In our Windhorse programs, building trust between youth and horses is one of the most important learning experiences we facilitate. Most people would agree that healthy relationships require trust. The relationship between horse and human also requires trust, but it is a trust between very different species–predator and prey–that seems improbable at best. Understanding and adapting to the prey mentality and learning to communicate in the language of equus enables us to develop mutual trust and respect, the foundations of relationship.
Horses are large and imposing animals. They can be intimidating and downright scary. Learning to trust them can be hard, but as with most things, education and experience help us understand these animals and what they need to be comfortable, to feel safe, and thus to be safe and trustworthy. At Windhorse, we spend a lot of time talking about what makes a horse tick and why they behave the way they do. We also teach how they communicate with their bodies and how we can use our bodies to be understood by them.
It also helps us trust them when we understand what a mighty leap it takes for them to trust us. As prey animals they are programmed to flee when they sense danger. It’s why foals can get up and walk so quickly after they are born. As predators, people hunt and eat prey animals, so why in the world should a horse trust us and allow us to do the crazy things we do with and sometimes to them? Because horses are naturally social and forgiving. The natural horse–one that has not been abused or mistreated–wants a relationship with us. If we offer them respect and a fair partnership, most of the time, they will respond in kind and seek us out.
We work with all kinds of kids at Windhorse, and some come to us with a trusting nature and strong family and peer relationships, others have not been so lucky and have good reason not to trust. Some are intimidated by horses, others just can’t wait to get their hands on one. For both, the inner confidence gained from earning the trust of a 1000-pound prey animal is profound. It’s what makes the work we do so different from other leadership and life-skills programs. These students are building a relationship with a huge animal whose first instinct is to run, and they are building a level of trust and respect that enables them to be that horse’s leader and partner and to safely ride on their backs.
The applications to life outside of the arena are myriad. Students are learning some of the skills required in a healthy relationship, how to communicate in a way that another being can understand, how to be a fair and trustworthy partner, and how to trust another. These skills are all critical to good horsemanship and lifemanship.