Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fear, Trust and Letting Go

One of things I love about the world of horse bloggers is that sometimes a really good post will cause others to talk further about the same subject or related subjects in a way that really adds to the conversation.  A couple of days ago I linked to this post by Katariina at Equine Insanity, which I strongly recommend you read if you haven't already.

This morning, there were two more posts that I also suggest you read - first, this post at One Old Cowgirl's View and second, this post by Linda at Beautiful Mustang.  The first post talks about fear, and two-way trust between horse and rider and how powerful that can be.  The second post is about Linda's work with her mare Beautiful and how powerful the concept of "letting go of the story" can be.  Here's a quote (used with her permission) from her post:
We like to hold onto old stories...about ourselves, each other, our animals. We like to say THIS is who I am, and THAT is who you are. So there.
But that's not reality. We are not who we were yesterday. We are not fairy tales, or cliches, or caricatures--all good and pure or all mean and evil.
Last week I had an epiphany--that I was holding onto a story or, more accurately, a fairy tale, about Beautiful Mustang. I thought it wasn't good for her or me or our training, and since it wasn't good, I decided to let it go.
An amazing thing happened, though, because when I let it go, I found out she is even smarter and more amazing than I thought. She is calmer than I thought. She thinks things through more than I thought. She is more of a willing partner than I knew.
Read Linda's post to find out what happened next - it's pretty amazing.

These two posts, together with the original one, have made me think more about Dawn and our mutual trust issues.  Pie is easy to trust, even though he's still a young horse and can spook or do something unexpected.  And he trusts easily - he's one of those fortunate horses whose trust has clearly never been betrayed by a human.  Dawn is another matter, both in terms of her trust of me and also my willingness to trust her.  There are reasons why we both feel this way.  Dawn has had her trust seriously betrayed in the past, and I think it makes her more inclined to trust her own feelings and thoughts than those of her human partner, and therefore to make her own decisions what to do when the chips are down.

She has learned to trust my younger daughter, though.  My daughter just kept riding through all of Dawn's bolts, and bucks, and spooks, and rears, and eventually Dawn learned to trust her enough that they were able to go for miles on the trail, my daughter riding bareback, not always without incident but with mutual trust, even galloping together for long stretches.  But my daughter rarely rides her any more - college got in the way.

So now Dawn and I have been working on building a relationship together.  When I first started working with her, I confess I was somewhat afraid of her.  See my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . ." for more about that, and about where our work together has been going.  Part of my lack of trust in Dawn has more to do with a lack of confidence in myself rather than anything Dawn has done when I've been working with her - I'm not really sure I'd be able to ride out her acrobatics and I don't feel safe riding her on the trail - Dawn has actually never done anything "bad" when I've been working with or riding her in the arena and in fact has been a willing and cooperative partner.  She can also be very aggressive when around other horses, and this used to be a risk to humans who were near her, but over time I've convinced her that she's always to pay attention to me and stay out of my bubble regardless of how she feels about another horse that is nearby, and that when we're working under saddle, we're working even if other horses are in the arena.

I think part of it is that she has to trust me to keep her safe - from scary things in her environment and from other horses, whom she fears and tries to dominate as a defensive measure.  I also have to help her by giving her direction when she's worried or distracted, and I must always stay as calm and soft with her as I can for her to give me calmness and softness back.  If you up the ante with Dawn, things overload pretty quickly - she's a horse you have to persuade rather than pressure.

Riding her bareback and in a bitless bridle last fall really indicated that I was beginning to find her more trustworthy.  I need to take further steps down that road - of showing her that we can trust each other and keep each other safe and happy.  I need to let go of the stories I've told myself about her - about who she is and what she's likely to do or not do - and just take her as she actually is.  She's shown me some trust already and it's up to me to show her more, and as we do that I think our relationship will deepen.


  1. Letting go is SO HARD, but you're right - you have to do it.

    I trust my horses a lot, probably more than I should, but I think that's part of the reason why they are so easy for me to handle. Allowing my horses to make their own decisions when I can helps a lot. I just need to remember that sometimes it takes them quite a while to make their mind up.

