- Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC
Your Horse's Trust Bank Account
When you train your horse, are you making deposits in the trust bank account, or are you making withdrawals?
Many horses I see have trust bank account balances in the red. Dr Susan Friedman was the first person I heard describe the relationship we have with our animals as a trust bank account. It's a nice way of picturing the trust we have with a horse we are training. Put simply, every time we set training up so the horse can successfully behave as desired and avoid causing the horse to feel pain, fear, anxiety, or high-levels of stress in order to achieve our training goals, we put deposits in the trust account. However, every time we create training sessions that result in the horse feeling pain, fear, anxiety, or high-levels of stress we are making withdrawals. You don't have to be smarter than a fifth grader to know how unhealthy a negative balance is in any bank account.
Contrary to what some trainers or horse training home study kits may say, you can't 'make' a horse trust you - you can only show yourself to be trustworthy. Trust between two parties can't be forced, made, or 'proven'. Instead, the horse needs to be able to decide for themselves, after repeated, positive, and predictable experiences, that you are worth trusting.
Horse training methods that attempt to 'make' the horse trust you, usually using escalating levels of pressure or flooding to achieve training goals, take withdrawals from the trust bank account. Unfortunately for the horse, these methods seemingly work; horses will often comply with the trainer's request to behave as desired. But this likely isn't for the reasons the trainer thinks. This is not trust. Rather, the horse is simply more fearful of the trainer's behaviour and the only way to gain comfort is by escaping away from the pressure the trainer is applying. This can commonly be seen in examples of trailer loading where a trainer uses escalating pressure to get a balking horse into the trailer. All animals, including horses and humans, learn as a result of the consequences that occur after they perform a behaviour. If those consequences are pleasant, the animal will be more likely to repeat that behaviour under similar conditions in the future. If the consequences are unpleasant, the animal will be less likely to perform the behaviour in the future. Pleasant consequences reinforce behaviour. Unpleasant consequences punish behaviour.
For the trainer loading a horse using escalating pressure, the horse entering the trailer is the pleasant consequence and the trainer's escalating pressure behaviour will have been reinforced. For the horse, the trainer's escalating pressure is the unpleasant consequence and the horse's behaviour of balking will have been punished. The trainer will repeat their behaviour in the future, and the horse will not repeat theirs. Such results may appear to the trainer to be evidence of 'trust'. But from the horse's perspective, the trainer's behaviour when they balked was a very unpleasant consequence, and one they would not like to happen again in the future. Such shared experiences do not build trust for both parties.
Sometimes a human example can be helpful in better understanding how such approaches may feel. Let's say I wanted you to trust me, and you were afraid of heights. If I wanted to 'make' you trust me, I could take you rock climbing, and coerce, threaten or punish you whenever you hesitated, afraid to make a move for the next hold. Sure, you may likely climb that rock face - but would you be doing so out of trust in me, or fear of the pain I threatened you with if you didn't comply? What would this approach do for your confidence about heights? And would you feel greater trust in me as a result of this approach?
How can you be worth trusting? If you want your trust bank account to be healthy and full, set training situations up so that you are using reinforcement-based training techniques, and avoiding punishment during training. Break training goals down into small, achievable steps that your horse will feel confident performing. Train at a pace dictated by your horse: one where they show no signs of fear, anxiety, or stress. And finally, be patient. Trust can't be rushed or forced. Some horses need more time than others, in part due to 'bad banking' and too many withdrawals by previous horse trainers and humans. Respect these things, and watch your trust account flourish.