Trust is Earned!
By Betsy Kelleher
I hope others have enjoyed this Fall more than I have! The Autumn season has always been my favorite, with the anticipation of riding forest trails within a glow of golden maples and crimson oaks. The hot summer limited riding to early mornings around the barn, and I was looking forward to more time on the trails to enjoy the fall colors and sounds of leaves underfoot. Memories of long past competitive rides still linger, though distant.
This year, Fall became a season of disappointment. The first beautiful day with cooler weather gave us the opportunity for a long overdue trail ride. And then Rocky ruined it all!
An earlier ride around the barn had warned me that Rocky had more energy than usual (too much alfalfa, I thought, so we cut back a bit!). First time out on the trails in two months, and Rocky bucked Russ off. It was a unique situation, and we’ve thought about it, talked about it, rehashed it in our minds and we know it may never happen again, but trust was broken. We’re too old for that kind of nonsense, and trust is difficult to rebuild.
Rocky has been an excellent trail horse for Russ for almost two years, never spooking once on the trail. Around the barn, he was scared of tarps over tractors or piles of hay, and once when I rode him down the road, he was more concerned about a blue plastic bag in the highway than traffic coming at him. Even big trucks didn’t bother him. I’ve worked him around tarps and plastic for hours, fed him on tarps, and tied plastic bags to his halter and I’ve seen a lot of improvement.
It wasn’t fear that caused the bucking. I feel guilty, because I was in the lead on Traveller, and I let him have his head going up a steep hill. I remember that he cantered a few strides, just toward the top of the hill. Russ was coming up from the bottom of the hill, with another horse right in front of him, between us. Rocky veered around the other horse at a sudden canter, throwing Russ off balance. Russ tried to pull him back, and he bucked. When I looked back, I saw Russ on the ground, his foot just leaving the stirrup, and Rocky cantering up the hill! Russ was lucky. A brief headache, a sore back for a couple of weeks, and he is back to normal. He rode Traveller the rest of that ride, and I rode Rocky (no further problems).
The fact that Rocky bucked was a total surprise. I can only imagine that he wanted the freedom to move out and resented being held back first by a strange horse then by his rider. Perhaps he felt left behind. Perhaps it was a balance issue on a steep hill. When I let Traveller canter, Rocky wanted to be up there with us, cantering up that hill, enjoying the moment the way I let Traveller do it. That’s what I think.
Trying to understand his motive is essential. We need to work him through this kind of situation so it won’t happen again. I know Rocky is not a mean horse, and I tell myself that one incident does not ruin all the good work put into him. But I’m frustrated! I want to ride, to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, but I don’t anyone to get hurt! I’ve worked with Rocky for almost two years, and I feel betrayed.
Trust is an essential basic issue between horse and rider. There must be a good relationship based on respect and trust before a rider and horse can really work well together. Even then a horse has feelings and emotions and instincts that exist in spite of human desires, and situations arise that can cause trouble!
Rocky is for sale. I’ve already searched most of the internet sites and I have found very few with Rocky’s good qualities. The “husband-safe” horses are either very expensive, or sold. So, I am doing what I feel safe doing, working to rebuild my own trust in this horse. I have ridden Rocky several times since the exciting event, and he has been very quiet and willing. He is back on grass hay, and it has made a difference in his energy level. Riding him in the arena lets me deal with issues with some degree of control. I have not ridden him up a steep hill, with his buddy cantering and another horse blocking his way. Just as I don’t jump off a high building and trust that God will protect me!
I realize my own frustration, even the anger, is primarily because I HAVE worked with this horse for so long to make him as safe as possible for my husband to ride. And I have bonded with him more than Russ has. I have taken charge, gently, when he spooked at a tarp, and I have worked hard to desensitize him to things that bothered him.
