Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

You love horses. No, you really, really love horses. Because they are so amazing. We share videos of blind horses cared for by sighted ones. Ponies who tolerate wild kids and horses fulfilling last wishes of our own elders with gentle kindness. There are brilliant competitors dancing and racehorses running on heart. Trail horses who carry us to peace of mind. And don’t forget mules fighting coyotes. We marvel at their intelligence and courage. Yay, Equines!

Then there’s a moment that happens. The instant when that “magical” horse does some small movement that looks normal, like something your horse does. Or the instant that your horse takes a couple of steps of piaffe for the fun of it. Or your horse does a beautiful liberty movement that you only notice you asked for in hindsight. It’s noticeable. Maybe not identical but so close. The lights and mirrors go black and you have an inkling that your horse could do the same thing that previously looked like magic. And that what looked like magic was just being a horse.

It’s a great moment. The line between magic and normal needs to be blurred. Horses are much more than beasts of burden. At the same time, believing some horses are mythical creatures with magical powers does a disservice to rescue horses and grade horses and most likely, the horse in your own barn.

I think the biggest challenge facing most horses is our own mental limitation on what we think they are capable of understanding. We have an innate us/them mentality. We think that other horses achieve a particular behavior because of some intangible circumstances not available to the average horse and rider. Just not true.

But how much do we actually believe in their intelligence? Their ability to understand what’s going on? How often do we act like they need training for common sense, and in that moment, seek to dumb horses down?

Some of it boils down to a question of trust, but when we think about trusting our horses, it usually involves our physical safety. We trust them to clear a jump, to come back after a gallop; we aspire to trust their responsiveness in some way we call normal.

Say you’re asking for a simple in-hand obstacle like stepping onto a tarp on the ground. If he is standing with his hooves right next to it, do you feel you need to do more to explain, like lead him or cluck to him or teach it as if he’s never seen it? Or do you trust that he recognizes the obvious?

Think of all the practical but lame reminders we give teenagers, like to take a coat along. Of course, they roll their eyes. It’s clear we don’t trust them to come in out of the rain. You can say you’re just being helpful, but the other side of that states a lack of trust that they can manage the basics and that’s a horrible confidence builder. Would teens be different if we trusted they’d figure it out without us belaboring the obvious?

I recently read a brilliant article that said by demonstrating things to kids instead of letting them figure it out, we actually show them that we are capable, and they aren’t. In other words, constantly bailing kids out of their situation creates a kind of learned helplessness –the opposite of our intended goal.

Horses are no different. The chronic habit of humans re-training or over-cueing is a kind of lack of trust in our horse’s intellect.

The idea of allowing a horse autonomy, the freedom to volunteer, requires a suspension of disbelief. It means that you extend trust… not that they won’t hurt you but trust that they are smart and can answer the question. Giving the cue louder doesn’t make it more understandable. It just adds more anxiety. Ask quietly, with confidence in both of you. Then rather than doing the task, give him the time and support to figure it out. You get to pick the topic and he gets to pick the time.

Maybe trust is another word for patience.

If you believe that horses are sentient, then I challenge you to communicate with him that way. Mentor with your body, notice your own energy. Suggest rather than demand. And you know you should be breathing more.

Do your cues take on the urgency and size of semaphore signals on an aircraft carrier? Maybe a little less training enthusiasm and a little more confidence in your own ability and your horse’s desire to align with your intention. Let it be easier.

It’s possible they won’t give us the answer we want immediately. It might be confusion or a lack of confidence but don’t give into doubt. It’s up to us to find a quiet way to ask, or cut the task into smaller pieces and be grateful for every tiny effort. Successive approximation.

In that quiet moment, can you see a small change in his eye? Does his poll soften? In the past you may have thought he was dawdling or resisting the cue, but looking closer now, do see his intelligence? Reward that; connect with the action of him using his mind.

How horses and riders get stuck in the same place for long periods of time is that we don’t hold ourselves to conscious creativity in our equine conversations. We don’t progress because we unconsciously become repetitive naggers instead of scintillating conversationalists. If we believe that horses can read our minds in other situations, why would we have to resort to semaphore cues for something obvious and easy?

Trust your horse can a true partner and not a minion. Let him rise to the occasion and feel pride in himself. Trust his intelligence because his species has survived for thousands of years. Celebrate that intellect as a thing that you both share.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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41 thoughts on “Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

  1. I agree with what you’ve said here. Do I “dumb-down” equine intelligence? Sometimes, yes. It’s not so much that I think they’re not capable of having great intelligence and (especially) sensitivity and intuition, which to ME is it’s own form of superior smarts. But I tend to want to do it when I’m around people who confuse the reality of their intelligence with a movie (or book) version. Normally these are people who don’t spend enough time around horses to know any better, but honestly, sometimes not. When that happens my typical response is, “Yup, pretty, but dumber than a box of rocks!” And then I wink at the horse and just grin. 😉

  2. You always make me think. And ponder. And want to consult with my horses, who respond in ways that you have helped me to understand. That we enjoy each other so much more becomes self-evident. Thank you Anne.

