You want your horse to trust you. When he does, everything’s easier. He knows he can do whatever you ask of him—even step into that scary water!—and still be safe, because he trusts your judgment.
The secret to gaining your horse's trust? You must truly be trustworthy. In other words, deserving of your horse’s faith in you. That means you’re always dependable and consistent in how you handle him. Your directives are reliably clear, fair, and reasonable, and your responses to him always come from a place of wanting to help and educate, not punish.
Clinician Jonathan Field puts it well.
“Whether at home, on the trail, or at an event, your horse needs to see and feel that you are the same person. You don’t want him to look at you and think, ‘Is she Jekyll or Hyde today?’ If he does, he definitely won’t feel trusting.”
So how do we make sure our horses know we’ll always behave in a trustworthy way? By making a habit of it. As Aristotle put it, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”
Here’s the thing. It’s not the occasional nice deed you do for your horse—feed a carrot, scratch his withers—that lets him know he’s safe with you. He does appreciate those gestures, but it’s the day-to-day consistency in how you handle him that lets him know you can always be relied upon.
And that means on bad days as well as good.
“It’s easy to be calm, cool, and collected when things go well,” notes Jonathan. “Make it a personal challenge to be the same way with your horse—and even more so—when things go awry. When your horse is having a meltdown and everyone is watching…even then, stay consistent, determined, patient, and safe, and you’ll be amazed with how your horse responds.”
Plus, he adds, those tough times can yield big benefits.
“Every balk or resistance or spook is an opportunity to build more responsiveness in your horse as he experiences something new, which just builds more trust for the next time around.”
Of course that’s only if you handle it well. And you will if you follow the advice of author and human-potential expert Brian Tracy. “Form good habits, then make them your master.”
For Jonathan’s specific advice on dealing with a balky horse, be sure to see the August issue of Horse&Rider. For his smart solutions to common problems on the trail, click here.
And for more on developing a trusting bond with your four-legged partner, see the links below.