I’ve noticed an independent streak in this boy. When he had eaten all the grass in the paddock, he decided to walk out through a four strand hot wire fence. He did it a dozen times, whenever the fence wasn’t hot, and I’m not sure why he stopped. I was watching the last time he tried it, and he was almost clear of the wires, one more step to freedom, when he stopped and backed up, back into the paddock. I can only wonder if he reasoned that I would put him back into his stall if he went out, and just maybe he decided he would rather stay in the paddock. Whatever went on in his mind, I know he is a smart boy and very resourceful.
I’m looking at horses from a new perspective. I’m seeing each horse almost like a person, each with a unique personality. I’ve always worked with horses based on generalities. I’ve tried to establish myself as a leader, to be gentle and understanding, but firm and confident, teaching each horse to respond to basic cues, to pay attention, and I’ve tried to be patient and firm until the horse does what is asked.
Now, I see Traveller as a stoic old man, reliable, sensible and quiet, but one who just might develop an ulcer trying to absorb the tension he feels within me without acting nervous himself. I see Lady as the alpha mare who must take care of everyone and who loves people as long as she gets the attention she wants, and who gets pretty feisty sometimes when she doesn’t get it!
And I see Rocky as a friendly little boy, sometimes with the growing independence of a teenager. He’s had good training, but he was a pasture horse, and his independence is a good thing that just needs to be firmly guided. He likes to have fun, running and bucking and kicking up his heels in the pasture, and he acts a bit pouty now and then when he is in, standing with his back to the stall door. But he will quickly turn around when approached and extend his head and nose for any attention he can get. Backing out of a two-horse trailer was difficult the first time, because he had always turned around and walked out of an open stock trailer before. But he quickly figured it out when he was carefully shown how.
I’ve mentioned Patricia “Boo” Titchenal and her rider recovery program before, and this would be the perfect time to use her services. I did send her an email, and her reply included this comment, “I have found that it is pretty unsafe to ride any horse without a connection.” She seems quite busy. I guess there are other horse owners with similar situations!
I want to seek to understand more than to control. I won’t allow unruly behavior, but I will try to be more aware of anything that might have an effect on my horse. Controlling the situation as much as possible is easier than controlling the horse. Hind sight shows the extra energy from too much alfalfa, not enough exercise for a young horse, the cooler weather, the addition of a strange horse in the group, and perhaps the lack of a real bond between horse and rider. Hopefully, by identifying the factors involved, we can work to correct the situation.
Is Rocky trying the boundaries, like a teenager? Does he simply need to learn what he can or can’t do? Can we really know what a horse thinks and feels? Probably not, but we can take the time to pay attention to him, to be with him more and to learn how he responds to many different stimuli. Learning to trust involves knowing each other.
Memories can be burdensome, especially when they cause fear. Too much time thinking of what could have been can keep us from moving on with life and finding new joy in what now can be. We go on from here.
Placing our trust in another being involves understanding and wisdom. How far can we trust a horse? Rocky is young, with natural instincts of self preservation. Understanding a horse requires us to be careful. We need to be aware of what our horses are seeing, and where their attention is. I’ve been told before, that a rider must always have the horse’s attention, or the horse can easily become distracted. It goes back to the relationship, to being aware of each other on a constant basis. Any good relationship involves a deep trust, and a sense of knowing each other. And sometimes, it involves forgiving mistakes and working through the aftermath.
We have to know any being before we can really place our trust in that being. And it’s the same with our relationship to God. We need to take the time to know God better, in order to realize His greatness, and His love for us and how trustworthy He is. Our very lives are in His hands, and we can trust Him all the way.
I have been allowed to “see” God at work, and I know in my heart that He is able to work all things for our good. We CAN trust Him! Because He is love and He is power and He is pure goodness and mercy. He is a holy God and our loving Father.
In Isaiah 46:11, God tells us, “From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” We can trust Him, because He has the power to do anything.
Another passage, in Lamentations 3:22-23, shows another side of God’s nature: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is His faithfulness.”
Like Rocky, we humans sometimes kick up our heels and something happens. God knows our hearts and He is a forgiving God. We can trust His love, His mercy and His compassion. He will help us work through any problem.
(Originally published in the November 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)