This is one of the most important keys to building trust with your horse, and it is something that should be one of the foundation stones of your relationship with him or her. It sounds simple, but the fear factor is actually quite complex.
We train horses to ignore their fear and their flight instinct, which is what they use to keep themselves safe. We train them to accept being controlled, contained and carrying predators (us) on their backs. For centuries they’ve had metal bits in their mouths and metal plates nailed to their feet and been denied their freedom. They have obliged us in this time, becoming willing partners in our lives, our work, our wars and our ambitions, but their incredible wild instincts have never died off despite this ‘domestication’. Now, what happens when horses do something that we have tried to train out of them, that is natural to them but undesirable to us? For example, spooking at something in the hedge that they think may jump out at them (the classic ‘that tree-stump might be a tiger!’), or rearing while being ridden when their back hurts or they've been jabbed in the mouth by unkind hands. They have a natural reaction and often this scares us. They spook to take themselves to where they can get a proper look at the potential threat from a safe distance and they rear to evade the pain. They are reprimanded for this, but they also feel our fear which further un-nerves them – their belief in us as their protector is rocked as we not only fail to let them know that we understand why they are behaving as they are but it also scares us, so they feel they have to take charge themselves, scaring us further.
This is their instinct as a prey animal - if they sense that they are in danger they genuinely fear that they could be killed. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that can spoil some beautiful partnerships. It’s a difficult thing to do, to control our fear. It is an instinctive emotion that we have little control over as our biological and chemical reactions take over and cloud our thinking. By the time we are showing the classic signs of fear, the racing heart and shaking hands for example, our horses have already clocked the fear in us, as they are so incredibly sensitive to our emotions and body responses. It isn’t something we can ever hide from them. The fact that horses are so much bigger and stronger than us doesn’t help the fear factor and it is virtually impossible to view the situation for what it actually is in the moment – from the outside it rarely looks as bad as it feels. Of course different people have different levels of fear and experience counts for a lot, but most people feel it to some degree at some point. We often let our horses down through being afraid of their natural reaction in what, for them, is an unnatural environment, and that there is less and less excuse for this as the knowledge is out there to be learned. As I said, this is a pretty obvious and basic point, but as horses have so willingly overcome their natural fears and instincts as much as they can to co-operate with us, one of their natural predators, we owe it to them to try to never be scared of them. Instead we need to educate ourselves in their natural behaviour and their neurochemical response to situations so that we fully understand their reactions, which will go a long way to eliminating our fear. We should also always explore the possibility of pain. (I would recommend reading anything by Lucy Rees and Mark Rashid for starters. The movie, 'The Path of the Horse' by Stormy May is also a good watch. It is available to watch for free on YouTube.)
Understanding behaviour and seeing the world from their point of view will make them seem less unpredictable and more an animal to be nurtured and given confidence than purely controlled. This will have so many benefits: happier, more confident horses; happier, more confident owners; a safer partnership and a deeper, more trusting relationship. It will probably also have a knock-on effect on the rest of our lives too, as we all know that confidence in one area breeds confidence in others.
Something else that will build trust is showing them gratitude. How often do we thank our horses, and I mean really thank them for what they do for us - not just a pat on the neck but a deep acknowledgement of how they compromise their lives to please us? They will understand if we do this and that simple acknowledgment goes a long way. It's part of treating your horse as an equal, and no matter what the traditional view on this is, there is no harm in that at all! Think of it this way - they don't have to do what we ask of them - they are big and strong enough to say no. Everything they do for us is a favour and is given with good heart. Of course gaining this understanding of their behaviour and reactions, and changing our own perceptions and reactions will take time and patience, and our own fear instincts may occasionally take over without us being able to stop them. But then the most important thing we can do is be honest – don’t try to hide it from the horse as they won’t believe us anyway, but tell the horse that when they do ‘that ‘ it scares us and why. Something in them will understand this and it will be so much more reassuring than if we try to appear brave or tough it out and reprimand the horse to cover up the fear (which some riders/handlers do, particularly in front of fellow horse people). If we try to appear brave then our horses will lose even more confidence in us as we are lying to them. And as we know that horses never do this – they are always honest and always have a reason for everything they do.