Consistency is wonderful as long as you consistently do the right things. Like any progressive learning process, testing reveals the degree of mastery over subject matter and the effectiveness of the teaching.
Part 1 of this series is a deep-dive into the primary reason your horse doesn’t trust you: inconsistency. This part introduces the next two ways you sabotage trust: failing to test and failing to focus on details. Part 3 discusses the final three items on the list.
If you’ve started or ridden enough green horses, you know that they often seem forgetful near gates or the barn. Suddenly, they fail to steer or maintain straightness. I’ve never met a horse that forgot, but I’ve ridden a hundred or more who did the same thing.
The horses didn’t forget, they just wanted to go out the gate or back to the barn. This is one example of a horse testing his rider.
(Additional links to Parts 1 and 3 also appear at the end of this post.)
6 WAYS YOU SABOTAGE TRUST
- Failure to Test
- Failure to Focus on Detail
- Broken Promises
- Moving too Fast
My first reaction to someone who says, “Trust me,” is the opposite; I suspect them. Trust is earned, the result of words and actions walking in unison, a gift received from someone who knows your history and consistency.
My husband was only 45 years old in 1986. In the space of a week he went from normal with a little stress to critically ill with Stage 4 colon cancer. Our neighbor was a pathologist and recommended an internist who diagnosed the cancer without sending tissue to pathology.
After a Lower-GI, the internist came to find me in the hospital waiting room. I’d never met him and my husband saw him for the first time just five days earlier.
“Your husband has a classic apple core tumor that’s already spread outside of the colon.”
That was Monday morning.
Tuesday morning my husband collapsed in the shower, his hemoglobin too low to guarantee consciousness. After multiple transfusions, my husband had a large portion of his colon removed.
Stage 4 Cancer
The surgeon found Stage 4 cancer that included a bad lymph node, giving my husband a 35% chance to live five years. Doctor Rose, one of the internist group we’d never met, came into my husband’s hospital room to introduce himself.
I asked if we should find an oncologist or if he would refer one.
“You don’t need an oncologist.”
I found that difficult to believe. Stage 4 cancer and no oncologist? What about follow-up treatments?
“He doesn’t need any.”
Being familiar with docs, hospitals, and the medical community myself, that didn’t feel right. I pushed back with a few more questions.
Walking to where I sat by my husband’s feet on his bed, the good Doctor Rose PATTED me on the back and said:
My acidic reply was, “Trust you? I don’t know you!”
Curiously, I remember Dr. Rose’s name, but not the names of the original internist and surgeon. Annoyance is always a stronger memory than the routine.
Invading someone’s personal space is a privilege. That’s true for people and horses. Trust is earned.
Trust is Earned
You may be 100% correct and confident in what you offer your horse, but until your horse believes in YOU, trust won’t happen. Trust comes from challenges met, promises kept, and confidence in your character that develops from the first seed of relationship.
To deserve trust, you must be constant “in season and out of season”, giving others the benefit of any doubt, whether they are horse or human.
The basis of trust is who you are and the value of your word.
Failure to Test
When tested, faith grows. The evidence of faith is peace, contentment, serenity, and hope. Anger, anxiety, and aggression have the same emotional root—fear.
As a horse learns to trust you, his flight or fight response weakens until it seldom, if ever, surfaces. You can only deal or reason with the thinking side of his personality. The process involves creating trust, building foundation, proving your leadership, then maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.
Each lesson builds upon the last. When you have to choose between two outcomes in a lesson or challenge, always pick the one that proves you trustworthy, even if that means applying a correction or consequence.
Over thirty years, and too many horses to count, I’ve learned that horses test their owners more than owners test their horses.
Horses Test When the Risk is Small
Horses are better people trainers than we are horse trainers. One valuable lesson is about testing. Trust results from challenges met and mastered. Horses test to discover if you’re believable and if it’s safe to yield control to you.
How does your horse know that will you keep him safe? What is his proof?
The question works both ways. Unless you give your horse the opportunity to prove he is trustworthy, you’ll never be able to trust him. Trust and faith are two sides of the same coin.
When your horse isn’t the same today as he was yesterday, have you ever thought, “What’s wrong with you? Who are you and what have you done with my horse? Yesterday you did this with no problem. Why won’t you do it today?”
Horses test you for a reason. They’re not just messing around.
When a horse isn’t consistent, the first place to look for a reason is in the mirror. Some of your frustration as a horse owner comes when your horse tests you and you fail. Only the most savvy folks recognize when that happens.
Reading this article helps up your savvy-quotient. Good for you!
If you’re not the reason for your horse’s inconsistent performance, rule out a physical cause before changing your training method or adding more pressure.
Sometimes all you have to do is wait a day and try again.
Ways Horses Test You
Horses are endlessly creative in the way they test their owners. Do any of these examples sound familiar?
