Stories from the Heart

A Matter of Trust

Photo by Amy Bumpaous

We have all been in a trust exercise at some point in our lives. Your boss gathers your coworkers, or the RA your freshman year of college gathers your fellow undergrads, to talk of how trust is so essential in the functionality of your “team”; whether that’s selling medical supplies or being a cohesive unit of giggling sorority sisters, trust is key.

You line up in groups of two. Standing with your back facing your partners front and keeping your eyes closed, you are asked to fall back into their arms. If you trust your teammate, you merely drop safely into a comfortable embrace. But if you do not trust them, you stagger backwards, stepping towards them. And if they don’t trust themselves to catch you, you go crashing into the floor.

So with trust, you get a warm embrace. And with lack of trust, you go smacking into the cold, hard ground.

I find this exercise, and the outcomes it induces, quite comparable to my riding. If I trust my horse, and he trusts me, we win. We go stride for stride in sync, with cues and aids so seamless that the people surrounding us have no idea why he is suddenly soaring over a fence, or half passing to centerline.

Without trust, we lose this cohesiveness. We lose the symmetry; the respect; the response.

This is so apparent to me, and because of that, I put my horses through trust exercises quite often. With Nixon, it is a hack on a loose rein with my feet out of the stirrups and my mind wandering. I trust Nixon to an extent, although that trust is growing exponentially as he further settles into his routine as a sport horse. He has never offered a buck, rear, or spook, and I’m beginning to realize the only direction that this horse is going to go is forward. It might be at breathtaking, death-defying speeds, but the only way with Nixon is forward.

But with Mak, I can take it a few steps even farther. I trust this horse with every fiber of my being, because he has never given me a reason not to. I got Mak off the track at the young age of four, and even then he was more “whoa” than “go”. He was happiest on the buckle, loping along a field. He was so quiet, so simple, and so brave I thought he was actually sedated. And had I not gotten him from a friend, I would have pulled blood work to determine exactly that.

But alas, that was just Mak. He was, quite simply, easy.

Our best dressage work is usually without stirrups…
Our best dressage work is usually without stirrups…

With Mak, I know I can trust him to pack a friend around a XC course after they have taken a considerable break from riding. I know I can teach an up-down lesson, or pop someone over their first vertical. I can put a nervous friend in the middle of a field and have a herd of cattle chase her, because I know that he won’t put a foot wrong. He will compete in the 1.0m jumpers one week, and take a 4-year-old for their first ride the next.

Why have I always trusted Mak? Because I know that he trusts me. I have tried so hard to never overface him, put a fence in front of him that he cannot jump, or a question that he cannot read. I moved him up the levels slower than most and by the time we were ready to go training level my friends were exasperated by my nerves. They had deemed me the most ready person to ever take the leap. And the minute we took that leap, Mak caught me, and guided me along to safety.

And with Mak, at the end of a bad week of rides when I am frustrated and confused by our lack of understanding, I have learned that a trust exercise is the key to finding a solution. I know all I need to do is take off my stirrups, or take off his bridle, and let myself fall back into his safe embrace. Just like the trust exercises of freshman year, I have to let my guard down to ever realize the true relationship we have. I have to close my eyes, relax my aids and pray that he catches me.

The minute that I do these things he becomes the best partner to have. Because Mak has never not caught me.

Never puts a wrong foot.
Never puts a wrong foot.

We have now soared over great heights bridleless, including a XC school. I have galloped him at his greatest speeds over fields without a saddle. And, at the end of the day, my best dressage schools are when I drop my stirrups, relax my body, stop trying so hard and let him prove his training.

People question this behavior of mine. Every time I share a picture or video of us having one of “those days”, I am bombarded with comments of how and why I do this.

How can I trust a horse to not take advantage of not having a bridle? Why would I let him jump around without a saddle? What if he takes off? What if he spooks? What if he becomes a crazed rodeo bronc? Or gasp, what if you’re not perfect?

It all comes down to one thing—trust; and, a great horse who deserves the trust. It can make or break a relationship. Whether it is between you and your boyfriend, roommate, or coworker, trust is key. Without trust you will never grow in that relationship.

So go out there and get on. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. And every once in a while, try one of those trust exercises with your mount. I can almost guarantee the horse you love will catch you before you fall.



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