TRUE TRAINING 16 - What Does Trust Look Like?

Jul 15, 2020 by Janet Jones

          One of the many reasons to use brain-based training is that it builds trust within the horse-and-human team. Think about it in human terms—we trust those who understand how we think and approach or avoid new experiences more than we trust those who do not. The same is true for horses. To inspire trust in a horse, first we have to be able to identify it. How does a trusting horse behave? What does he do in a new situation? What does equine trust look like?


          Of course, we look for cues in the horse’s body language while he is uncertain or frightened. How does he respond to human guidance during these interludes? A horse who trusts his human will look to her for help, moving his eyes, ears, and sometimes head briefly in her direction. Sometimes he will step more closely to her. This “check-in” behavior occurs even while most of the horse’s attention is captivated by the new event or object. Calming signals occur in this trusted human’s presence, though they might be very subtle—relaxation at the top of the tail, slight lowering of the head, a little softening in the neck muscles. But True has given me even clearer examples of budding trust to share with you.


          About two months after True arrived, I trailered him to a small local fairgrounds for some exposure. I chose a quiet time of day, because a little exposure goes a long way with a young horse. Baby steps! He was comfortable in the trailer thanks to a lot of short pleasant practice experiences. He had visited this fairgrounds during a very small schooling show once before, so it wasn’t brand new.


          (My choice of the “Halloween Spooktacular” for True’s first visit to a small schooling show was a mistake. Ponies were wearing sequinned capes and glittered unicorn horns, quarter horses sported skin-tight body-con spandex, and riders were decked out in floppy glow-in-the-dark skeleton suits or flying floor-length white mesh gowns. I was amazed, but poor True was floored. He stuck with me, eyes the size of saucers. His reward? We left early!)


          On the day of our second visit, the fairgrounds was empty except for one horse in a stall, who was upset at being alone. I turned my three-year-old loose in the large covered arena and stood in the center paying no apparent attention to him. I wanted True to have an hour or so to explore the arena on his own. That was the full mission of our trip—there was no riding, longeing, grooming, exercising, or potential difficulty on the agenda.


          True’s trust demo occurred after about 10 minutes. He was sniffing a corner of the arena while I remained silent in the center. All of a sudden, the stalled horse busted a move, and a pigeon banged against a rafter above True’s head. His tail shot straight up and off he went at racing pace. To flee these hazards, he could have run to the farthest corners or sides of the arena or perhaps to his trailer. But no: True Blue ran flat out straight to me. He stopped near my elbow, extended his nose, and gently touched my arm. I was his trust point, his trailhead, his protection from Stranger Danger. All this even though I was positioned much closer to the fright site than many other areas he could have reached.


          I stroked True once, said something dumb like “it’s OK” (so-called “horse whisperers” think up the strangest things), and ignored him. He stayed with me for a moment, then walked back to the initial corner cautiously on his own. This was his exploration at his speed, not mine. By the time we left, he was comfortable with the arena… and all the more trusting in me.


          Now, most people would view this scene as “sweet” or “young,” but the fact is that you’d be hard pressed to find a stronger sign of a young horse’s early trust. When something is wrong, he wants his trusted human first and foremost. A lot of what I do with horses—catch training, foot lifting, ear trimming, a hundred home practices with trailer loading and tying—is designed partly to teach the lesson but even more to instill the trust. Learn how your horse’s brain works, and you can prove to him that you’re trustworthy, too.