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The Issue of Trust

Being an equine therapist, trust is a big deal. To be honest it’s right up there on a par with knowledge base and skills set in terms of importance. Firstly, owners have to feel confident in entrusting their beloved horses to me and secondly, the horses themselves have to trust me.

When we consider that second point for a minute it is pretty awe-inspiring that these magnificent flight animals who are hard-wired to hide any sign of weakness or pain from a prey animal (and yes deep down on a basic level our horses still regard us humans as prey animals) allow a strange human, who they do not know, into their space and to actually find and work on their areas of tension and discomfort. Honestly, every single day the magnanimous nature of these wonderful animals amazes me. That’s not to say that every horse melts instantly into my arms and that is certainly not what an owner should expect from a session. Often when I visit a new horse for the first time they can initially be a tad wary, especially if they do have some areas of tension that they are guarding. I will often see horses get a little fidgety or even agitated when I’m working on reactive areas. This is absolutely fine, in fact generally speaking I see that positively, as the horse is entering into a conversation with me. He is telling me that yes I have found an area “of note” and that, as a result he is feeling rather vulnerable and no thank you he doesn’t need me to work on it because at this stage in proceedings he has not quite worked out if I am friend or foe. At this point I always work with a light pressure or even step away until the horse settles and relaxes into the treatment – this nearly always happens and it is one of the most rewarding parts of my day – when that flight animal suddenly decides to trust me, it is profoundly humbling.

Anyhow, today’s is more of a personal post about trust, you see it has been a huge milestone of a day. Milestone’s are all relative aren’t they? The one I’m about to tell you about won’t seem like a milestone at all to most people and a few years ago it wouldn’t have done to me either. Up until 3 years ago all of my beloved horses had been straight forward people. By that I don’t mean that they were easy rides or novice horses but what I mean is that it was easy to keep them well and happy and they were relatively uncomplicated.

And then a challenging horse came into my life, Paddy, who threw everything I ever thought I knew about myself and horse ownership up in the air. Until you have a challenging horse you can never understand (well I didn’t anyway) how even the simple things can feel like insurmountable mountains.

Interesting, I hear you cry, but what has this got to do with trust. Well that’s just the thing, trust (the tentative building of it and often the lack of it) has been the complex foundation of our relationship since day one. I could write a book about our journey but today’s milestone involves the “simple” act of lunging. Over the last 3 years we have made headway in every area apart from that one. I have seen our relationship develop (with the help of sooooo much hard work, consistency, fairness and training) to one of affection and mutual trust except when it comes to lunging or even free schooling in a circle.

As soon as Paddy sees the lunge line, his whole demeanour changes from gentle, obliging and basically as in your face as an over familiar Labrador to aloof and, dare I say, frightened. I have tried everything I can think of to overcome this but every single time we are right back to square one the next time we try it - we have volatile behaviour, explosive rearing and doing pretty much anything to just get away… And of course it has occurred to me that this could be a pain reaction but that doesn’t seem to make sense, all I am asking him to do is walk calmly around me in a circle – that’s it, nothing more. He now quite happily and competently does that in hand with me next to him but not when free schooling (it has been a while since we tried on the lunge itself as the explosions are safer without us being physically attached by a lunge line!).

Anyway, yesterday I thought I would try a new experiment for our free-schooling version of lunging. When pad is free schooled lets say he is rather economical with his movement, he won’t go over poles unless he has to so I decided to make myself a circle of poles that I could stand inside of and ask pad for some free walk around the outside of the poles. We had a result in that he did it, reluctantly, both ways, we had minimal explosions and I felt safe inside my “magic circle”. A few things that he did, including flinching away from my hand repeatedly when I offered a treat for him to take cemented my long-held belief that something, somewhere along the way happened to him on the lunge. It is impossible to know what that was but it is something that is so deep rooted in his consciousness that it makes him forget the trust we have built up and think of me as someone who may hurt him.

Today we revisited the exercise, just looking for a circle or two each way in walk. I had little to no expectation that it would be any better than yesterday but it turned out to be a monumental day because, for the first time ever we DID see a small improvement. We had no explosions and even saw some small signs of relaxation. Pad still wouldn’t take a treat from me whilst we were in “lunging” mode and once again flinched away from my hand. (Yet this is the goof-ball who, in any other scenario, seeks me out, constantly in my space like an over-zealous minder.) I didn’t force the issue, I never do, it’ll keep for another day. For now, whilst it is tinged with sadness that something happened to my boy that is literally seared into his memory, I took comfort and great joy in the fact that eventually, with perseverance and kindness, Paddy has trusted me enough to take that all important first step forwards.


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