Trust: The Foundation of Good Training
by Bethany Videto

Beth & Orla

One mid-summer day when I was working on a ranch in Pennsylvania I was sitting by the arena where the horses were tied, waiting for their next rider, and a woman walked up to myself and a volunteer who was sitting with me. She asked, “Do you warm them up before they go out on trail?” We politely answered, “No we do not.” We did not explain it to her, but our reasoning was that the horse’s muscles warm up as they are walking around on the trails. The woman looked offended for the fine beasts that stood before her and haughtily replied,
“That is just not natural.”
The volunteer, a man I knew very well, chuckled lightly and said,
“We are predators riding around on the backs of prey animals, what is natural about that?!”  I laughed, but over the years I have come to realize that he was right. He didn’t mean to say anything profound, but it changed the way I look at the rider to horse dynamic completely.
We are not “Natural” horsemen and women as marketing would like to brand it. We are cognitive and evolved animals. Some of whom want to have a bond with these animals, that we are drawn to for one reason or another.  If I went to work and got bullied day in and day out and was made to feel uncomfortable, I would not want to go to work. If I were ever in danger and I could not get away, I would strike out and hope that my attacker stops or goes away. Now try to picture that you are a prey animal with a predator on your back causing you pain and discomfort “at work” on a regular basis. How would you respond? We teach our animals how to react to us.  What should we be teaching our horses? The answer is simple. Trust.

     I have taught people of all ages and walks of life how to be around and ride horses. Something I run into with virtually every rider is that at some point they seem to want to bully or out muscle the 1000+ lbs of muscle equipped with its own brain and desires beneath them. I, as a child, had my time when I thought I needed to be strong and assertive to command my horse. Through trial and error and (let’s face it) injury I have learned that when I ask gently for what I want, but remain firm enough to not take “no” for an answer, not only does my horse learn faster,  the ride is more pleasant. Now I am not advocating anyone should be a doormat to their horse. As I said they are 1000+ lbs and could really hurt a human being. What I am saying is try to see your relationship with your horse through the eyes of a prey animal.

    One of the establishments where I worked would buy their horses from auction, bring them home and then pair members of the barn staff with each horse to train them. There is a certain mixture of excitement and fear when you are getting on a horse you have never seen anyone ride before. Over time I adapted certain instincts. I would breath deep and relax before attempting to mount each horse. Once I was on top I would sit for a few minutes before applying my aids gently; increasing firmness until the horse responded. We were complete strangers to one another and some of these animals had, had either very bad or very little interaction with humans. 

I watched other riders, try to muscle their horses a bit and assert their dominance, bent on acquiring the horse's respect. It was like watching those young riders all over again trying to arm wrestle with a giant. I did my work quietly and spoke to my horse and used steady, firm but gentle movements and in not very much time at all the horse and I would bond. This was very important, because eventually I would have to be breaking branches from on their backs and tying them in their tails, sounding off different cell phone tones, randomly yelling (like a child might) and wriggling around in the saddle in ways that could not be comfortable for them.

I may have been training the horse to be ridden, but I was also responsible for teaching them to trust humans. Showing them that they are safe, despite being ridden by predators. If you ever find yourself with an on going issue with your horse, my best advice is to not lose your temper. Don't take it out on their mouths, flanks or ribs. Breath deep, relax and think about the world from your mount's point of view.