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Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Training Through Trust

Training Through ‘Trust’

Sweet Pete Gum Massage

I love the subject of ‘trust’. Its trust that allows both humans, and horses to have full, rich lives. Without the feeling of trust, we are always looking over our shoulder as the horse is always looking over its shoulder, for the predator. There is another word that is related to the nature of trust and that is “feeling.” Where do trust, safety, security and peace really exist? They exist in feelings. Are we safe when we ride in a car? We are only as safe as we think or feel we are. We can only have “feelings” of safety. So, it might be said that trust and safety do not really exist outside of us. They are part of our internal process and really do not exist in the world beyond our consciousness. Actually, it is the same for the horse.

My childhood was anything but peaceful or filled with feelings of trust. My Dad was an absolute rage-aholic. While he has been gone for many years now, only a few years ago I learned he was clinically unstable emotionally. As in my life, when children are not given the support of a consistently emotionally balanced parent, it is hard for them to develop feelings of trust and safety. It was hard for me as a child to trust anything, never having the feeling that everything was really OK or that I was truly safe. It seemed war and strife was raging around me and was my constant companions. Fortunately for me, my dad was into horses, Polo to be more precise. He liked the exercise he got from riding and the glory and prestige that came from playing “the sport of kings.” For me, the horses opened up a world in which trust and safety existed within the relationships I was able to establish with them.

From a very young age, I discovered that horses would calm down when they were near me. There was something about me that attracted them in a very gentle way. I didn’t understand what it was that made them feel that they could trust me and that they were safe when they were with me. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my only agenda when I was with them was to have an enjoyable experience that felt good to both of us, no matter what we were doing. Even something as energetic and challenging as playing polo can be rewarding for both horse and human if played consciously, appropriately and well. If my horse ran over the ball or made a mistake on the field, I never punished him as I saw other players doing. Mistakes happen, they do not require punishment. Rather, they need to be seen as learning opportunities.

Feelings of trust are learned by children and horses in the same way, through appropriate guidance and support. In the case of children this usually comes from the parents. In the case of horses, it comes from the more mature horses and from the leader(s) of the herd. For the domesticated horse, it is supposed to come from the humans who have the responsibility of caring for the horse. Instinctively, I knew trust and safety were important to the horse, even though I still wasn’t aware of how important they were to me. But magically, when I could tell a horse felt safe and calm with me, I felt the same sense of safety and peace within myself. It seems to me that in order to communicate these feelings to a horse we must first find them within ourselves. I have found this to be especially true when working with troubled teens that have come to my ‘special needs’ (Equine Facilitated Learning) programs. Part of what I ask them to do is to help the horses to feel safe with them and to develop trust that this human will not abuse them and will protect them by being great parents/leaders. When these kids help the horse feel safe and calm, they begin to feel safer and calmer themselves. I believe that earning the trust of a horse helps us to learn to trust ourselves. By being trustworthy, we learn more about the nature of trust and how to trust. Trusting ourselves is related to having faith in ourselves, which translates into self-esteem and confidence.

I believe that horses are attracted to peace. Because they are prey animals, always weary of the possibility of a nearby predator, horses know terror. Terror is the feeling of being helpless to save your own life in the presence of mortal danger. Since the events of 9/11, we are all more familiar with feelings of hopeless peril. Perhaps we can have more compassion now for prey animals, such as horses, when they respond out of fear. Most of the so-called “bad” behavior of horses is them responding fearfully to something happening in the moment. They do not act out of a premeditated or stubborn desire to go against our wishes. The flight response of horses is an act of moving to safety and peace as much as it is running from fear and danger. They desperately want to regain safe and peaceful feelings. When our goal with the horse is to become a “peace bringer,” they will establish a sense of trust in us that is so profound that they will do anything reasonable we request of them, even some things that seem unreasonable and even life threatening (such as jumping through a hoop of fire). A horse that does not trust does not feel safe. Just as with a paranoid human, a fearful horse will never be fully present or able to respond with total confidence in the moment. Trust is an essential element and one of the keys to success in almost any situation, for the horse or the human.

