Working with a fearful horse can be a challenging– but rewarding– experience. Many of the horses we take in for training at Horses with Hope have had unfortunate encounters with humans. Some were exposed to rough handling at auction, others were trained through fear from the get-go, and all need a lot of time to help rebuild their trust in people.
There are plenty of questions that we ask of a horse, and we might take it for granted when they answer yes– haltering and catching are a great example, but it could even be something that seems like it should be easy: like taking a treat from us. It can sometimes be a little easier to catch a food-motivated horse, but we still need to stop and ask ourselves if the horse is truly trusting us, or if their desire for food is simply overcoming their fear of handling. When using food as positive reinforcement we always require the horse to be respectful. It does not take long for any horse to become a cookie monster. We can create a safe boundary by using a dish to feed treats instead of our hands and making sure that the horse does not “push” into our personal space while accepting the treat.
Food rewards can come in handy when a horse is questioning why we’re in their space. If a horse is unsure, feeding a cookie and then leaving can tell them that we were only there to give them a positive experience. This is where the “trust bank” comes in.
We like to spend a lot of time making deposits into the “trust bank” before asking for withdrawals. Simply being around a horse without asking anything of them can be a deposit in the trust bank, especially if they are particularly fearful. This helps reinforce the concept that we aren’t there to cause distress and pain, like other humans in that horse’s past.
Some horses are not as food motivated and may find more reward in a good scratch or something as simple as entering their space, therefore creating pressure, and then releasing the pressure by backing out of their space. No matter what deposit you make into the “trust bank” the important thing is that the deposits always outweigh the withdrawals.
Once we have assured the horse that we are not a threat, and have built up our deposits, we can begin to ask the more challenging questions– catching, haltering, leading, picking their feet up, ground manners, and so on. But we can’t get there without the foundation of trust.