  2. I really appreciate your thoughtful posts, and I also read the other posts you linked to, and enjoyed them very much. I agree with much of what has been said on this subject, but I do think it is somewhat of an incomplete picture. I know you read my post titled "Reprimands" on the Equestrian Ink blog last week, so you probably already understand where I'm coming from. I think that every horse is different, and just as many horses horses benefit from very gentle handling and guidance, there are also those that need a firmer hand. I feel that each person needs to find their own path with their individual horse and extending trust can be a good thing. Not having too many expectations can definitely be a good thing. Not being in a hurry is a good thing. But with all that said, having clear boundries and remaining firmly in charge is often necessary, if we are to stay reasonably safe while we work with horses. In my opinion, anyway. There are plenty of horses who will take advantage of you if you let them. I happen to own a horse who is not happy unless I establish my dominance from time to time, using the sort of language he understands (and its pretty firm). It took me a long time to figure out that this horse needs and wants this, so I just want to offer into the dialogue that in my experience, you do sometimes need to be pretty tough in order to have a good working relationship with a certain type of individual. Sometimes, in order to have mutual trust and affection, you need to be a strong leader. Not always, but sometimes.

  3. I think when you truly begin to trust your horse(s), you begin to expect more out of them and they rise to the occasion...whether positively or negatively. If positive, this cause and effect kind of bolsters the relationship, and I think, builds trust faster than anything else I've experienced.

  4. Interesting post. A lot to think about.

    I wish letting go was easier to do. Because I do agree that holding on to some things in our past can hold us back from achieving the goals we have made for ourselves.

    But I wonder, too, if holding on to certain experiences and memories can also be a helpful part of our past, educating and teaching us on how to handle situations that come up in the future? Sometimes even keeping us safe.


  5. Good post (also the others). I've mentioned Cesar Milan (Dog Whisperer) before. He talks all the time about how dogs live in the present. People who adopt abused dogs often treat them differently than they would an unabused dog. He stresses that we need to let their past go and treat them as we would any other dog.

    I believe the same is true with our horses. My mare Sugar has spooked in the past and it is easy for me to approach her and ride her as if I expect that to happen again. I go through all the appropriate training steps and I wear a helmet, but it's important that my mind set be to trust her in the now. Horses, like children, often rise to our expectations.


  6. Laura - as I said on my comments on your post, I agree and disagree with what you say - I wouldn't presume to disagree with your description of your relationship with your own horse - only you know what that is and how it works. That said, I believe many of the folks who commented on your post believe in the alpha/dominance model of leadership. I think herd dynamics and using dominance techniques have a place in defining your personal space and keeping yourself safe on the ground - but I don't think that means the horse thinks of you as a herd member or an alpha.

    I think that an alpha/dominance based model is pretty simplistic and misses a lot of the subtlety that can arise in a relationship between horse and human. I believe in what Mark Rashid calls "passive leadership" where you offer the horse guidance and direction, as a leader, but you also listen to what the horse has to say and give the horse choices - this is much more powerful in my experience and achieves much more than an alpha model. Plenty of people, including lots of "natural horsemanship" people, use alpha methods and have success with them - success in that the horse complies and does what they want. But the horse isn't really with them on the inside and when the chips are down that's what counts. I think people who use alpha methods think of using non-alpha methods as being "soft" or "pushovers" and I'm sure there are people who fall into that trap just as there are some alpha trainers who shade over into abusing horses. But if you've ever seen a really good non-alpha trainer work, it's truly wonderful to see how responsive the horses can be.

    Sure horses respond to reprimands - we all respond to negative reinforcement - but that doesn't mean there aren't more effective methods. Just my opinion and how I operate - I expect (most of) the people who commented on your post would disagree with me.

  7. Another wonderful, thought-provoking post, Kate. I really enjoy them!

  8. I need to work on the trust thing with Tucker. He's a bit like Dawn and reactive to things in a rather "overly expressive" way.

