Episode 134: How do you get that bond and trust with your horses?

To answer the question of creating a bond of trust I discuss the balancing act of Training & Time.
How much time does it take? What is the flaw of time? (Answer: being boring)
How do you train while honoring the horses questions and understanding the emotional level? Does increasing the physical level of communication impact the emotional understanding?
I know that I develop a deep bond with my horses because I do both time and training. In this episode I explain how.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m answering a question about how I develop the bond and the trust that I do with my horses. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy. I’ve had my horse for a little over a year and we’re still working on his emotional state and getting that bond where he trusts me. Some days he’ll just let me do whatever and other days he’s jumpy and seems almost fearful and I just wanted to see what you do to get that bond and trust with your horses, if there’s any actionable steps I could take just to get that better partnership on the emotional and trust level. Thanks so much for your help.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question, and I love that you were really specific about looking for actionable steps to get that better partnership and level of trust. This is great timing for this question because of the weekend that I just had. I was at a reining show and I had all three of my horses there, Gabby, Willow, and yes, even Presto were all at the reining show. And I experienced a huge shift with Presto and Willow and I think those will help illustrate my answer to this question. I’m also going to break this down into some different concepts for you to consider. I want you to think about it through these different lenses, the combination of time and training and the idea of emotional levels and physical levels of training. So to me, this is where the dance happens. How much time can you add or spend without being boring? And how much training can you do without being overwhelming? And how do you consider the horse’s emotional level? Which is kind of maybe–maybe we could explain it as how the horse feels about what’s going on or during the work. So there’s an emotional level going on there and then the physical level, what the horse can and will do with their bodies. So there’s this dance between time and training and the physical and the emotional levels. I think this might be more clear if I illustrate some of the common problems that I see in these categories I just mentioned.

Stacy Westfall: So in the time category, one issue that I sometimes see with people is that they think if I spend a lot of time with my horse, this will equal a better relationship. However, I think it’s important to look at the horse’s experience because sometimes you can look at a horse that is very bored, meaning you can go sit in the pasture, but does the horse want to be anywhere near you? Is there anything interesting about you? So do I think time plays a part? Absolutely. But if time has a flaw, it can be boring and that doesn’t necessarily equal a better relationship. Now, on the other side, you can also look at time and easily see that there could be not enough time allowed for the training. So maybe the horse doesn’t get a chance to know you or you’re just not there very often, they don’t see you very often, or when they do, it’s real heavy on the training. And so there’s just kind of not enough time invested in the particular horse to develop that relationship. When you look at the training and we look at–when we look at the training piece of it, that’s where we kind of get into that emotional and physical dance. And you can say that when we’re looking at the training, if there’s not enough training, sometimes what’s missing there is there’s not a chance to develop the language with the horse. And that can be the language of groundwork or the language of ridden work. But if the horse lacks the skills to communicate or the person lacks the skills to read and read and understand the horse, which is again, communicate, if there’s not enough training involved, then that’s a challenge because it becomes a language barrier. And you can see how the language barrier there could also play into that dance with time, not enough of it or time, lots of it. “But it’s boring,” is also going to be influenced by this training. And then I think a lot of times when people think about training, there is this fear that they’re going to maybe come across as a dictator and that they’re not interested at all in the horse’s experience. I think that’s sometimes the category that some horse trainers get kind of shoved over into. And for sure, that can be a thing where that could be a training style where they don’t want feedback from the horse. And I think that’s a fear that a lot of people training their own horses have. They don’t want to come across like that. But that’s another piece of that puzzle of like sometimes when people are trying to spend less time then they try to go a little heavier on the training. And that’s where they can potentially, you know, rock that balance maybe too much towards the training and not enough towards the time. Because at the end of the day, what this is, is it’s a balancing act between the time and the training. And one of the big dictators of this being like what the outcome is is that horse as an individual. So each individual horse has their own learning style. And that’s why it’s hard to say that there’s this exact method, exact amount of time, exact amount of training. That gets you an exact result. So this another way to illustrate the dance would be could you double the time that you spend with the horse and do less training and get the same result? Or could you flip it the other way? Could you double that training and take less time? So this is always this dance back and forth between what’s going on. And at the end of the–end of the day, I know that I developed a deep bond with the horses I have because I do both as much as I can. Time and training.

