I recently had a jump lesson with Murray that reminded me, in no uncertain terms, of the importance of a strong trust bank between horse and rider.  I was totally off that day, I couldn’t get in sync with Murray, and biffed more than one distance.  At one point, right after assistant trainer raised the jumps, I came down to the first fence on course, yelled “HOLY SH*T, THAT’S HUGE!” and completely stopped riding.  Murray, saint that he is, did not dump me in front of the fence, as he frankly should have (and I would have completely supported that decision), but seemed to let out a huge sigh and boosted the two of us over the fence regardless of my incompetence.  Thank you, trust bank.

“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 Murray saved my butt over the aforementioned fence and how he knows that if we’re going in the general direction of a 3’6” trakehner on the XC course there’s no need to worry because we’re actually going around it.

The trust bank is not a physical bank, but it is a very real thing.  It’s the balance of confidence in one another 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.

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 put him into.  When the trust bank is strong, I know that pointing Murray at a fence means he’s going, no matter what.  (The trust bank exists for dressage too – how on earth could those riders get their horses to do those fancy slo-mo movements otherwise?! – but I don’t personally think about it there at the moment.)  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.

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 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.

And, as fellow blogger Emma pointed out, the value of specific deposits and withdrawls changes over time too.  Something that would have been a big withdrawl in the beginning of a relationship – say, I completely stop riding while Murray is facing down a 3’3” vertical – becomes more minor over time.  Likewise, small, solid deposits can have a snowballing effect.  Think of how a young or green horse needs more runs over a little X before he becomes confident, yet this same horse will become confident over the same fences much more easily a year into his training.

Making deposits one tiny log at a time.

Making deposits one tiny log at a time.

The trust bank isn’t just for your horse, either.  Every time your horse proves to you that she is trustworthy, she adds value to your relationship as well.  Murray has made some really valuable deposits in our trust bank (see above), as well as consistently making them time after time after time, so I know that when he doesn’t go, there’s a valid reason to it.

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.