  9. Kate--Its an interesting discussion. I fall in the middle, I think. Yes, I do believe we need to be the alpha with our horse. This is more important with some horses than others. If you accept that this is true on the ground, as you say, or at least that it has its place, I would hazard the guess that you at least do think that there are times when its very important for the horse's safety as well as your own that he/she regards you as "in charge". I will go further and say that in my opinion the horse must ALWAYS respect you as boss. This won't stop a fearful horse from spooking or running away under saddle, or a cinchy horse from bucking. You will need different skills to address these issues. In my own case, I feel my little Sunny is really "with me on the inside", and have written many blog posts to illustrate the many times he comes through for me. We have a good solid working partnership--and I believe it is at least partly because I can reprimand him as he needs/wants. I think the point of what I am saying is not that I disagree with you, but I think its incomplete to talk about trust without talking about the flip side. I DO think listening to what the horse says is paramount--and it took me awhile to "get" what Sunny was saying because it seemed so unlikely to me. He wanted me to demonstrate dominance. Certainly not all horses are this way. I've only had a couple who were like this. I've had many who primarily needed patience and reassurance. So I'm not trying to say that we always need to be forceful. Just that we sometimes do. Plenty of horses have become nasty monsters that nobody wants to deal with when their humans did not know how to be firm enough (I know you already know this). And equally, many horses have been abused by overly dominant trainers until they hated their lives and all people (or were at the least completely indifferent). What I'm voting for is trying to strike the middle road--and I guess I felt that this discussion was incomplete without addressing the very real issues that can arise when a horse with a strong, assertive personality does not feel that the handler/rider is really in charge.

    And again, I do very much enjoy your insights--and my horses have brought me great gifts and taught me a lot...I totally understand the point of what you are saying. Trusting is important, too, and horses will function as guides--my post about Flanigan today was all about that.

  10. There is nothing like having a horse you trust and who trusts you. NOTHING.

  11. I have benefited so much from this ongoing conversation on "trust and fear" in the horse-blogosphere! I'm so happy to find so many soulmates that know, truly, where I'm coming from. My mare's trainer told me a year ago that my mare needed my support and that she was trying very hard to take care of me. I really didn't understand that then. My mare had learned to mistrust humans too (her previous owner rode her drunk, let her get hit by a car, and abandoned her in a field calling her a "mean" horse.) It wasn't until I started reading fellow blogger's words that I fully understood what our trainer was trying to tell me. Not only does my mare want to trust me... she NEEDS to trust me and I have to give trust to get it. Because of all the helpful dialogue I have come to LOVE and trust my horse beyond words.

  12. Yeah, I touched on this in my Valentine's post - my friends convinced me to quit calling Dixie crazy, and once I let go of that label our relationship really started to change. 'Course I wasn't nearly as eloquent about it as you are :)

  13. That was an interesting post in relation to Dawn. I have a horse who was like Dawn--Cowboy, my main guy--but he was my heart's horse, so it made all the spooking, bucking, jigging, kicking worth it in the early days--now he's the gentlest thing on four legs. It's much, much different when you start from the beginning with a horse and you're their only exposure to humans--all my colts have been gentle and easy to train--Pie is has this quality, too. There was a lot in your post and comments--and this idea of passive leader is new and wonderful to me. It sounds horrible though--"passive" makes you think--I'm going to stand here and let my horse kick me. What it's actually referring to is that other horse in the herd--an alpha of sorts, too--but one that is chosen by the others. My horse, Red, is our passive leader, and if threatened, he will let them have it, but 99 percent of the time he leads by example and they want to be near him and cooperate with him. He does the least amount to get the results.

    Back to letting go of old stories--I don't think it's possible to erase memories and I agree that they can be helpful, but what I'm hoping to do--and what it sounds like you're wanting to do with Dawn--is take each day as a new day in my training of BG. She's young and will make mistakes, but I don't want to hold those against her and either over-protect her or expect the worst--but I do try to draw upon the wisdom I've gained from working with horses in the past to put her into situations where she can succeed--so that's a good use of memory, I guess.