  3. My fave “trust moment” comes from way back when I used to jump my Thoroughbred. I was in a late-evening lesson and it kept getting darker and darker. Finally I protested to my trainer, “I can’t see the jumps!”. She yelled back, “Well, HE can!”.

  4. Sharon Bowen

    My soul partner has saved my bacon more than once. Not only do I trust him on trail, but he also trusts me. Half the time I have my hands in my pockets, or I’m gesturing while I talk and he goes about our business getting both of us to where we’re going. Then there are the days when the Forest Preserve Department is doing heavy equipment repairs. He asks, I tell him, “you can do this, just go past,” and he does. Sometimes he’ll stop and scratch his face on the back hoe. Or stop next to the truck window to ask the driver if he has any horse candy. It all comes from giving. I gave him my trust and he gave me his. Could not ask for a better partner.

  5. I trust my boy implicitly. And I know he trusts me. We have been partners for going on 14 years, and most of that time has just been him and I taking in hand walks everywhere. He doesnt blink an eye when I ask him to go past something “different” Like the barn owners lawn tractor, left parked at the back door of the barn. Or a blowing tarp next to the other barn. And I swear they “talk” to each other as well. I turn out my own boy, and one to two other horses daily. And bring in three to four horses every afternoon. Even the yearling walks calmly through the gates and doors for me. I have had my boy “tell” me when something is bothering him, or is not right. Both with verbal cues and physical ones. And He ALWAYS gets his point across.
    My daughter once said “All animals talk, you just have to know how to listen” And listening leads to trust.

  6. Tracey Sands

    I love your discussion of trust on a much deeper level than is often addressed. Another point on the issue of trust=physical safety (which, I realise, is not really the point you’re trying to make here): I think we too often make that the responsibility of the horse when it’s really our own. At the same time that we have to recognise the deep intelligence of horses, and their ability (and if we’re lucky, desire) to form partnerships with us, we have to remain aware without being afraid of it that they will always think and react as the horses they are, and not as we would. So while I have enormous trust in my horses’ ability to understand how they relate to me and the world around us, it’s my job to stay alert without being alarmed about their physical presence and everything that they are perceiving. I know that my wise gelding and my sweet filly see me as a trusted partner and don’t seek to harm me intentionally, but it’s still my job to make sure that I’m not in a position to get stepped (or thrown) on if something alarming shows up in his peripheral vision, and to remind her that she has to stop a couple of yards away from me when she comes cantering up to greet me. What I still have to learn is so much greater than what I have learned, but I feel so lucky to have been around so many horses whose intelligence and goodwill is so clear and available. And I agree with so many of the other comments as well that this kind of reciprocal recognition makes everything easier and better. Horses who know we’re listening to them seem to take stressful situations much more calmly than those who don’t or can’t trust us to understand them.

  7. “If we believe that horses can read our minds in other situations, why would we have to resort to semaphore cues for something obvious and easy?” Excellent question! It’s like sometimes with my horse I’m the loud talker in a subdued crowd, which I hate! My horse deserves better…

  8. I could not agree more. Trust is so important and when it is established I am finding that then the moments of “magic” happen. Something we have been working and working on suddenly falls into place. I am so proud of my horse and he is proud of himself and I am proud of myself. Few things in life can equal this!

  9. Sherry Walter

    Yay for this. Sometimes, if you don’t belabor the point and just expect the proper response lo and behold, it happens and everybody’s happy!

  10. Mary Adams

    Wonderful post. We could do and be so much more with our equine partners if we would let them be just that…our partners. The most valuable lesson I have ever had was the one in which my trainer convinced me to ‘just think it.’ I did…and my horse ‘just did it.’ I use that lesson every day, mounted or unmounted, and have found that trusting my equines to understand me and believing that they will, leads to communication far beyond what I would have thought possible.

  11. Do your cues take on the urgency and size of semaphore signals on an aircraft carrier?
    Ha ha! I’m going to keep that image next time I ride. If it doesn’t help at least it’ll make me laugh, again. 😅

  12. Lynell Abbott

    It always ‘tickles” me when I hear someone say, “MY horse is really smart…” I always think to myself, “They all are smart!” That said, My horse really is smart! One night my almost blind Appy went the other way while I was trying to get all 4 horses back to the barn. I was standing by the gate lamenting how I would have to go get him, as he was now far away into the field. Dover had almost made it to the barn but then came back to where I was standing. Mostly to myself I said, “Dover, go get Cappy!” With that he took off into the darkness. I thought, “Great! Now I have 2 horses to round up.” But then several seconds later Dover came back with Cappy right behind him! True story…

    1. I hear it all the time, too, that someone’s horse is smart or sensitive, and I get tickled too. Never met one who wasn’t, but humans continue to be surprised! Great comment and sure, horses see the big picture. Just heard a similar cat story… Big smile, and thanks, Lynell.

  13. Laurie

    Anna, your description and clarity on this topic is sheer genius! I am so guilty of being the nagger, enabler, and the one putting the end before the means. In my own defense, I’m a nurse by trade and instruct and support those who might not have access to all of their own resources when I’m involved. I am slowly learning to trust that my support will be internalized by others, and practicing this technique with my equine partners is definitely helping. Power struggles are all around us, and I’m on a mission to eliminate as many as possible from the remainder of my years on this planet. Thank you again for reminding of the importance of this pursuit.

