Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Why horses, (and People,) Trust Some People and Doubt Others"

Howdy Friends,

Did you ever notice how some horses just seem to read their person's mind? How they seem to always be on the same page? A real solid, dependable team? Did you wonder about, perhaps get a little envious, surely curious, as to how that can be? It has a lot to do with consistency, but it has a lot to do with a person's emotional stability too. Which I guess is a big part of constancy.
We were in the field doing stuff and I had to sit to rest my legs. Kessy came and stood with me until I could get up. Which I did by taking hold of her mane and asking her to back up. She pulled me to my feet!
It also has a lot to do with the person's self confidence, and the ability to respectfully display that self confidence. Horses (and people too) want teammates, partners, and friends they can count on to be there for them. To lead them, hear them, consider their point of view. And yes horse's all have their own point of view and it can, and will, meld with ours. They key is to be self confident enough to look and listen for it. Not to correct, or discipline, but rather to support, guide, teach and empower.

I'm all for praising a horse's misstep, wrong move, or confusion. The key is to praise and support the attempt, no matter how tiny – not correct the misstep or wrong move. Go with the mistake, see where it leads. Improvements leading to perfection come far sooner with mountains of self confident praise, than with buckets of corrections and discipline. Take the mistake, or miscue and redo the exercise or movement seeking improvement in baby steps along the way.

My mentor, Diane Sept, used to say, "Carry yourself in a way that commands respect." I like to add, "And be sure you give it too, in the form of praise."

Praise for a horse (or person) can be a big deal. "GOOD GIRL!" and a pat on the neck, make a big show of it. Or it can be a simple, quiet acknowledgement of a job, task or cooperation well done. Your horse will tell you which she needs. If you listen.

Self confidence and emotional stability means you'll be consistently supportive. You won't, "fly off the handle," and scold, correct harshly, intimidate and confuse your horse ... How can a horse become soft, trusting, truly cooperative, if they must always be on guard for the next explosion of discipline? … I actually believe it is never okay to discipline a horse … well never with a few exceptions related to safety and health ... Self confident instruction based upon solid respectful teamwork and cooperation, will always build a solid relationship of trust. Every time.

Let's look at stepping into the saddle - I'll use my mare Kessy as an example. When we first partnered she would not even come within five feet of the mounting block. If she did, she wasn't going to stand to mount. (Of course you must first be absolutely certain there is no physical reason she can't stand still.) I had to think of how I could help her understand this really mattered to me. Back then I could still mount from a 2 step block, so I set it next to the barn wall allowing just enough room for her to stand, and we started mounting that way. If she moved forward, I would simply lead her around without a word, and stand her next to the block again. When in the correct position I would ask her to, "Stand." After mounting I'd give her a bit of carrot. (Still do, it's a kind of flexation exercise) We did this for a while, then eventually I moved the block away from the wall, and it no longer mattered where, or how we mounted. She just needed that little bit of guidance and support the barn wall offered her as she was making sense of the mounting deal. Today, she'll not move a hoof until I ask her to, "Walk on." Never once did I scold, yank on the reins, or demand she, "Stand Still!" We've all seen that, right? … 

As time went on it became necessary for me to mount and dismount from a platform, and it's quite an ordeal some days. She stands like a concrete statue as I clamber aboard. It's a confidence built of trust, and that trust builds a desire to not only cooperate, but be there for me. Kessy knows I'll not let my emotions take over and yell at her when she gets things a bit wrong. She knows I'll support her just as she supports me.
Kessy stands like a statue for me to mount and dismount, as long as it takes. If I'm really struggling she'll even lean into it!
I'll take a bit farther. I have bad health days and not so bad health days. Kessy knows the difference. She's always beyond perfect for mounting and dismounting, tacking, grooming, hoof care, all ground tied ... but once we're on the trail she either treads along gently and slowly, or as is her core nature, frolics and announces her attitude – depending on my ability to sit the saddle. This cooperation is born of a bond built on trust, not discipline.

The secret to those horses who seem to be able to read their person's mind? I believe it's as simple as being able to trust their person to be both emotionally balanced and consistent. And respectful.

Gitty Up ~ Dutch Henry, and Kessy too.


  1. Good article, Dutch. In my 57 years as a horseman, I have learned one main thing, "if I always put what's good for the the horse ahead of my own ego, the horse will usually put what's good for me ahead of its ego. That's when you achieve true partnership, which should be every horseman goal."

  2. As my relationship with Magic is still fairly new, this is the kind of trust I'm striving for. I wish for her to take care of me the same way I take care of her. We're just starting down that path but I believe we're finally starting to bond the way I want us to.

    1. You'll get there, Sandy, because you want to. Kessy came to me loaded with trust issues. It was six months before I could hug her. Just keep in mind, everything must happen in Magic's time, not yours.

  3. Wonderful Dutch!
    Horses have so much to teach us, if we only listen.


  4. Dutch, this is very inspiring!
    I'm also still working on my relationship with my horse; I got him in August.

  5. This was a good reminder. My mare came to me with trust issues (from being hit in the face with the lead rope), and it took me a long time of trying, waiting, rubbing, carrots, and patience for her to accept a bridle. Or allow anything up/around/near her face. Especially my hands. Now we are almost to the point of bridling without the slightest head tilt which means so much to me.
    We have a new guy who is sensitive about his back feet. He pulls and jumps when you pick them up. He also came from a rough background after being a breeding stallion. He is kind and willing - just very scared. This article has reminded me to stay patient and keep trying.

  6. As I read this, I think of my relationship with my thirteen year old daughter.....