i want to see you be brave

Among the many things that Murray is good at — and there are many! Being adorable, leveraging his adorableness to get what he wants, treating “his” herd which he is now the boss of with kindness and respect, pretending that he’s too cool for school, hating new shavings, etc. — being brave is not one of them.  And this has never been more apparent to me than now: Murray is in sporadic work and seems to be afraid of just about everything right now.  Newly painted fences?  Terrifying.  Spooky corner of the arena?  Horrifying.  A few items of jump paraphernalia in the middle of the arena?  THE WORST.  Jump standards he’s seen approximately 9461257 times?  Barely acceptable.

scared of that thing

Our first ride back together last week was not a triumphant reunion.  Murray spent his time flailing left and right and proving himself to be flexible through the ribcage in ways he usually spends a lot of time convincing me that he is not.  I mean seriously, have you ever felt a horse bend his body left while his neck is flexed right, all while also running right?  It’s super magical.  During our warm up I basically reminded Murray that his only job was to keep his head down, listen to me, flex when I told him to, and listen to me.  Twenty minutes of power trotting around every single possible spooky item in the arena Murray could actually work.

octdressage2For my next few rides I brought a bunch of extra lifesavers into the arena with me and made a point of walking Murray up to every scary object and playing our old game “touch” with them.  It’s a super game: I say “touch!” and Murray walks up to something scary and blows the Curious Ungulate blow, and finally after he touches it he gets candy.  Delicious, delicious candy.

These two solutions are basically on opposite ends of the spectrum — address the object straight on and associate it with something positive, or work and ignore the things.  There’s some middle ground too, where I just ignore that he’s scared of anything and keep working on something else.  I use all of these at different times.  But at the moment it’s worth it for me to avoid the fight with Murray and just take the time and bribe him.  It changes his association with scary objects*, and puts him in a better mood for the ride overall.

* Though it may very well create other distraction problems where Murray wants to go towards those things to retrieve the sweet, sugary reward there… but if that happens I will, frankly, consider it a huge success.

Repeated exposure to scary things with positive or (at least) non-terrifying experiences always makes Murray calmer and quieter.  Now that we are backin the riding swing, I hope I’ll be seeing a braver Murray in the next few weeks.  But what I really want to know is what you do to help your horse be brave.  Because I need more tricks in my magic bag!  Murray ain’t gonna know what hit him.


Interestingly, Murray is always way braver when he’s been jumping.  And he’s much less afraid of objects he’s jumped over.  Which proves that his only viable career is eventing, since otherwise his list of things he isn’t afraid of would quickly dwindle to…. basically just our barn manager.

the trust bank

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, and it seems especially pointed after today’s unmitigated disaster* of a lesson.  The Trust Bank is a concept I was first introduced to by, I believe, Yves Sauvignon, and a crucially important aspect of every relationship between human and equine.  It is the reason I can trust Murray to save me, and he trusts me to save him, it is how we have come so far.

* Ok so this is an Asian-mother-reared unmitigated disaster, which really just means that I was a bit off and Murray saved my butt repeatedly, but also spooked ridiculously and unnecessarily.

horze1This image brought to you by: The Trust Bank

The trust bank is not a physical bank, but it is a very real thing.  It’s the balance of trust between you and your horse, and you draw on it every time you ride, but especially when you get into a sticky spot and need your horse to help you out and – you know – trust you a little bit.  Every time you save your horse or make the right choice or ride with forgiveness, you make a little deposit in the trust bank. When the balance is good, when you and your horse trust each other well, you both work better.

IMG_3844Quick baby horse, do your first Novice fence!! Don’t worry, it will be okay.

When my trust bank is strong, I can count on Murray to go over any jump, from any angle, from any spot, without question.  Ignoring the most epic of rider screw-ups, when our trust bank is strong, Murray will get me out of absolutely any sticky spot I can put him into.  When the trust bank is strong, I know that pointing Murray at a fence means he’s going, no matter what.  I imagine the trust bank exists for dressage also, but I don’t really think about it there (dressage is more of a negotiation in my mind).  More importantly when our trust bank is flush, Murray knows that I’m not going to let him down, dump my aids before a fence, or set him up for failure.  When the trust bank is strong, we easily forgive the little mistakes one another might make, and together we are better than we would either be alone.

IMG_0671Making a withdrawl, and ultimately failing (or: how to make my good horse stop).  A scary fence, a crappy position, a bad approach.

When my trust bank is low, Murray might stop if I get ahead of him or don’t support him enough with my legs to a fence, or if I ask him to take something from a funny angle.  When the trust bank is low, there’s a little hesitation before the fences – are we going?  When the trust bank is low, Murray is spookier and less inclined to work.  When the trust bank is low, I have rides like I did today.  When the trust bank is low, I know I need to make a deposit.


There are lots of ways you can make a deposit in the bank, but generally, it involves making the right choices with your horse to the fences (once again, in my jumping-centric example).  Every time you support your horse to a fence when he’s a little confused, and prove to him he can get over it, you make a deposit.  And every time you ask your horse to save you, to make up for your mistakes, to get you out of a tough spot you put the two of you in, you make a little withdrawal.  Bank accounts of different sizes can stand different sizes and numbers of withdrawals – but like any bank account, you can’t withdraw forever without making a deposit or five.  Or ten.

IMG_3768Building trust with tiny fences. Many, many, many tiny, successful, fences.


The beauty of this analogy is that it doesn’t make trust some immutable, euphoric state that some riders and horses can achieve and others can’t.  You don’t have to worry about lost trust as something that will never come back, or something that can never be achieved.  Trust isn’t like zen or nirvana.  It’s a rising and falling commodity that is completely in your control.  If you want your horse to trust you, prove to him you’re trustworthy.  Given time, he will prove it back to you.