Bonding, trust, respect and other word games
As the demographic for this board skews younger and younger and more towards the non-horse owner or first time horse owner, I see this words used (and misused) more and more often in the title and text of posts.
Here is my two cents, based on my experience, on those terms and what they actually mean in terms of practical training.
First, bond, as is “How do I bond with my horse?”, “Do we have a good bond?” and “He would never kick me, we have a bond.” A lot of video and DVD trainers make this sound magical and mystical. It doesn’t have to be. A bond comes from time and training, and training without fear, confusion or pain. That’s it. Spend time with the horse, asking it, in a clear and unequivocal manner, to do incrementally more complex tasks. Do this while rewarding the correct behavior and avoiding pain and fear, and you’ll create a bond. You can do it with twirling lead rope, rope halters and carrot sticks if you like or you can do it the traditional way good horseman have for centuries; you can do it from the ground or you can do it from the saddle. Feeding treats doesn’t create a bond, it creates a treat hound. Nothing wrong with feeding treats if you wish, but if your horse whickers when he sees you, it’s because you’ve conditioned him to anticipate treats, not because of your “bond.” If you don’t increase difficulty by increments, but repeat the same exercise that the horse has mastered over and over until the horse is bored, guess what? No bond, just a ticked off horse.
Trust goes hand in hand with “bond” and is built much the same way. Time and training without pain or fear. However, a lot of horse people misunderstand what creates pain and fear. They think of the obvious; such as violent abuse; but don’t think about badly fitting tack, clashing aids, poor riding, incorrect shoeing, teeth issues, subtle lamenesses or muscle issues causing more pain than a beating. They wouldn’t ask a horse to jump through a flaming hoop; but don’t understand how walking onto a trailer, being ridden double, crossing water, walking on uncertain footing or having someone or something run up behind them creates more fear than that flaming hoop.
How do you know if your horse respects you? Does he do what you what him to do, within reason, promptly and cheerfully? No jumping through flaming hoops necessary, but does he pick up his feet without fuss, move away from pressure, and lead without coming into your space? Go forward promptly when you ask for forward? Or is hoof picking and leading a bit of a battle, handling for the vet and farrier a struggle? Are you an ask-tell-demand handler or an ask-whine-beg-plead-promise treats handler? Do you allow the horse to say “No, I won’t do it!” to you? Have they said “No” and gotten away with it? There’s your answer.
In Littauer’s system of riding and training, the goal of elementary level is authority over the horse and he describes exactly what that means and why you can not progress in riding and training without it. But the word “authority” is out of fashion, because it sounds harsh. Nobody likes that word, or “dominance” or “assert control” because they just sound mean. But guess what? It’s a word game. When Littauer was talking about authority over the horse, he’s talking about exactly the same thing today’s online and DVD trainers are talking about when they use the term respect. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I think trainers trying to market their products understand that bond, trust, respect and partnership are much more palatable to their target audience than authority, control or dominance even though they mean the same thing.
All three of my current horses will walk up to me in the pasture to say hello, without being called and without food. Does this mean that they love me? No, not in the romantic, emotional sense; but in the horse sense maybe it does. I am the alpha horse in their herd, and they associate me with security and comfort. So they like be close by me, in the same way horses will stay close to the alpha in a herd. But that doesn’t mean they’ll go get help to when I’m stuck in a well, or that they spend their days drawing my initials and hearts on their horsey notebooks.
I bought the little gray horse in my avatar for my business as a 4 year old with 30 days training on him; my intent was to make him up as either a suitable horse for a student in my program or a school horse. He was a sweetheart, though he hadn’t had much handling, no one had ever hurt or scared him, so he was a lovely little guy to bring along, smart and willing. So, in the spring of his 5 year old year, after a long series of schooling shows, hauling out to clinics and cross country schools and a couple of combined tests, I entered him at Beginner Novice in a little unrecognized Horse Trial. At this venue, there was a long section in the middle of the cross country course, over a ridge, where you couldn’t see any of the rings, schooling areas or trailers. In fact, the only things you could see were the jump judges. And as we’re galloping along on XC, I am suddenly aware that the little horse is VERY alert, and that I could feel his heart pounding through my boots. He was anxious because while we certainly worked on hacking out alone and working away from the group; we were in a strange place, doing something new and suddenly he couldn’t see any other horses. I was worried that I was asking too much of him, but when I put my leg on, he went forward, and when I pointed him at a fence I could feel him focus a little, as if he was saying “Whew! This, I know how to do!” So in the end, he jumped around clean, it was a good experience, and he went on to do well at some recognized horse trials in the coming weeks and move up to Novice in short order.
Did he continue to perform while anxious and worried because of our bond? Because of trust, respect and partnership? You could say that. Or you could say that I had trained him properly, exposing him to lots of different things in a logical sequence while gradually increasing difficulty, never allowing him to say no and thus building confidence. Same thing, right? Just word games.
Please don’t think I am mocking people with romantic notions about love, trust and partnership with their horses. I was a young, romantic, emotional horseperson once, and somewhere there’s an embarrassing short story I wrote in high school about an incident on the trail being proof that a horse loved me and that I was his true owner, not the annoying lady who paid his board. I was not immune to that sort of thinking, and shedding that way of thinking was a process that took years. What I am telling you is that the sooner you see horses and training as they really are, rather than the romanticized, idealized notion of what you want them to be, your riding and training will improve.