Even with all of my antennas up and functioning, my intuition finely tuned and my inner voice(s) loud and clear, things happen that I would rather not have had happen. I can only control one thing, my own thoughts about any situation. The only thing I can ever expect to “change” is myself, my own mind. I can’t control the weather, the thoughts of another person or what anyone else does. I can’t change my family or anyone. It is only my own thoughts that I can truly exert any type of “control” or authority over. I can change my mind by deciding to, but not yours. I can influence you only by what I do and some by what I say, which is reflective of how I think. If I live my life from a trusting, loving place and you experience that paradigm through me, you may find it attractive enough to want to experience that trust (peace) more in your own life. Having highly successful relationships with horses helps humans develop these feelings of inner peace. This sense of peace, this inner calm, has an essential element of ‘connectedness’, an awareness of ‘oneness’ with all things, especially nature and, in particular, horses.

Horses are totally honest. They never lie, they are incapable of it. If a horse exhibits behavior that appears to be aggression, it is really honest fear. If they look sick, they are. Given the absence of a “masking” drug of some sort, a horse is very forthcoming with how it is feeling physically and emotionally. They are more forthright than we are, as they are not concerned with their “image.” Also, we can be feeling less than good and still function. We can still do our jobs and try to have a decent day. The horse can do this as well. If you know how to listen to a horse, they will always tell you the truth about how they are feeling, and, usually still be ready to do their job for you. This is part of the horse’s innate nobility.

In my training seminars, Training Thru Trust®, I emphasize the importance of trust for the horse very strongly. Safety equals trust which means peace for the horse. It is the same for humans. Who doesn’t want to have a sense of safety in their life? We all need to trust in something to feel safe, and that trust begins with ourselves, with our conscious connection to each other and to nature. We are not separate beings, alone and autonomous, as our egos would have us think. Just as the horse who finds himself alone way out in the back of the herd is more vulnerable to being eaten by a predator, so are we more vulnerable to doubt and fear by thinking and holding ourselves as separate from each other.

I didn’t start to trust myself until later in my life. Not receiving the proper support and love as a child prompted me not to trust that I was lovable or worthy of love. I learned not to trust anybody, especially myself. However, early on I did learn to trust horses. They did not hide their fear in order to look brave. They did not need to appear any other way than how they really were. This is probably because there is not the same kind of self-serving ego in the horse that exists in humans. Anyway, now that I am older and have spent most of my life with horses, I trust them even more. I have learned how to receive their fluent communications and to respond appropriately. Horses quickly trust me because I have dropped any agenda other than being truly helpful to the horse, rather than just use the horse for something. Because I am a peace bringer for the horse, they are attracted to me. They move to me, almost always without hesitation. They show me immediate trust and the utmost respect, which I have earned. I earn their respect by being a respectful herd member and by learning to lead them from a place of compassion and skill. I earn their trust by being like the trustworthy parent, always kind and consistent. They are peaceful with me, because I have become more peaceful within myself.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, renowned author, speaker and occasional rider, frequently writes about St. Francis of Assisi. When Wayne visited my Maui ranch a while ago we talked about what made St. Francis so attractive to animals. It was trust. The animals trusted him so very much and looked to him as the “great parent” and the “great father,” which he was for them. Their trust was immediate and unwavering because he spoke only of peace and kindness to the animals and had only that as his intention for them. Perhaps we can take these lessons and practices of bringing peace to the horses as bringing it more into our own lives as well. Then, perhaps we can help each other to learn to trust more and to have more faith in themselves. Maybe more of us can find ways to become peace bringers to each other and to only have the intention of being kind and truly helpful, as we do with horses. I think learning to be highly successful with horses is one of the most life enriching and personally beneficial experiences we can have. After all developing trust is developing peace.