Say Yes to Trust
By Betsy Kelleher
A recent magazine article told what to do when your horse says no. I realized how lucky I am. Rocky might spook at something, but rarely says no. Lady sometimes stops on the trail, and I believe she is saying I don’t want to continue. When I ask her to keep going anyway, she usually says ok. During one recent ride, however, Lady told me a definite no.
Since my husband gave up horses, I’ve been riding alone on the same trail we rode near the stable where I board. It goes almost a mile straight back from the road, past the fenced pasture lined with trees on the right, and a five acre section of woods at the back. On the left side of the trail, a ditch containing runoff water edges a farmer’s field and curves around the back of the woods beside an area of homes. There’s also a lovely trail inside the wooded area.
Being a cautious rider, I like to approach things in baby steps. I do this for my own courage and safety, and to encourage my horses to accept what I ask. To say yes, in other words, instead of no. At first, I rode Lady only half way to the woods. Then I rode to the edge of the woods. For awhile I rode the trail past the woods. Then I rode a short ways into the woods, later riding all through the woods. And I rewarded Lady (or you might call it a bribe) with a stop near the edge of the woods to eat some green grass and sweet clover. I only let her eat when I say she can, to help her relax in new places, and when she’s been good. Lady became eager to go toward the woods, probably to enjoy her bribe—to eat some grass, I mean. She has been very good on our rides together, just Lady and me, until one ride in May.
We were almost to the edge of the woods, when a bird started making a loud fuss in a tree nearby. Lady was suddenly looking toward the pasture on the other side of the trees, and acting spooky. I know birds often make a similar fuss when something is trespassing in the woods, but I assumed this bird was merely warning its friends that a horse and rider were coming. Perhaps Lady understood the bird’s message better than I did. Instead of calmly stopping in her tracks, she was plainly nervous and tried to turn around without my asking her to. She was definitely saying NO, I don’t want to go any further! I wasn’t scared, and I saw nothing to be nervous about, but I decided to listen to Lady’s instincts and trust her this time. It could have been a coyote, or maybe a deer. It didn’t matter to me what the source of Lady’s fear was; I decided to respect her feelings. Yes, we missed out on a nice ride through the woods, but we could do something else.
I rode Lady back to the outdoor arena and we worked on her gait for awhile and some dressage stuff. She was calm and willing. A week later, we went out again on the trail back to the woods. We heard no bird making a fuss, and Lady was alert but didn’t give me any resistance. We rode to the end of the trail, then came back around the edge of the woods, going into the woods and back out. Lady enjoyed a few bites of grass before going back to the barn.
The point of this story is trust. Lady and I have reached the place where I can trust her much more than I used to. You might think I should have made her go further that day she told me no, that I should have taken charge and ridden her past her fears. But I knew she wasn’t acting without reason. She thought there was something to avoid that day, and I decided to trust her. Perhaps she was trying to protect me as much as herself. I would appreciate that. I was very glad, however, that she didn’t say no again on our next ride.
Trust is important between horse and rider, especially when it’s just the two of you. Riding out alone can be scary. Lady and I have had eight years to learn to trust each other. We’ve worked through some issues after she spun with me when a dumpster truck rattled by us on the road, and I think we have finally gotten past that. OK, I probably had more problem with it than Lady did, but the important thing is that I feel more confident riding her now. Taking those baby steps did the trick.
It usually takes time to build a good relationship. I admire a trainer who can meet a horse for the first time and be that confident leader that the horse immediately accepts. I have never learned that skill. I have learned to know Lady as an intelligent alpha mare with a mind of her own. Bossy, but affectionate. I know it’s wise to be aware of the possibilities, but I’m learning I can trust her in many ways.
For example—when I go to the barn to take Lady and Rocky out of their paddock and back to their stalls, I sometimes give Lady extra freedom. I don’t do this with Rocky, because I know he is easily distracted. But if no one is around, with no horses in the crossties by Lady’s stall, I will open the gate and let her go. She walks through the open section of the old barn that no longer exists, through the corridor between barns, and around the aisle to her stall. She doesn’t disturb hay in front of other stalls, and she doesn’t wander around or go to the yard to eat grass. She knows where her stall is, in spite of being put into a different stall in a different barn, after all the changes while taking down the old barn where her stall used to be. She disappointed me only once this year, stopping to eat a few bites of nearby grass before continuing on her way.
Perhaps I give Lady too much credit. She’s a horse. She still needs a confident leader and she still gets nervous when those big farm machines go by, but I am amazed at her growing courage. I also realize that our horses are mirrors of our own inner selves. Her courage may be an indication of my own growing confidence.
Since horses can be our mirrors, I believe God uses them to show us who we really are inside. These horses constantly give us challenges and tests to help us learn and grow! Have you noticed? Each relationship offers lessons, discoveries, and opportunities for mental and spiritual growth. I’ve had to face my fears and let God’s Spirit work in my life to develop my courage. I know my horse will trust me only when I’ve earned that trust. I have to reach beyond my own humanness for the strength that only God can give. As a result, I’ve seen changes in myself and in my horses. When a horse says no, it’s an opportunity to discover where we are in our relationship, and to look for ways to help my horse say yes. For example, I can ask for less, or ask more clearly.
In my own life, I don’t want to miss out on something God has for me just because I said no, I don’t want to go any further. So I daily ask God to help me be aware of His guidance, to listen for the voice of His Spirit and to be obedient to His will. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Learning to trust is a top priority, for us as well as for our horses.
(Originally published in the June 2012 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)