TRUST: The Bedrock Upon Which the Human-Equine Partnership Is Built

TRUST: the Bedrock Upon Which the Human-Equine Partnership Is Built
By WALTER ZETTL
Translation by Lynne Sprinsky

The rider must prove to the horse every day that he is earning the horse’s trust, and must tend and care for it like a very sensitive plant. Otherwise, that trust can be lost through one small thoughtless act.

It is the duty of the rider and, indeed, of everyone who has anything to do with these noble creatures, to make the unnatural life style that is forced upon the horse by humans as pleasant and comfortable as possible. The well-being of the horse and the creation, maintenance, and preservation of its trust in his human handlers must always rank first in importance. This goes particularly for the training of a horse for racing, driving, or ridden disciplines. The horse must always respect its human handler or rider, but must not fear him.  Because it is the horse’s God-given nature to be highly fearful of anything new or unfamiliar to him, it becomes the human being’s obligation to take the necessary steps to reduce its fear and anxiety insofar as it is possible, by using his utmost skill to nurture the horse’s trust in him, always interacting with the horse with much loving kindness and patience. We will never succeed in completely overcoming the horse’s natural fear, however, because millions of years of evolution have thus equipped it for survival.

A horse can cause people to respect and fear it because of its size alone. Just think of how quickly this can happen when mounted police officers need to break up a crowd, for example. In such a situation, a single mounted police officer can be as effective as ten foot patrol officers.

But to be able to do this in practice it is important first to reduce as far as possible the considerable in-born fear of the horse.  For the rider/trainer, this is the most important and most difficult task.  Because the horse believes itself to be in danger when faced for the first time with anything new or unfamiliar, a great deal of  loving care, patience, skill and mutual trust are required in order to eventually produce a partnership.

This eventual partnership must always be the objective from the very start of the horse’s education. Anything that’s done incorrectly leads to the horse very quickly losing any confidence it has in humans or its rider, and this trust, once destroyed, is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully rebuild.

Even between humans, a partnership has to be built upon mutual respect and trust, if it is to endure. In this we are aided by our intellectual understanding and by language, and still it is easier said than done. It’s much more difficult in riding, where the goal is to unite two very different life forms into a harmonious unity.

On the one side, we have the very strong but very fearful horse, for which the rider and all things unfamiliar present a great danger. The horse has no capacity for logical thought or for intelligible speech. The horse’s “language” consists of its reactions to its environment and to the aids of its rider. That’s why it’s so important that we humans learn the horse’s language and study it closely, so we can understand accurately what it is our horses are trying to tell us.
On the other side we have the human being, a leader by nature, one who is accustomed to mastery and to using his hands to do everything, especially to put everything in order and under his own control; usually he’s equipped with very little patience and is accustomed to blaming not himself but others (including the horse) when something goes wrong. Add to this the fact that he’s a carnivore, and gives off a certain odor to the horse, that of a predator. So the horse, as a prey animal, instinctively tries to evade that fate by running away as fast as its legs can carry it – a strategy that has ensured its survival as a species for millions of years.

The building of a relationship of mutual trust starts first in the horse’s stall. The horse should have a roomy, clean stall where it is physically safe and  comfortable, but it will still feel like a prison to him because in it there is no great freedom to roam. A horse needs to spend a lot of time outside in the fresh air. It doesn’t mind the cold, although drafts should be avoided. But in the stall, walls and iron bars separate it from other horses (its herd) despite how close together they may be.  However, it has food and drink. These are a great aid to it in getting to know its surroundings, caretakers, owner and rider(s), and is it to be hoped that the horse’s first such experiences are only good ones.

The stable aisle and the grooming stall should have non-slip footing to avoid injury that may cause the horse to become more fearful still. The ties and cross-ties must be so situated that they will break or separate if the horse takes a sudden fright and pulls back, so that its halter doesn’t cause an injury to its poll, neck, or elsewhere.

Free-longeing in the arena gives the horse its first opportunity to familiarize itself in a stress-free way with the area where it will spend part of its life for the coming months or years. A few treats can persuade it to return to its trainer/rider after it has worked off some steam.

After a few days we can put a halter and a longeing surcingle on the horse, only tightening the surcingle after haaving led the horse around at the walk for some time, and then only as tight as the horse can tolerate without anxiety. Then, after laying out a longe circle in a corner (well away from any entrance or exit gate), the handler and an assistant bring the horse into this circle.

The assistant begins by leading the horse carefully, with soothing words, onto the track of the circle. The handler stays in the middle of the circle and holds the longe line loosely in his left hand.  We start most horses to the left (counter-clockwise) because for most this is their “good side,” the side to which we should first introduce all new lessons or exercises. When the horse is moving to the left on the longe, we hold the longe line in our left hand, and the longe whip in our right. (To the right, we hold the line in our right hand and the whip in our left.) The lash of the longe whip should be long enough to touch the horse’s hind leg when necessary.

After the assistant has led the horse several times around the circle in walk and it has gained confidence in its surroundings, the assistant can gradually and carefully distance himself from the horse until the horse remains on the track without his support. At that point the handler takes over the job of longeing the horse all by himself, using the line and whip. The whip is lifted or dropped to show the horse to keep walking out on the circle track, or to ask it to change gait.  If the horse trots or canters on out of an excess of energy or enjoyment, the handler must in no case stop it, but rather must try to support the horse’s voluntary movement with the whip or soft clicks of the tongue so that it maintains the gait for a while, until a calming voice brings the horse again gently into the walk.

