If you’ve never had your horse second guess your leadership or question if they should trust your instincts, congratulations you’re basically winning at life. As flight or fight creatures, mostly anyways, horses naturally balk at things that they find scary (and then sometimes try to run away). Some horses are braver than others, but this doesn’t make them exempt from occasionally saying “nope” when facing a new obstacle. Even after (almost) eight years, and training Bella from the ground up we still face moments where she has to question my sanity. Dealing with the waves this past weekend on the beach was one of those moments.
Now, it’s not that Bella’s never seen water before. We’ve schooled water complexes before, crossed dreams, and even did a beach ride late in 2017. At the beach this past winter she had no problems with the water, but of course it wasn’t moving and it was clear straight to the bottom.
The water at the beach this weekend was definitely moving, and Bella was definitely not thrilled about it. She got right up on the edge of it and planted her feet. I let her walk along the edge for a bit before actually planting her and just asking her to move forward again. While it took me a few minutes I did get her to walk in, with me on her.
I never tried to “force” her in, but I also asked her pretty consistently. When she finally did get far enough down that it came rushing up around her feet, she sat back on her hind-end a bit and startled me. Instead of exploding though, she simply turned around and walked out of the water and then refused to go back in.
You could argue that her reaction was because the water was cold, and not because it came rushing up around her feet and she started sinking some, but I would still argue that you’re wrong. This is a mare who’s been through cold water before (beach ride in December) without ever faltering. She’s been reluctant to get her feet wet before but never to this extent and I saw no reason to push or punish her for the reaction.
Over the past seven-something years, I’ve worked really hard to try to build a level of trust between us. I don’t ask her to do anything I don’t think she can do, and she trusts me not to get her hurt. Of course, like any human being, I’m not perfect and she is smart enough to question me from time to time. This time when she questioned me, or rather gave me a firm “I don’t think so, ma,” the only thing I could think to do was to actually get off and lead by example.
It took a couple of minutes to get her to actually inch down into the water, another couple to get her to keep from backing up when the water came up around her feet. But I’m confident that she walked away from this with a little bit more confidence about it. Because there was no force, no anger, no retaliation against her for telling me no.
Trust building should start at home, and it should start on the ground, but you can always work to build it up more from the saddle and then anywhere you go. I was definitely not super great about understanding this as a teenager (sorry Bella) but I was lucky enough that Bella and I spent so much time together that the good outweighed the bad, and that she’s allowed me to work on being a better owner for her. Bella has come along away and I certainly wont take all the credit for it, she’s an incredibly smart horse.
Building respect and trust in’t simply a one time thing either. Daily you’re faced with decisions when you’re with your horse and every decision could make or break some of the trust. Even if it’s not directly your fault, horses learn to associate people and things with good or bad experiences. If you consistently drill on something that your horse finds difficult they’re more likely to balk at being ridden, if your horse is constantly disciplined in the cross-ties they’ll come to associate that area with bad experiences, if you have a fall over a fence they’re likely to remember that and either they’ll start over jumping or they’ll start refusing/running out.
Knowing all of that, when faced with a new issue with your horse, your best bet is to remain calm, to ask them multiple times ( Ask, ask, tell. ), and then if none of that works look at the best way to tell them to do it with the least amount of dramatics. There are no bad horses simply horses who have things that need to be worked on. There’s almost always a logical reason that a horse will tell you no, and from my own experience a lot of that has to do with trust.
Build trust from the ground, teach your horse to associate you with good things. I think I had that pretty easy since she was two when I got her. I spent weeks working on teaching her to load, on grooming her, feeding her treats, working on her in-hand ground manners. Once we got to lunging we took a step or two back (have I mentioned she’s an opinionated mare?) but then we moved forward again. It’s been like that our entire time together. Move forward, take a step (or five) back, move forward again. But I trust her, and she trusts me… albeit a little more rationally than I trust her it would seem.