    1. Laurie, I’m humbled by your comment. I’m old enough to have had more than a few experiences where nurses have ‘saved’ me when doctors can be less help. Thanks so much for what you do… and still, it’s a world of power struggles, isn’t it? Thanks for this insightful comment, Laurie.

  14. Jane Greenwood

    Thank you for your insight and your ability to transfer that insight into words I “get”.
    After recently spending some time with a dear friend who spent most of the evening telling me how her 21 year old horse is still a “butt-head” and very reactive to everything, it’s just wonderful to read these words of yours. I have tried over the years (I’ve known her all the years she’s had this horse) to introduce her to the idea that less is more and it’s the relationship that you have with your horse that is the most important factor in riding, but she’s got other friends who are in the “teach him some respect” camp and I’m considered more of an airy fairy kind of animal person. (Funny, my animals seem to respect me just fine). It is hard to see others who consistently blame their horses for not listening when the problem is them not the horse.
    So it’s comforting to listen to your voice encouraging us to really listen and to TRUST our horses and their intelligence. Thank you again, I so appreciate your time and energy dedicated to helping the horses (and us!)
    Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    1. Welcome to my world, Jane. I have to smile. I don’t always get more respect than you in that conversation. So I just keep talking… Hope you and yours have a good holiday and a kind winter, too.

  15. Justin hull

    You wrote:

    “Think of all the practical but lame reminders we give teenagers, like to take a coat along. Of course, they roll their eyes. It’s clear we don’t trust them to come in out of the rain. You can say you’re just being helpful, but the other side of that states a lack of trust that they can manage the basics and that’s a horrible confidence builder. Would teens be different if we trusted they’d figure it out without us belaboring the obvious?”

    When I read your posts, most often I find myself nodding in agreement, thoughtful in how close I understand of have experienced moments you talk about. The essay’s on fear hit right to the heart and did help me start a journey back from a deep pit, one my partner was every so patiently helping work through.

    Again I started to connect, but then read that one paragraph and said “hold on ..wait, what? Here we differ or perhaps the example/analogy falls a little in the telling. A good parent would have teaching their child the importance of proper outerwear long before the become young adults, thinking they know all of life’s problems and how to solve them. A parent saying to a teenager “remember your coat” is not an issue of trust, it is (or should be) a reinforcement of training previously performed. If I have been working on leg yields with my partner, and we started at the walk, then trot, then canter, if he was performing them well, but one day as we ride out and I ask and he says “I don’t wanna”…that is not a trust issue by this point, it is something else I need to address what might be the foundation for his decision.

    A teenager walking out on a cold day without a coat, knowing that wearing one is the right thing to do is either forgetful (what’s wrong with a loving reminder) or rebellious, and given the latter, should a parent not extend a little authority to remind the *child*, that is not a good decision. My two examples of both conditions…

    I’m rolling along on cross country, but my mind, my heart are not there with him. By some jump he decides to rebel and tell me that he won’t accept my position any more. I told him to put on a coat when it was warm out and after the third time, he tells me No. I listen, I get into the game, we finish. He trusted me to *be there* and when I was not he did something to get my attention and ask…do you mean it.

    I’m heading down the trail and we get to a rather sticky descent. We pause at the top, waiting, then I just ask, you got this and his reply is to start down. I don’t get in his way, I don’t tell him how to descend specifically, but trust he knows what to do, and how to do it. At the bottom he gets huge praise which helps when we get to the bridge, the creek or whatever “scary” thing it may be and the trust turns 180 degrees and I say “trust me to get you by this moment”.

    My position is that there is a difference is patience when trying to figure out something new, and less patience when it has been a repeated, trained request. The teenager should know that when it’s cold and wet a coat is the right choice so that when the choose … poorly … it is still our job to get them back on a better path.

    Thank you for all the insights you give.

    1. Just one comment, Justin. All of us learn by our mistakes. In this society today, I don’t think we are “allowing” children to experience mistakes and learn from them. We hover over them to make sure they don’t get hurt in any way. So a kid doesn’t wear a coat and comes home cold. S/he will think twice about leaving the house without a coat next time. They aren’t going to die from this experience. I’ve watched my neighbor with her 7 year old. He’s on his way to school, it’s 30 degrees out and he’s in shorts and no coat. She reminds him to dress warmer because it’s cold out. He refuses. When he comes home from school saying he’s “freezing,” she suggests that he make different choices tomorrow. Now he checks the weather every day because he doesn’t want to be cold again. He learned. I believe he’s learning huge life skills about choices.

      These are just my humble observations and opinion. Thank you for yours!

  16. Yes, final paragraph, horse learning to have pride for himself. In the book When Elephants Weep the German term funkzunslust (sp) speaks of an animals doing things out of pleasure and enjoyment of their own body. I have always believed horses enjoy their enhanced abilities with us doing nifty things together, dancing partners

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