After a few circuits at the walk, we bring the horse to a halt, again using our voice to support our command. We allow it to stand calmly for a while. Then the assistant changes the longe line to the other side and everything that was done to the left is repeated to the right. In the next few weeks, all of this will gradually be doable without the assistant.

When the horse trustfully accepts all this, we can introduce it to the saddle and the snaffle bridle with equal care, so that it gains confidence and trust in this new equipment also. Then we can carefully and conscientiously begin the backing of the young horse.

From the very start, we have to help the horse become comfortable with, and gain confidence in, the unfamiliar weight of the rider on its back. The rider and his assistant bring the horse to the mounting block after leading it around at the walk until the girth has gradually been tightened sufficiently.   A second, experienced horse-and-rider pair should stand nearby; they serve to take advantage of the equine herd instinct and thus calm and reassure the young horse as well as to lead the way. The assistant stands on the right side of the horse, holding the right stirrup with his left hand; with his right he holds the upper part of the snaffle bridle’s cheek piece, just above the bit, so as not to add to any discomfort the horse experiences in its mouth, the most sensitive portion of its body. Both assistant and rider speak soothingly to the horse. 

The rider then carefully leans over the horse so his stomach rests on the seat of the saddle in order to allow the horse to begin accustoming itself to his unfamiliar weight on its back, another very sensitive body part. Slowly and carefully the rider seats himself in the saddle. Meanwhile he and the assistant continue to speak soothingly to the horse so that it remains standing still. Then the second (companion/guide) horse-and-rider take up a position just in front of the young horse. The assistant walks the young horse over to the track or rail, behind the more experienced one who leads the way. Then he lets go of the young horse and it and its rider follow confidently in walk behind the lead pair. In this way, the young horse can gradually accustom itself to the weight and the refined aids of its rider. After some time, this can also be attempted at the trot; for this the rider will be in rising trot. The lead horse is always a great help to the young horse. After a number of circuits of the arena in trot, the horse is carefully transitioned back to the walk. In this the rider’s soothing voice and the reassuring proximity of the lead hose are also of great help.  Then the riders can carefully change direction, and after a further time in walk and trot, they bring the young horse back to the mounting block. Here it is wise to allow the horses to stand calmly still for some time before the riders carefully dismount.  The whole procedure is repeated for the next few weeks, and eventually the presence of the lead horse is no longer needed.

This is the way our old master, Col. Herbert W. Aust, started his young horses, first with longeing, and then for the first time with riders on their backs. This methodology was adopted by his students as well.  Every care was taken so that the young, fearful horse was not frightened but rather gained confidence in its work. For it happens easily that a horse is made so fearful or anxious by its initial longe work and/or by its first backing (as well as later on in its training) that it will take months for it to forget that bad experience and to gradually rebuild its trust in its handler/rider.  An extremely sensitive horse can be spoiled for life by one unfortunate early experience at the hands of a human.

There are no evil or bad horses other than those that are created by human hands. I have always thought that the best and surest way to handle the naturally fearful horse is to assure that it undergoes only the kind of experience with humans that builds confidence and trust, and gradually reduces its fear.

When I became acquainted with Linda and Pat Parelli and their “Natural Horsemanship” a few years ago in Florida, I was very impressed by the way both they and their students handled (“played”) with their horses with endless patience as I observed them on their so-called playground.  One could recognize how this very different methodology also leads to a partnership that is based on mutual respect and trust.

Some dressage riders use this method as well, for they can achieve the goal of building a partnership much more quickly without making excessive demands of the horse. All the riders are equipped only with halters, ropes of different lengths, and the so-called “carrot stick.” The horse gets to know its handler, owner, or whatever you want to call the human in the equation (in future I will call them “riders”) much more quickly.  The horses recognize their riders by their distinctive individual scent, which, up until this point, the horse has associated only with a potential predator.  The constant proximity to its rider quickly reduces this association and replaces it with a strong trust relationship. The riders are respected by their horses, but not feared. The horses react to the smallest movement of the rider’s upper body, hand, or even just one finger. Every rider allows his horse to investigate every new object or obstacle first by sniffing it. They always give the horse time to get acquainted with everything it encounters, whether it’s rubber balls, barrels, tree limbs,  narrow bridges, bodies of water, a row of tents, flags, or strange noises and much more.  Above all the horses learn to permit themselves to be loaded into all different kinds of trailers, horseboxes or floats by the rider they trust. Nothing is left to chance. The horse is given all the time in the world to gain trust in its rider and in everything that it at first perceives as something dangerous.

I wish that more dressage and jumper riders would use this method to build trust with their horses. Then there would be a lot more happy riders, and more importantly, a lot more happy horses.

This is only a brief glimpse into the importance of allowing the horse more time to gain confidence in its rider and its surroundings. Without complete trust between horse and rider in any environment, there can be no true Art in the sport of riding. There is nothing in the world more beautiful than a harmonious union with one’s horse built upon a foundation of mutual respect and trust. There ought never to be any force in riding, nor in one’s handling of the naturally fearful horse. Force only causes the horse to become more fearful still, in the process becoming tense and tight throughout its body, which destroys its naturally beautiful gaits and the nobility of its appearance.  Riding should be an Art that creates a harmonious unity through mutual trust, respect, and regard between two very different bodies, minds, and spirits.

What is the saying? “Art ends where force begins.” So be patient, kind and loving to your horses, and they will thank you with their trust, loyalty, and devotion.

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Walter Zettl

I believe in dressage as art, and I have practiced that art throughout my professional life.”
-Walter A. Zettl

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