Stacy Westfall: Now that you’re kind of on the same page with me as far as what’s on the table to discuss, this idea of time and training and the balancing act that’s going on here. One of the reasons why I talk a lot about going to shows with horses isn’t because I believe that everybody has to show, but it’s because of what accidentally happens when you sign up for something like that. So, for example, the thing I want to illustrate is some of the stuff that went on over this last weekend. And when I took Presto to this show, it’s all about the experience. When I take Presto to a horse show right now, it’s not because I’m going to show him. I was at a reining show. Presto is not going to be a reiner. And so when I took him to the reining show, it was all about taking him for the experience, for the experience of loading on the trailer, for the experience of unloading at a new place, for the experience of being around hundreds of other horses, and for the opportunity for me to hold him accountable to the training that he has. And I’ll tell you the first couple of shows that I took him to, the first shows I took him to, I took him to a show last year in Kentucky and never even put a saddle on him one time. It was all about the experience and accountability and groundwork. And then when I took him to other places, whether that was people’s houses and I hauled around again, it wasn’t about riding him. It was all about the experience of getting in the trailer, going standing tied to the side of the trailer, having me give him water in the trailer, doing all these different things. And so it’s not necessarily about the show experience as far as going to show. But again, shows are a great little packaged way to get a ton of experience in a very short amount of time because of the number of horses you can be around and the general environment with the announcers and all the moving pieces and wash racks and trucks and trailers and loud sounds. So it’s all–for me, it’s all about getting the horses there to have those experiences. And at this last show over the weekend, when I took Presto there, I could feel the shift that happened in him because I made the commitment years ago to continue hauling him, holding him accountable, continuing with the groundwork, only doing what I thought we could be successful in, which means this last weekend was the first time that I ever rode him while I was at a show environment, because before that, I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be a positive outcome. So instead of taking that risk, I was willing to haul him and continue the groundwork. And then I could finally feel that shift happen in him a couple days into being at this show. And I could see it. And then I was like, OK, now I can actually get on and start riding. And the coolest thing ever with him was that I’ve been so consistent at home and so consistent when we’ve gone places and he’s become inconsistent. But I stayed consistent with that consistent accountability over time, that training that started at home and then got solidified by going into places where he was insecure. And he was asking questions and he was really questioning whether or not he needed to listen because he thought he needed to run for his life or he thought whatever. Like there were–there were–there was a big pasture next to where we were riding the horses. And it had very tall, like over my waist, tall, deep grass. And they turned a bunch of sheep out there. And so it did look like monsters coming through the grass and they were peeking out of the grass and Presto was absolutely sure they were coming to kill him on the first day. And his major shift happened when I kept working with him and he realized that, oh, my goodness, these things not only aren’t coming to eat me, but when we get close, they actually move away and they’re afraid of me. And so I could feel him mentally shift. And the coolest thing ever was that when I went ahead and got on him to ride him for the very first time at the show, because I have been just diligent about doing my work at home and then making sure that he was in that right mindset when I got on and rode him, he was exactly like he is at home. But I guarantee it would not have been like that if I had pushed myself to ride him at one of the earlier shows when he wasn’t in that balanced state of mind that I can see at home. If I had told myself I’m wasting my money having my horse here at the show, paying for him to be here in this stall, even though I’m not going to ride him, if I had judged myself and pushed myself like that, what I would have probably done is gotten on him too early and then I would have been in some kind of a, you know, situation where maybe I was going to have to pull him around or do something to try to stop him from spooking or running or having this big, you know, event happening when really all he needed was more time and consistency. So I think that is where you can also hear in that story, it’s not like I was just giving him time at home, in the pasture, or at home in the closed environment of the indoor. It’s been slowly and gradually building his experiences and stretching that comfort zone over time, but also with training and accountability. And that is what has finally made him shift into this mental state where now for me, the way I would describe it is that he felt as balanced there mentally, emotionally, as he does at home. But that wouldn’t have happened if I had just stayed at home and practiced at home because he reached that at home. But he needed to have it stretched by these other experiences. And that’s where the training and the time dance come together.

