Monday, August 29, 2016

Principles of Trust

I call Courage a special snowflake and I mean it (homeboy got a new girth because he start biting the old one), but I truly believe that in most ways, he's just a more-expressive version of a totally normal horse. 
because reasons

I mean, I'm in awe of the number of times I've told people "Oh C doesn't deal with X" and they immediately respond with "well you just have to force him". And when I tell them that I don't believe in forcing him (and neither does he), I then get told I simply need to use MORE force.

Whoa. No. Slow your roll. Back the hell up.

See, Courage is definitely a challenging horse. That we can agree on. I've found some guiding principles that really helped me progress and move forward with him.

1) It starts with trust.

For Courage, this is HUGE. I can't begin to emphasize it enough. He's strong minded and independent and he took care of himself physically on the racetrack for a very long time. His track connections called him aloof, and they were right. He's a very closed off horse who's slow to make connections and trust is a precious commodity. That's not because he was treated poorly. The horse lived like a king.

He's just also very, very sensitive and the way he coped with track life was by shutting everyone else out.

So before I could get anywhere with him, he had to learn that he could trust me. That wasn't an overnight process. Think more like 2 years. Seriously. Looking back, there are some things I maybe would have done differently, but on the whole, this required just a very slow, methodical approach that included setting consistent boundaries and being very, very patient.

and lots of over-the-top photoshoots
2) Never damage trust.

Perhaps you've heard the maxim "the only emotions that belong in the saddle are patience and a sense of humor". This is SO TRUE. Courage learns at Courage speed and that speed varies from day to day. Sometimes we take giant leaps forward. Sometimes we go running backwards. Mostly, we just inch along, day by day.

No matter what, I have to be his emotional center. Calm, relaxed, supportive.

I know as ammies we get so wrapped up in "success" and that frequently just ends up damaging the horse. With Courage, I've learned that bolting and flailing and leaping all just represents him mentally checking out and protecting himself. I took a lot of flak for refusing to punish him for his perceived "bad" behavior, but you know what?

He trusts me now. He knows that if says "I can't right now", I'll listen to him. I'll accept his quiet "please stop" and give him a different option that he can do.

It's really not profound. It's just not being a dick to a horse who's trying very hard.

3) Always build trust.

For us, this meant completely throwing my timeline and goals out the window. I wanted to go out and compete at first level this year and Courage has all the right skills to do it.

But you know what?

He wasn't ready. He told me quietly and then he told me loudly. It's hard to accept that instead of going to the annual banquet and collecting my fancy satin, I'll just shell out and have to explain why I don't jump or show (again), but that's not why I'm here.

Instead, we've spent all summer meticulously building strength and muscle memory. I know that Courage can do first level, but now he's starting to believe it.

Yeah, I could have maybe done the same thing at shows, but instead of picking fights with him and putting him back on the defensive, we did it piece by piece, alone at home. Pressure off, no one watching.
and over and over and over

Courage really is an amazing horse--for as aloof as he seemed to be, he's probably one of the most relational horses I've ever been around. These things are important for any horse, but they're doubly important to him. He's definitely pushed me to improve as a horseman, but he's also pushed me to improve as a human.

He's taught me to stay calm in the storm, to always ask why, and to be steady when everything else falls apart. He's not the horse for everyone, but the more time I spend with him, the more I realize that the reward with this horse isn't the yards of satin he might eventually bring home, but rather every step of the journey we share together.

He isn't a means to an end. He's my partner.

So when I hear "just force him", I'm appalled. I've spent so long building Courage's trust in me and his confidence in himself. To force him would be to undo everything I've done and everything we've built together.
yeah i just love this picture


  1. Snowflake!
    Also so much love.

  2. I too have a very special snowflake and I totally agree with this. You post is helping me come to terms with the 'not showing' thing I'm doing this year.

  3. I can't believe people tell you to force him. Who are these people lol. He sounds like pretty much every other OTTB I've owned or worked with. Generally the OTTB way seems to be 1 step forward, 2 steps back. (but I think that comes with training most horses). They're smart, but sensitive and they demand your trust but its hard to acquire. Slow and steady.

  4. Trust is such an amazing delicate thing...and anyone that says to force a horse to do it wont get the same response from a horse that trusts their handler when put in the same situation. Sure maybe both will get through it, but the horse that trusts you is going to ultimately be happier, more willing and give you their all in the longer run. Good horsemanship isnt forcing a horse at all.

  5. Courage is helping you become a better rider/trainer/human being and it's AMAZING! And if I had a dime for every person who's told me to "just beat the pony", I'd be rich. It's hard to let go of what we dream of accomplishing in competition, but the life lessons and personal growth are so much more valuable!

    1. My ultimate goal is to combine life goals AND satin.

      Because satin.


    2. I feel ya. ONE DAY we will be champion of something... one day...

  6. I laughed out loud at the "force him" comment. Some special little snowflakes just don't play like that. Plus if you look at what dressage is truly supposed to be about force does not appear. Instead it looks shockingly like what you are doing. Slow methodical training that improves and produces an amazing horse and partnership.

  7. YES. So many yes's. My horse is very similar, although he's a bit more subtle than Courage. Instead of acting out (although he HAS acted out quite a bit before) he just shuts down if he feels like something is wrong, like he can't trust me. Yeah, I could force him, but that would make him shut down even more.

    1. I actually prefer a horse who acts out. I have a really hard time with the shut down response. Much respect for your ability to read and address a creature like that.

  8. Courage is lucky to have you and you guys are a great team :)

  9. Word. Assertive sure. Don't be a doormat and let ponykins run the show and eat your face. Force? Smh. Trust is so easily damaged.

    1. I like the "don't be a doormat" comment - so true! It can be SUPER hard to find the balance between doormat and assertive in a way that works for the horse. They're all such individuals!

    2. Haha yeah and trying to write a post on the difference between building trust and being a doormat sounds completely impossible. 1) don't be a doormat because no one respects doormats 2) don't be a dick because see previous answer.

  10. Learning to listen to your horse and understand what he's saying is so important. It's a tough skill to learn, and I feel like each horse "speaks" in a slightly different way, but once you figure it out it helps SO MUCH

  11. He loves his mother. And he is so lucky that she was the one to scoop him up (or get forced upon her, but who's paying attention to that). He found the right person to hear him and listen.

  12. i love your blog and don't think any horse really responds to force well ( I know some might but...Courage..just no!). I just hate when everyone thinks they have the answers so glad you just pfft and do your own thing. And might i mention I am glad you are back doing your blog i get excited whenever i see a new one posted !Thanks for sharing your special snowflake with us :)

  13. It is always shocking to me that treating a horse as a partner with equally valid opinions is such a bizarre notion to so many people. I mean, there has to be a leader because horses don't understand democracy, and for the safety of you, the horse, and everything around the leader must be the human. But being a leader absolutely requires the trust of the person or animal that is following, because otherwise nobody is following and therefore nobody is actually leading. And you don't build trust by completely ignoring the opinions or feelings of the other person. Or animal.

    Horses are a lot more human than we tend to think. Or maybe we're more horse than we realize. One of those. I express this a lot, but I am so glad that Courage has a human like you.

  14. Kudos to you not sinking to the level of force and kudos to Courage, and other horses like him, for keeping us humans honest. :)

  15. They are all special little snowflakes. They learn at their own speeds and some days they don't want to do anything at all.

    When they tell us they can't or don't want to, sometimes we have to think of new ways to show them they can. Other times we have to back off and change directions. Knowing the horse helps us choose the right option. It's all about channeling their energy in the right direction.

  16. I love this post. This is really good stuff. What being a horsewoman is all about.


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