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  • crissimcdonald

The bare bones of trust.

c and ally 2014 canter

Trust can be a sticky and complicated thing. Or, once examined, it seem deceptively simple. 

When I was younger, trust was a make-or-break thing. Others had to prove themselves to me in order for me to extend it to them. If my trust was shaken, I ran for the hills, stepping away from friendships and relationships because of what I perceived to be violations of trust. Now that I’m older, I recognize that there were times when I was untrustworthy myself. If we’re lucky, time plus experience gives us clearer vision. 

Where does our friend the horse fit into this “trust” thing? Many training techniques do a good job of working with the ways horses learn, and most involve gaining a horse’s trust. But I think we can mistake a lot of what horses do as reflections of their trust (or lack of trust) in us.

Not that they are incapable of feeling trust or of being trustworthy—not at all! But on a day-to-day basis, I believe, horses are just looking to get along. They will do what they’re asked the best they know how in order to get through another day in, what must be to them, quite a wacky place. In other words, compliance is not the same as trust.

As a trainer and instructor who also gives clinics with my husband, I have the good fortune to be in a position to witness, experience, and feel some amazing breakthroughs between horses and their humans. I hear stories from many folks who have experienced things with their own horses that are powerful and beautiful and wild and unexplainable. I have similar stories as well. 

Let’s rewind a bit. 

For the past decade or so, I have been working on learning how to trust myself. Trust is what I realized I was gaining in the years I trained in the martial art of Aikido. As my confidence in my ability to protect myself grew, so did the trust in myself. Aikido also taught me how to most effectively use my body in falls and rolls, which was a plus each time I came off a horse (rider error each time!).

Trust also informs my work as an instructor. I trust that I will be able to help a horse and his or her person so that at the very least, they feel better. I trust myself to handle a myriad of situations. I also trust myself to communicate effectively so that what I’m trying to share gets across. I don’t get it right all the time, but a foundation of trusting myself to handle most things has brought an internal peace of mind.

The crux of all of this is that unless you trust yourself—who you are, what you do, the choices you make, and how you shape your life—you cannot truly trust anyone else (human or horse included). 

Humans and horses are, after all, going to be and do and say and act in ways unpredictable. However, when we trust ourselves, what others do or say doesn’t have the traction it used to. As I work on increasing my self-trust, my requirement that others show up as absolutely trustworthy (which I now know means predictable) has softened. 

I don’t believe that we can ever fully, truly, empirically know what is going on inside of another being—human, horse, sparrow, or jellyfish. We can make educated guesses based on patterns of behavior (or in our own species’ case, dialogue), and we can feel things energetically, a kind of “knowing but not knowing how you know.” But absolutely, positively know? Probably not.

Asking and having a horse trust us is one of the holy grails of horsemanship for good reason: they’re very large animals with one of the fastest reaction times on the planet. They’re also powerful and can move in several directions—sometimes simultaneously, it seems. So a trusting horse is usually a calmer horse and by definition, a safer horse to ride and be around.

Sometimes though, in our pursuit of that holy grail, I think we get into a bit of a rut. We measure ourselves (and certainly our horses) by how trusting they are, or are not. It becomes this nagging worry: does my horse trust me? How can I get my horse to trust me more? What do I need to do, who do I need to see, how do I need to ride, how can I better take care of them? You get the idea. Pretty soon, it can spin off into wild places – places that bog us down and then where do we go, once we are at a standstill?

As humans, we are incredibly focused on exteriors. It’s only when we take time to examine what lives inside us that we perhaps find gaps in our own trust of ourselves. It’s understandable that gaining a horse’s trust can be an affirmation, a way to bridge a gap we may have in trusting ourselves. Who hasn’t felt better because a horse first gave something to us, and then felt better again when we gave something back? 

When we are around a horse who trusts us (and whom we trust), there is a palpable sense of heart expansion. Of feeling that all is well. Even if the rest of our lives are crumbling around our boots, being in the presence of a beloved horse (well, for us folks of the horsey persuasion, just about any horse) can reassure us and give us a place to feel the ground under our feet and a renewed sense of strength. But even this good stuff can create a place where pressure can build. We put pressure on ourselves to achieve that goal, and we inadvertently put pressure on the horse to start trusting. It may be a subtle or quiet pressure, but it’s still pressure. 

If we strive to establish trust, if it’s our main focus, we sometimes not only miss a bunch of good stuff the horse may offer, but also, may mistake compliance, dissociation, or lack of movement for trust. Then, when things go haywire—or as my UK friends like to say, “pear-shaped”—we’re at a loss as to what happened. 

Here’s the bare bones of it, from my perspective. I’ve found that if I focus on how I can more fully trust myself, whether my horse trusts me or not becomes less of an urgent issue. This, in turn, drops the pressure across the board. I would like my horse to feel good about what we’re doing. I’d like her to understand it fully. I’d like her to be physically and mentally comfortable.

But whether she trusts me or not is, after all, not up to me. That’s a state each horse (or human) must come to themselves. Whether it’s self-achieved or granted to us by our horse, trust is a way of going through our lives. It can’t be forced. And the guardianship of the trust with which the horse gifts us (just as the guardianship of trust in ourselves) is a daily practice. 

One of my fundamental operating principles is that if the horse feels good about our interactions, then so do I. I will spend the rest of my days finding out how to present and teach so that I least interfere with a horse’s capacity to feel good—quieter, more at peace, and less worried about life in general.

c and ally peace 2014