Training For Genuine Confidence and Trust
Too often I see people throwing blankets or waving plastic bags around their horses with the intent of "desensitizing" them and teaching them to be "calm". These horses are typically standing as still as can be in the center of a pen, breathing heavy, wide-eyed, back leg rested, with every muscle tensed, maybe even licking and chewing or yawning. They flinch with each wave of the bag and they itch to flee each time the blanket touches them. But they don't. I see people celebrating this moment, claiming the horse is no longer afraid. That the horses have decided to trust the human and so has made one giant leap forward towards being a safe, reliable, "trustworthy" horse. A "been there and seen that" kind of kid-safe, novice rider safe, bombproof horse. But are they? Are they REALLY trusting, calmer, safer, and more relaxed now? No, I don't think so. These horses are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they run, bad things happen. If they fight back, really bad things happen. If they stick around bad things happen...but maybe a little less bad. So they learn to deal with what's happening to them. They shut down and internalize because they have no other choice. But what happens one day when these same horses decide the hard place (the human) is less scary than the rock (the scary thing)? Or when the human, wanting to train differently, becomes less of a hard place? These same horses often suddenly (or gradually) stop coping and start falling apart mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. They aren't safe, reliable, trustworthy, bombproof, whatever anymore. They are dangerous, explosive, angry, terrified, stressed, spooky, and everything else to go with it. That's because they never really were calm, relaxed, trusting, confident, etc. They were scared horses that were trapped.
So what happens when these horses that *were* bombproof, reliable, trustworthy, safe, etc are given the space to express how they genuinely feel? What happens when you stop putting them between a rock and a hard place? What happens when we stop using flooding and suppression? They start unpacking. Every horse unpacks differently. Some open up their luggage and dump it on you. Their fears, trauma, and everything previously suppressed comes tumbling out onto the floor in a giant heap. It's messy, unpleasant, chaotic, and sometimes dangerous. It takes a lot of patience, positivity, careful management, and confidence to help horses that unpack this way. It can be confusing and overwhelming if you're not prepared. Some horses unpack slowly, as if they aren't sure if they are going to stick around. They are protecting themselves. It'll start with a little waver in their behavior or a glimpse of "something else" as they try a little resistance or showing a little fear. With more time you may see some deeper fears and behaviors you've never seen before as they begin to feel safe. These horses will require a very sensitive and consistent dedication to building their trust. If they pick up on the subtlest of hints that they may be forced or corrected they will shut back down. And then there's everything in between! Every horse is different, and so the unpacking process is different for every horse. A lot of it depends on the handler as well. Are they ready for a full unpacking? Or will they only allow small amounts at a time? Do they know how to help a horse unpack? The answer to these questions plays a huge roll in the unpacking process. Whether your horse is unpacking slowly or quickly, I want you to know that this is good! It's the beginning of a relationship where your horse feels safe communicating with you, knowing you're listening and going to help them. However, I do encourage you to seek out a mentor and supportive community that understands this, such as the TWE community! The unpacking process is often not pretty and can be emotionally challenging to go through. Having support will help you and your horse be successful and stay safe.
So now we recognize the dangers of suppressing fear, we've started the unpacking process for horses who need it, and now... we want to begin cultivating genuine trust and confidence in our horses. But How? How do we avoid using flooding and suppressing fears, while still being able to achieve safe and reliable horses that trust us? It's important that we take an approach that respects our horses and builds their trust in us. We can do a lot of this through training, but we really need to lay a solid foundation for both our horses and for ourselves to be successful. FIRST, by educating ourselves on equine behavior, body language, the way their minds work, and the way they take in information. They experience the world differently than we do. They see things differently, they don't find patterns the same way we do, and they do not rationalize the way the world works in the same way we do. For example; a bag on the ground is not the same as a bag in our hand. A bag you just rubbed all over their body is also not the same as a bag out in their pasture. A bag on a rainy day is different than a bag on a sunny day. That's just who they are and how they see the world. We need to respect that and be considerate of it, and our training plans need to take this into consideration. But at the same time... They still learn through consequences, positive and negative consequences, just like we do. They also create associations like we do. Their size and their species does not change how they learn. We also need to be aware that things like licking and chewing, head lowering, and resting a back leg don't necessarily = calm/relaxed. They can mean stressed! Again, study equine body language, don't rely on conventional wisdom to guide you. They are sensitive too. Their ability to remember unpleasant or frightening experiences is stronger than ours. Their sense of smell is much more powerful than ours. And they are far more aware of the slightest of touches or sensations on their body than we are. SECOND, by understanding how the overall environment plays a huge roll in our horses' general wellbeing and their ability to cope with stress, we can really make a difference for them when it comes to training and their interactions with the outside world. If your horse is worried about where their buddy is, they won't be able to cope as well with that bag flapping around the arena. If they are being fed the equine equivalent of rocket fuel, they aren't going to be able to think calmly about the saddle pad you're wanting to throw over their back. If they've been confined to a small space for an extended period, it's going to be a struggle for them to not lose their cool when there is a weird noise in the distance. By providing your horse with a safe, consistent, species-appropriate lifestyle you can maximize your training efforts and see a much more confident and relaxed side of your horse. THIRD, our behavior strongly impacts our horses. If we are stressed, nervous, rushed, distracted, or running on a short fuse we can quickly cause our horses to be all those same things. Horses are herd animals designed to respond to the changes in those around them so they can stay safe. When working with your horse, try to remain confident and relaxed, as if you have all the time in the world, there is nothing wrong, and you have no agenda. You'll be amazed at the results. FOURTH, pain of all kinds, neurological conditions, and physically compromising ailments can increase your horse's sensitivity to their environment. Some of the most anxious horses I have ever met, the ones that are inconsistent from day to day and act as if ticking time bombs, are horses with underlying physical conditions that put them on edge. Their brain is telling them "you're compromised, if a predator shows up you're the weakest link so you better start running first if you hope to survive." No amount of training can override this. Instead, focus on body work, vet care, therapy etc.
So how we can train our horses in a way that cultivates genuine confidence and trust? This is a complex topic that I dedicate tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources to studying and teaching. So I won't be able to share with you *everything*, but I can help you know where to start. First, the idea of trust... Trust can be operationalized/understood as a history of positive outcomes. You trust the chair you're sitting on because every time you've sat on that chair, or similar chairs, in the past it hasn't collapsed under you. ie. A history of positive outcomes. If we want our horses to trust us, we need to be the same for our horses. We need to predict positive outcomes for our horses, and when we ask our horses to do something, that something needs to result in a positive outcome as well. (Surviving the event doesn't count. From start to finish the horse needs to feel safe and be experiencing a positive outcome) This breeds confidence in our horses. If every time I've asked the horse to go over an obstacle it has resulted in great food, no stress for the horse, feeling safe every step of the way, and they had a choice during the experience... They are going to be more likely to go over the next obstacle when I ask. And the more times they experience situations like this, in a wide range of situations and environments, the more confident they will become. If they step over the tarp and it was positive, then they go over a bridge and it was positive, and then they go through a chute and it was positive, and so on...