In a comment to my post of December 10, Arnold wrote, “People talk a lot about "trust". I never saw 'trust' in my horses, but then I never did tests for it, never looked for it, and I am not sure I could see it if I looked for it. I'd be interested in comments about the reality of this thing called "trust" -- what it looks like, how I can evaluate it, and, I suppose, how you develop it.”
I will begin by saying what I said in response to Arnold’s comment, “like beauty, trust is in the eye of the beholder.” It means different things to different people. This was borne out last weekend when I asked a group from the clinic in Canberra sitting around the table what they thought trust meant when it comes to our horses. There was no consensus and even some divergent opinions. Views ranged from the idea that horses do not experience trust; to trust requires no fear or doubt and all the way to fear being an essential requirement of trust.
So I’m going to give you my thoughts on trust and accept that maybe 10 percent of people will agree. But I also think that no matter whatever I say about the concept of trust, only about 10 percent of people will ever agree.
First, I will make a leap of faith and say that horses are capable of trust. If this is so, trust is doing something because you believe it will work out okay. On the other hand, obedience is doing something because you believe not doing it will work out badly for you.
In other words, a horse does something out of trust because it believes it is a good idea. Whereas, a horse is obedient because it believes disobedience is a bad idea.
It’s difficult to know where the demarcation between obedience and trust exists because they can appear to be the same and usually result in a similar outcome. The difference is the emotions that each evokes in a horse because obedience comes about by removing a horse’s choices, whereas trust offers a horse choices.
I have no reason to suspect that with regard to gaining trust, horses and people are different. Trust is not given but earned. It is earned by the absence of betrayal. When we ask a horse to do something we must ensure that it works out well for a horse every time and it knows it worked out well. It is irrelevant that it may have been a good or bad result for us, it only matters that the horse felt it profited from our request.
For trust to develop a horse must benefit from our direction 100 percent of the time, not 95 percent. However, once trust is established the percentage of success for a horse can drop and still not damage the level of trust. Horses are gamblers by nature and once they believe they know how something works, they will continue a behaviour even if the likelihood of success of that behaviour is increasingly unreliable. Think of the number of times a confirmed grass eater gets pulled in the mouth and kicked in the sides when it puts its head down to eat during a ride, yet still the behaviour persists for weeks, months and years.
In addition, I also believe that in order for a horse to trust there has to be some doubt or fear associated with the choice to trust. There can’t be 100 percent certainty with a decision to trust. If there is no doubt about the wisdom of a choice, a horse is experiencing confidence, not trust. I think trust involves some degree of doubt or lack of certainty, but where the odds are weighted in the horse’s favour. But it always must result in a horse’s favour.
For example, when I ride my horse past a clump of dirt that worries him, he stops to look hard at it, maybe veer a little to the side and then proceeds. If I were not on his back, he would probably turn and go the other way. I can feel the worry in him, but I think he trusts me to not get him killed by the scary mound of dirt. Yet, he is not 100 percent certain. I choose to believe he is demonstrating trust in me to keep him safe, but perhaps what I feel is only obedience. However, if it were just obedience then he would probably not stop or drift from going straight – he would simply ignore the mound. Maybe it is combination of trust and obedience? He trusts me to keep him safe, but not so much that he doesn’t stop or take a sideways step.
There are definitely limits to trust. It’s never all or nothing. For instance, my horse might trust me enough to ride in an arena, but the minute I ask him to ride across a rickety bridge his trust might rapidly disappear and couldn’t be found with an electron microscope.
Everything I have said up to now assumes that horses are capable of trust. It’s a big assumption and requires a distinct leap of faith. I’m not so certain that horses trust. The problem comes that I don’t know for sure that you can prove trust exists in the horse world. Everything that a horse does that can be attributed to the concept of trust can also be given alternative explanations. Partly this is a problem of definition and partly to a lack of scientific tools to delve into and understand the motives behind a horse’s behaviour. Our ability to research the equine mind is extremely primitive.
One thing I do believe is that many people insist trust is the motive for their horse’s behaviour when it is probably not true. An example of this is when working horses at liberty. People assume that because a horse is not confined by equipment or yards, that they have the freedom to escape if they didn’t like the work and have trust in the human. Another example is when a horse has a bad trailering experience and then loads into the next trailer without a problem. They assume these things happen because of a horse’s trust. But they confuse learned behaviour and obedience with trust. People like to believe in trust because is has the aura of a special relationship with a horse. Something we all want to achieve. Yet, most of what our horses do can be explained by obedience. If trust exists at all, I believe it is much more complex than these simple examples reveal.
Police horses managing protestors – obedience or trust?