For many of us, our equestrian life is a vocation, a lifestyle. It’s so much more than a hobby, an interest, or a sport. The rhythm of our lives is determined by our horses’ needs: We get up in the morning and feed up before breakfast. We prepare our own dinner after our horses are safely bedded down for the night. It is the love of the horse, and our special relationship with them, that motivates us universally, whatever style of saddle we choose, whatever the rules of our chosen discipline, whatever the monetary value of our “fur babies”. We want to have good relationship with our horse.
What are the qualities of a good relationship? Trust is pretty important. It is a foundation for the relationship to develop. Trust comes from the partner (human) firstly being consistent and predictable, and secondly, having compassion or care and concern for the other (horse). Some researchers have called this benevolence. Thirdly, the partner (human) being able to communicate this to the other (horse); and fourthly, the partner being competent in regard to shared activities.
Where there is trust in a relationship, there is a sense of safety between partners. You can see that this is reciprocal. The horse develops trust in the rider, and the rider develops trust in the horse. Trust in the relationship is tested in many ways. Perhaps high-level eventing is one of the best examples of a dangerous activity where the horse must trust the rider to ask questions he can answer, and the rider must trust the horse to be able to answer the questions she poses.
There are many other examples. In a day’s hunting, the horse goes across unknown, unprepared terrain at speed, the show horse or dressage horse enters the charged atmosphere of the big arena, the showjumper allows the rider to control the canter to prepare for the big jumps. The trail horse goes across the bridge or through the puddles. I am sure that you can alI think of a horse that you trusted, and think about how your trust developed in him.
All of these four qualities can be applied to the relationship we have with our horse. We can build trust by being consistent in how we behave around him, for example, daily handling, routine with meals, and moving around the horse in a way that does not startle or frighten him. We cannot expect him to trust us if we use punishment inappropriately, or if we frighten him or hurt him. If he bites and we hit him across the head and frighten him, he will have cause to not trust us. If, however, we speak sharply to him, and push him on the chest to move him backwards, we can have consistent expectations of him — for example, in staying a certain distance away from us when being led, moving off the leg immediately, or jumping the obstacle the first time etc. If we are consistent in our expectations of him and communicate clearly to him, he is likely to be much more relaxed because he knows what to do.