Ken McNabb - Does Your Horse Trust You?

August 19, 2009
Ken McNabb
Does your horse have trust in you?

Last month, we discussed how you can build your trust in your horse by your being able to do three things with him: stop him, lead him, and ride him at different speeds.

This month, I’ll cover the other half of that equation. How can you build your horse’s trust in you?

Are horses cowards?

Some people believe horses are cowardly animals. It is true that they are a fright-and-flight animal, meaning they are programmed to run when something frightens them. But think about how quickly horses get over their fears once we show them they are not in danger.

Your horse can spot a new object and be completely convinced that it is going to kill him. But after just 20 minutes of consistent work with you, he will be completely over his fear and will probably even remember not to be afraid next time he sees the same thing. Compare this to humans—some people spend lots of years and lots of money going to therapy to get over their fears! Taking all of that in to consideration, I would argue that horses are actually very courageous.

To build my horse’s trust, I like to start with small challenges and work up to harder things in gradual steps.

Obstacle course in the arena

Start by making an obstacle course, which includes many things of varying difficulty. You can use anything you find lying around the yard; it doesn’t have to be fancy. Some examples of things I like to use are a trash can, a piece of plywood, a garden hose, and a tarp. Set these obstacles around your arena, and then ride your horse into the arena.

Pick the object that you think will be easiest to start with. This will be different for each horse; knowing your horse as you do, think about it for a minute and choose the object you think he will find least challenging.

Just ask your horse to look at the object you’ve chosen. If he’s nervous, stay at a distance and let him look. As long as he is paying attention to the object, let him be. Once he gets comfortable enough that his mind starts to wander and he begins to pay attention to other things, ask him to walk towards the obstacle. If he stops, let him stand as long as his attention remains on the object. If he backs up, ask him to move forward to the point he was before, but other than that leave him alone. I want to mention here that if your horse backs away and you ask him to move forward again, it is important that you do so in a calm, quiet way. He’s already nervous about the new obstacle. If you get all worked up and start spurring on him, it will make the situation worse, not better. Once he is close enough to the object that he can touch it, let him smell it and investigate it as much as he wants to. I like to both build and encourage my horse’s curiosity.

If the object is something you just want your horse to walk by, after you letting him check it out, ask him to walk forward and past it. If he still seems a little uneasy about the object, repeat the exercise until he is calm. If he walks by like there is nothing to it, move on to the next obstacle.

If you are working on one of the obstacles like the plywood or the tarp that requires your horse to walk over it, then just take it slowly, asking for one step at a time. If your horse puts just one foot on the object and wants to stand there and smell it or paw at it, that’s fine. Let him take his time. When he walks over the object use your judgment. If he seemed to be nervous then repeat. If he was comfortable, then move on to the next thing.

Progress through your obstacles from easiest to hardest, take your time and approach each one in exactly the same way. This will help build your horse’s confidence and trust.

Obstacles outside

Now, move outside to look for new challenges. Obstacles to consider might be bridges, creek crossings, walking past flags and dumpsters.

As you approach each obstacle, use the exact same training steps you used while in the arena. As your horse’s trust builds, you will find new obstacles are easier and faster to work through. It’s not possible to expose your horse to every situation in the world, so what we’re trying to do is build a solid foundation of trust. That way he knows that whenever you say something is okay, it’s okay, even if he hasn’t seen that particular object before.

Always be patient with your horse. Never lose your temper. Losing your temper and spurring and whipping on your horse doesn’t build trust or respect, it erodes it. Your horse needs to know he can always win. When he tries, reward him. When he gives, you give back. Release and reward regularly. If your horse wins every time he tries, he will learn to try consistently. And that’s the biggest thing you can ask of your horse; that he will try for you in any situation you encounter.

Enjoy building mutual trust with your horse.

About the author
Ken McNabb grew up on a cattle ranch and is a life-long horseman, as well as a popular trainer and clinician, whose methods are based on his work with John Lyons and his own experiences with horses. Ken is known as being a master communicator who helps both horse and rider become the best they can be. Ken is regularly featured on RFD-TV. Visit Ken's website at