I’m wondering about trust at the moment because it seems to underpin every relationship and every communication. It’s emerging as a theme in my work with horses and people. The line of thinking was inspired by a brief conversation with master horseman Mark Rashid after watching him work with a traumatised horse.
The dark, powerful gelding was rigid with fear as he approached the lorry and seemed to be holding his breath. The horseman didn’t ask the hose to step closer to the lorry. He admitted to the audience that he didn’t care if the horse went into the lorry or not. He was not looking for a result. He was looking at helping the horse to overcome being afraid.
Watching Mark Rashid work with the horse was unremarkable. He did little more than lead the horse a few paces away from the lorry and then back again to a point near the wall of the arena where the horse felt comfortable. It would have been easy to miss the teaching and powerful shifts in behaviour that were taking place between the man and the horse.
At first the gelding was too afraid to trust and wanted to flee as fast as he could from the lorry, but through a series of small steps the horseman worked patiently and thoughtfully with the horse. During the lesson the horse learned that he could rely on his handler and that alone helped him to feel more comfortable about just standing near the lorry. The horse also learned that the handler remained consistent and clear and fair. When the horse was ready to explore further the handler noticed and gave the horse an opportunity to sort out the problem for himself. Mark Rashid didn’t need to comfort or reassure the horse or talk in soft tones. He simply communicated to the horse that he was someone who could be trusted, and the horse was able to believe that he had found the right help. That gave the horse confidence.
I found this simple lesson so moving because the horse was given time to think through the problem and to solve it. I also got the impression that Mark Rashid was utterly absorbed in what was happening with the horse so much so that he almost forgot he was giving a clinic to people who had paid to watch him work. This level of professionalism I find spellbinding.
Afterwards I mentioned to him that the horse clearly trusted him within a few minutes. Now the horse didn’t know that Mark Rashid has decades of experience of working with horses all over America. The horse had worked with Mark Rashid on a previous visit to Britain, and so possibly remembered him as someone he could trust, but this wasn’t obvious as the horse was clearly terrified when he entered the arena. What the horse found was not a friend, but someone who trusted himself. We know that fear is contagious, but maybe trust is, too. The turning point in the lesson came when the horse recognised that Mark Rashid trusted himself.
‘But what if you don’t trust yourself?’ I asked him. ‘What if you doubt your own ability, what can you do?’ He smiled and shook his head as he mulled over the conundrum. ‘That’s the real question,’ he said. In order to enable others to trust us, we first have to trust ourselves. To reach the point of trusting ourselves could take years of practice, years of mistakes, years of trial and error, or it could take a commitment to truth, to understanding, to finding out through observation and deep listening.
The intention to offer help to another living being must be communicated mindfully. We may have years of expertise, yet that still means we can’t impose knowledge or assistance. I’ve been on the receiving end of inappropriate offers of help that made me feel jangly and unsupported. A neighbour once cleared out her cupboards and dumped a load of kitchen items on my doorstep with a note saying she thought I might use them. She was being helpful. I felt pained and strangely guilty as I packed up all the unwanted plastic containers and took them to the tip, hoping she wouldn’t see. Her lack of observation and understanding was embarrassing.
If I were a horse with a problem I would want someone like Mark Rashid to help me out. I would be able to tell that he was fair-minded, consistent and clear. I would be able to tell that he had my best interests at heart. How often, though, do we meet people who pretend to have our interests at heart? People who offer help without bothering to find out where we are and what it is we actually need? Watching Mark Rashid made me understand how essential it is to take the time to work out what is required before we leap in with our problem-solving skills. As busy-minded humans we are often tempted to do too much. We find making a lot of effort satisfying. When we do less with horses (and people) we often get so much more. This means for me: less assisting, more listening.