    Anyway, sorry this is so long, but this was a hefty bit of information to think about. As always, I appreciate yours, and your readers, thoughts.

  14. I'm working w/ a new horse for me. I'm a fairly inexperienced rider and trying to begin building a trust relationship w/ Dusty. Having said that I'm inexperienced, I do have some people around me that will help and offer sound advice. I just have to get over my fear and my mistrust.

    Taking small steps and seeing how that goes.

  15. I've read Linda's post and it was a great one about letting go of the story. Also the one at Equine Insanity, I'll have to pop over and read the other you recommended. Thanks.

  16. Another great post Kate, and thanks for the links.
    I love the header photo of Pie, it really shows his steady dependable character.
    My journey with Chickory is going to be interesting, as we work on trusting each other and ourselves.

  17. I really like the idea of letting go of old stories. I have to hop over and read those posts - I had read the other one earlier.

    I believe that the horse we have in front of us or under us is just that...the horse we have right now. What happened before is over. I do know some of my own horses' "stories" but we are making new ones every day and I work very hard to forget, if only while I am riding, bad events. One thing I have learned by going to Florida each year and riding new horses is that when you don't know any stories, you are way ahead. I supposedly ride "difficult" horses without knowing they were difficult. I am not big into labels - difficult, easy, alpha - what does all that mean? Nothing to the horse.

    I like to think of fear and trust as colors because colors are more tangible. I have been thinking about posting about this idea. Each time I ride (or even graze by a busy road) I purposely try to give off the "trust color". This makes any horse, even one like Foggy who I don't really know yet, trust me back.

  18. Thanks for the lInks Kate. Very interesting post.

    I agree in the "letting go" we all have baggage we carry with us. Some is good, most is bad. Its the bad stuff that makes me fearful. My trainer always likes to tell me "Jen your horse is bomb proof, but you're not". She is oh so right.

  19. I guess this is right in line with what more than one excellent trainer has repeated to me many times "ride the horse you have today." As you have found in working with Dawn that sometimes is easier said than done! I find the more I remind myself of this as I ride Bonnie the better things go.

  20. Hi Kate, thanks for posting a link to my blog, it's great to see the conversation going on at all these different blogs about the same subject.
    I think what makes the horse-human relationship so difficult is our inability to stay in the moment (i.e. let go) This is why sometimes it is easier for children to connect with horses, as they have not yet entered the holy space of thinking about what happened yesterday (unfortunately they get there eventually). It's good to look at the past and learn from it, but then we do have to let it go if we want to move forward. However, thinking too much of the future can backfire on us as well, as it sets up the expectations. If there is something I have learned from my horse, it is to not expect anything and just see what happens and go with the flow. The minute I set up goals and wants and needs, she shuts down and I take a step back on the very delicate path of communication I have with her.
    In any case, loved your post, made me think some more!
    Ps. Agree totally with you on the alpha/dominance issue as am not an advocate of that any longer but rather try to practice "passive leadership" instead or sometimes I would even call it "mutual leadership".

  21. Very good post and good points. I have one of my horses just because he was labeled a certain way and they couldn't let go of that. Come to find out, he's not like that at all--just the opposite, actually. I try to keep an open mind and let my horses "be who they want to be," but it can be hard. We're programmed to label everything--in fact, even our language is a label. Sort of ironic, and understandable how these things can so easily happen.

  22. Great Post Kate!I am looking forward to reading more and going to the links.

    I am on the same track for needing to trust my mare more(in the ARENA)and find my voice and language for her to trust me.
    I ride bitless and bareback- all the time on the trails and really do trust my horse anywhere, "outside the an arena". We have done so many wondeful things together. I love her trust of my asking her to go so many varying places.

    Dominating her is NOT the answer, matching her, N.H. way, is NOT the answer. I'm really trying to find it. I am not sure I have it in me to 'Ride it out" as your daughter has either. Makes me question should I try...she can really get volitile in there! I am so in a quandary. Still saving for the saddle that won't hurt her, as getting rid of pain, needs to get checked off the list for her reasons to act out.
    Thanks for inspiration~


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.