Whole Horse training: Gaining trust though consistency, compassion, and credibility

A few years ago, if you had asked me if I had a set plan or methodology when I work with a horse, I would always answer with an emphatic ‘no’. I saw what I did as working with a horse in the moment and responding to the feedback they were giving me and the responses I got, which then determined which direction the training would take.

My perspective now, is that yes, I do have a methodology. But that method is not something I could teach you step by step, because it is based on a principle which can take many forms.

There is method to what I do, it’s just not formulaic – it is based on a principle. I am not expecting the horse to do anything specific – above all, a horse is just a horse– it’s the owners and discipline trainers who want specific things from them. All I want is to show the horse he can trust me and to establish that I am worth listening to and worth following.

Gaining credibility

When I first meet a new horse, the very first thing I do is focus on earning his trust and establishing my credibility.

When I get there, I show him I’m worth trusting and listening to. How do I do that? By showing him that I am 100% consistent with him, and that what I am asking him to do is ultimately better than what he might try as an answer to the tasks I give him.

My goal and philosophy is to get the horse to a point where he is wanting to take my suggestions, not because he has to but rather because he trusts me and my consistency.

In many of the cases where I am called out to help, the horse is ‘acting out’ or ‘misbehaving’ because he may think he has a better solution than what the owner is asking for – he wants to try things his own way. This can be exacerbated by the owner’s lack of consistency and communication with the horse (through no fault of their own) – owners need to be trained in these things too – it isn’t something that comes naturally to most people.

Because I have been doing this for a long time, I know how to be completely accurate with my timing and how to maintain a consistent, steady demeanour. But this was something I too had to learn through experience and training. These qualities, when I first meet a horse, mean I can quite quickly get him to trust me and then, in turn, carry out the task I am asking for.

Different trainers will use different exercises when first working with a horse. There are many methods to reach the same goal of trust and respect in compassionate training – every trainer will choose what works for them.

The basics

The way I always begin is by asking the horse some simple questions (for more on asking, see my previous post). I’ll ask the horse to begin by moving his feet in the direction I request – left and right and then I’ll ask him to speed up and slow down, stop, change direction and other simple things. Generally, with every horse that I work with, the ‘holes’ will show up in that first exercise. All the exercise simply determines is this: “when I ask you something, can you do it?”. These holes or gaps in training and stability will show up when horses feel they have a better way of responding other than what I’ve asked of them. Or simply, they just aren’t ready to trust me yet.

When I say ‘holes’, here, I am referring to behaviours or mentality that develops due to a lack of consistency in their handling over time. These can be issues of poor communication, incorrect timing and use of pressure and other such oversights that will cause the horse to become confused and he will thus start looking for his own way to do things.

As I have said before, it really doesn’t matter what exercise we are doing, as long as it involves asking a simple question and getting the right answer, which happens as the horse builds up its trust and respect of me. Again, this is achieved by being consistent, unafraid and unwavering, having spot-on timing with my pressure and release, and effective communication.

Upping the difficulty

Once the horse is able to do these exercises smoothly, and once trust is earned, the horse is happy to follow my lead. I can then start addressing more difficult tasks or specific issues, e.g. boxing / trailering, or behavioural quirks that the owner has asked me to attend to.

As a prey animal, a horse is more prone to flight or freeze when presented with a challenge (the reactive options to danger or perceived danger described by scientists are summarized as fight, flight or freeze). I need to get past his ‘flightiness’ and very real perceived fear for his safety, and that is what I am doing with trust-building exercises. Once he is free of that fear, there is room for trust and he moves from flight mode back to being relaxed, alert and ready to learn.

In presenting the horse with a bigger challenge or a more complicated ask, he may slip back into using the flighty, reactive part of his brain and I may lose the mental connection and trust I have with him. I will need to take him aside and re-establish that connection with a few simple exercises (as I describe in a post on trailering) – asking him to go left and right, speed up and slow down again.  I sometimes find that when we do go back to the simple asks, I will once again get a reaction from him that had previously been ironed out, such as backing up or rearing – I need to get him confident in my leadership again. We go back to basics until he can take my direction again and I have him back with me mentally. Then we proceed to the harder task once more. I keep doing this over and over again until he has accomplished the task I have asked of him.

Training the owner

Once I have established how to earn the horse’s respect, I can pretty much teach him anything. It all comes down to the fundamentals – I never ask for more than he can handle, and I maintain consistency, constant communication and always take him back to basics if I lose him mentally. Compassion and patience are the cornerstones to remaining consistent. Being able to sense when I’m losing balance or becoming frustrated and taking the time to centre myself is something that I now do without thinking. It’s an important part of my training practice and philosophy, and I suspect any successful practitioner of compassionate horse training would say the same.

I will often find, as I have mentioned in previous posts, that once I have done this basic work with the horse, the issue the owner originally called me out for will have disappeared and we no longer need to address it. When I ask the horse to ‘do the scary thing’ the owner is struggling with, because he trusts me, he isn’t scared and has no problem doing it (for example walking past a particular fence he’s ‘afraid of’ or going into a ‘scary’ corner of the arena). What often happens is when the horse gets afraid of something and starts reacting by spooking or acting out, the owner will come to anticipate this behaviour and become anxious too. The horse will sense this and become more worked up.

This is why training owners to connect mentally with their horses is so important. You basically need a simple exercise (which can be one of many) where you can show the horse that he can trust you and rely on you. And from there you can build on it. Keep it basic and don’t ask for more than the horse can give.

Wrapping up

The most important things to remember:

  • When you ask for something, make sure you get it every time.
  • Be clear in communicating with your horse – make sure you are asking for what you want in the correct way.
  • Your timing must be spot on – so you apply and release pressure at exactly the right times.
  • Most important: be 100% consistent, stay present and emotionally stable.

 As famous horseman and one of the founders of the modern natural horsemanship movement Tom Dorrance, said:

First you go with the horse. Then the horse goes with you. Then you go together.

To me this means – when I first meet the horse, I go there asking for his trust – I go with him. Then, by successfully asking him to carry out the task I have for him, I teach him to trust me – he goes with me. Once we’re there and he’s agreed that this is the best way forward, we go together – we’re a team. And everything we do from then on, is teamwork.

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