- The red bucket in the corner of your shed hasn’t moved in three years, but today your steady campaigner thinks it’s a horse eater.
- Miraculously, the dog your horse played with yesterday morphed into an alligator overnight.
- What is that horrifying thing? The saddle pad you’ve used every day for the past two years terrifies your horse today.
- Your horse forgets how to lead.
- After six months of cleaning every hoof every day, your horse decides that his left hind is rooted to the ground. I’m sorry, but that one stays put.
- Bit? What’s a bit?, says your eleven-year-old veteran.
- You want me to jump into what? After six 25-mile endurance races and three years of competitive trail events, the trailer appears to be off limits today.
Maybe your horse responded to your lightest cue yesterday. Today he seems to have lost that file, your request returning nothing more than an irritating error code on an otherwise empty screen. He’s not upset, resistant, or militant. He just isn’t doing what you ask.
Your horse is testing you to figure out what’s what. Leaps of faith are often preceded by a test–just to make sure. The last thing a student does before graduation, even the valedictorian, is take exams.
Unless your horses has experiences you know nothing about, your horse is testing you. It often happens when you’re teaching something new, hauling out again, right before a big break through, or when your trust account in running on fumes.
Just as it’s darkest before the dawn, horses often take two steps backwards before leaping twelve strides forward.
Sometimes Stuff Just Happens
Your are not alone. I’ve been there a hundred times, wondering what major upheaval happened to my wonderful horse since I put him up yesterday. He isn’t lame or sore. His disposition is as sunny as ever, eyes sparkling bright, he’s engaged and willing—but he just isn’t going where I want to go.
I have days when I feel fabulous, but certain body parts aren’t as limber as they were yesterday. My mind is willing but my body isn’t on the same schedule. Horses also have off days. They feel great and are willing to do anything you ask, but can’t.
If yesterday’s lesson used extra muscles or tired out the normal ones, your horse may be stiff and sore today. He may be happy and content, but not as fluid or enthusiastic today.
Ask Your Horse How He Feels Today
I’ve learned to ask my horses, “How are you today” and wait for the answer before moving on. If your horse just can’t go there, do something else. If you’re having an off day, take it easy.
It’s possible to pull a horse out of the pasture cold and cowboy up. Some of those rides are great while others end with an emergency call to the veterinarian or rescue squad. The best results come after a proper warmup, both physical and relational.
Build the habit of asking your horse how he feels and respect his answer. Amazing things happen when your mind, body, and spirit are ready to work with the mind, body, and spirit of your equine partner.
Even if today isn’t perfect, tomorrow may be. Pushing a horse to do what he can’t isn’t fair and erodes trust. Nothing zeroes out your trust bank account faster than punishing or reprimanding a horse who is making an honest effort.
Failure to Focus on Detail
Horses are only as precise as you are. Trainers who ignore the tiny details of frame, cadence, balance, and performance seldom win championships. Failing to concentrate on the nuances of your horse’s behavior and body language damages trust and hampers relationship.
Be a student of equine body language and behavior. Unless you know what your horse is feeling, you can’t offer what he needs to make him more able to respond or more willing to respond as you want.
Horses who develop awesome halts on the hindquarters are taught to stop that way and are expected to stop correctly EVERY time. When your horse doesn’t get it right, identify what you need to do to help and then do it.
Don’t accept a wrong answer when your horse knows the right answer. The one who comes out looking foolish is you.
There are degrees of “good enough”, but every response less than 100% of what has already been mastered is the beginning of inconsistent behavior.
Which messes with your trust factor in a BIG way.
Teaching Leads or Canter Departure
Once your horse learns his leads or a proper canter departure, never let him cheat. Ever.
Many new horse owners dream of their first show. They’ve gotten the three gaits required in pleasure classes at home and their horse has given the requested lead more than once. So, you pack your trailer while visions of blue ribbons dance in your daydream.
Your horse is well behaved, but when asked for a left lead he either scurries into a fast unbalanced trot or takes a right lead. How do you feel? Stunned, embarrassed, and confused.
“But he does it at home!“
Horses Who Lack Precision Need Help
Horses pick up the most comfortable lead unless they are well-schooled in leads, even at counter canter. They lucked into most of those “correct leads” at home. Or worse, the horse knew the difference but figured it didn’t really matter.
“I’m not working on leads, so getting the wrong lead isn’t an issue today.“
Been there, done that, and wore the t-shirt. But here’s what your horse is thinking, She doesn’t care if I give the lead she asked for, so it must be my choice. Cool.
Which tells your horse that every previous lesson that required a correct response was a joke. Or that you’re being really unfair the NEXT time you insist on him giving a precise response.
Once your horse knows how to do something right, never accept the wrong answer. Sure, it’s takes commitment, but isn’t that what trust stands on?
Need a review? Go back and study Part One again; Inconsistency.
Read the final post in this series at Trust is Essential in Relationship with a Horse–Part 3 of 3.