interests
  • Someone who holds you accountable, sets boundaries, teaches you right from wrong, etc.

If you want your horse to trust you, why not try acting like a trustworthy person? Bring the trustworthy qualities you admire in others to the barn with you. Here’s some examples of what that might look like:

  • Dependable/reliable/predictable – Be CONSISTENT in your communication and behaviors with your horse. Establish predictable patterns in your training. Use emotional intelligence around your horse. Put in the hours to get to know and train your horse, rain or shine.
  • Fair/honest – Use appropriate levels of correction when your horse makes a mistake. Communicate in ways that make sense to your horse. Own up to your own limitations or mistakes and don’t automatically blame your horse when challenges crop up.
  • Look out for your horse’s best interests – Take good care of your horse. Make sure you’re meeting their basic needs (shelter, health, nutrition, herd) and then some. Set your horse up for success; avoid putting them in situations in which they are bound to fail. Better yourself as a rider and always work to improve your own skills.
  • Hold them accountable – Help your horse understand clearly what good choices and what bad choices are. Don’t let them partake in dangerous behavior around people. Set healthy boundaires on the ground and under saddle. Reward them when they try and when they succeed.

“Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time.” – Susan Heathfield

Trusting Yourself

Before we go any farther on the topic of trust, the therapist in me wants to comment. One of the most helpful ways to get others to trust you, or for you to learn to trust in others (horses or humans alike) is to start by learning to trust yourself first. Hopefully you feel like you can trust yourself, at least most of the time. However, this may not be the case for everyone, especially if you’ve experienced trauma, neglect, unhealthy relationships, or other challenges. There are many, many ways to begin working on your own internal trust issues, such as reading self-help books or articles, journaling, doing assertiveness training, attending seminars, working with a trained mental health professional, and more.

“A man who doesn’t trust himself can never truly trust anyone else.” – Cardinal de Retz

Trusting Your Horse

Horse without a bridle

Solar, an ex-racehorse. Frogster Photography.

As mentioned, for humans trust can be a choice. You can sit back and evaluate your horse in a given situation and decide–using logical thinking–whether or not it’s a good idea to trust. Are you genuinely safe in the situation? Can you place confidence in your horse and rely upon them? Is that the best choice for all involved?

If you’re an experienced horse person who can recognize your own skills and the skills/mindset of horses, then it may be very easy for you to know when to trust a horse–you probably do this automatically without much conscious thought. But this isn’t the case for all riders, especially riders who are still developing their communication skills with horses.

I think it’s helpful to remember that you can choose NOT to trust your horse in situations in which it may not be a good idea to do so. For example, here are some situations where you might choose not to rely on your horse with complete confidence, but instead rely more on yourself to support your horse:

  • Working with a horse you’ve never met before
  • Handling your horse in a new, unpredictable environment
  • Working with a horse who has potentially hazardous holes in their training or issues that you are aware of (for ex: a horse that has a dog phobia in a situation where there are dogs)
  • Working with an injured horse who is in pain
  • You yourself are injured or have physical limitations you can’t cope with

Choosing not to trust certain horses at certain times doesn’t mean you are a bad person or a bad rider, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t work to develop trust with your horse eventually or for most of your time together. Automatically assuming you are safe in every situation with every horse can be downright dangerous. Furthermore, being able to have total confidence and reliance on a horse is something that usually develops over time, as you both learn and build a relationship together. Trust is one of the rewards of developing a partnership with a horse.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” – William Shakespeare

So what if you do think/feel you can trust your horse? If you’ve evaluated your horse in the present moment (remember, horses live in the present moment!) and you feel that you two are on the same page, with good communication, then you can experiment with choosing to trust your horse. Stay within your comfort zone if this is new for you; seek support when you need it. Having trust in your horse can be expressed in different ways, unique to each horse and rider. Here are some ways that riders may demonstrate trust in their horse, though there are countless others:

  • Allowing your horse to move more forward in their rhythm
  • Riding with lighter aids
  • Following your horse’s lead
  • Riding without a saddle or bridle
  • Relying on your horse to make certain decisions, such as judging the distance to a jump or knowing what part of a river to cross
  • Riding in a new place

The level of trust you give your horse will depend on the unique relationship you have with them. The better you know them, and the better you two work together, the more you will be able to trust one another.

Video clips of Pip and Huxley at the Washington State Horse Expo:

Continued reading about trust between horse and rider from around the web:

2 Responses to “Developing Trust with Your Horse”

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  1. allison says:

    Great post! Trust is something Shy and I have been struggling with and we are finally getting to a point where she trusts that I won’t hurt her (her background was unknown, but seems she came from an abusive place at one point) and I can trust that she won’t melt down and hurt me. It is a great feeling.

  2. Chesna Kimek says:

    You’ve done a great job with her Allison and I love that you chronicle it on your blog! I find that the horses who start out a little insecure/mistrustful often make the best partners in the longrun because they value a safe relationship a little more than the overly confident/extroverted horses. Pip started out as a very shy foal and learned quickly to enjoy having a “partner in crime” to look out for his best interests. Thanks for your comment.

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