Stacy Westfall: Now, I also mentioned that Willow could be an example because of what happened over this last weekend. And to me, she’s just basically a higher-level version of the same kind of an idea. But I think it does show up a little bit differently when you look at the way I’m going to explain it with Willow. So you guys have been listening to the podcast and hearing different stories. And if you go back to the YouTube channel, you can watch the Trail to the World Show where I was getting Willow ready in 2019 to go to the Western Dressage World Show. I’ve just been adding more and more layers of language with her. I’ve been doing–you know, I started out with just regular riding and trail riding and then moved towards reining and then moved and actually showed in classical dressage first and then Western dressage. And then I just now started showing in reining this year and this is her second show that she’s gone to and it’s all these layers of–I’m going to call it language. So we’re developing this language between each other and it’s more and more experiences and it’s happening over time. And so as I keep layering more language, more time, more experiences, more accountability I’ve reached a lot of little tipping points with her. If you guys were listening to some earlier podcasts or following along back in 2019, I actually took her to a traditional dressage show and Western dressage show after that. And one of the shows, I went ahead and I was riding around in this arena. And I took my coat off. Well, I was in the warm-up pen. I wasn’t showing. It was the night before. I was getting ready to show the next day. And I was riding around and I got a little bit warm and I took my coat off and I dropped it on the ground just outside of the arena. Mind you, I’m sitting on her back when I take it off and I’m sitting on her back when I drop it on the ground. She doesn’t bat an eye. I rode off and tried to ride back by my jacket and she was like, no, there’s definitely a monster down there that’s going to eat me. And she was referring to my jacket that I just dropped on the ground from on her back. So to say that we’ve had our fair share of bumps absolutely is true, and those were all those moments where she was getting more training, having more experiences. She was basically reporting to me at that moment that she was in such a heightened state of, you know, being concerned that when I–when she came back by the coat, she just wasn’t even putting one and one together. She just wasn’t equating things. And–and so that was a reflection of the state of mind that she was in. And I worked through it and worked through it and worked through it and over that entire show season of 2019 when you can watch all those videos I just kept progressing with her and it has been anything but bump free. But the cool thing has been that it’s been consistently getting better. Now, Willow has also consistently told me about who she is. And I told you that in the beginning it matters who they are. So I always knew she was going to take time. I think time is an important thing for any of the horses and some of them take more time. And so she’s taken a lot of time. And the reason why I was so excited over this last weekend is because this was the first time in the reining environment that I felt her really, really connect with me during a high-pressure situation. So the first time I can remember this really happening was actually two years ago when I was showing her and I was starting to show Gabby. And I have mentioned it before, I was riding her at a show and I was riding Gabby. And when I came around riding Gabby, I shifted my saddle in the corner. And Gabby was like, what? What does that mean? Because it made Gabby insecure. And then in the next class, I came around on Willow and I shifted my saddle, unconsciously shifted my saddle. But as soon as I did it, I had a memory of, this just triggered Gabby in the last class. And I recognized that Willow just flicked an ear and kept on going. That’s how I knew Willow had shifted and was now feeling confident in these situations. What I hadn’t felt until this weekend was Willow feeling that level of confidence while being ridden on a loose rein, at speed. Because another way that you can look at adding this experience or adding these layers of language and the way that this dances with that idea of it can be lots of time but is it engaging or is it boring for the horse, is that one thing I consistently do with my horses is I keep moving them forward. I keep asking for a little bit more. And so for Willow, this big shift that happened over the weekend was that I have been rewarding her. If I’m asking her to go fast and we’re running fast, a lot of times she wants to run faster and faster and faster. Well in reining I need her to go large, fast circles and then small, slow circles. So I want her asking that question, fast? OK, this fast? Any faster? Did you want slower? I need her checking in with me. Ideally, she’s checking in with me every stride. That’s what it felt like to ride Roxy. It was like I was telling her where to go and she was right there with me, double checking whether that was a little faster or a little slower in every single stride. And I know that sounds overwhelming, but it feels amazing when they’re right there with you. And so this last weekend, it was really exciting to me when I was on–running this reining pattern and I was running my–I was doing two large fast and then a small slow and halfway through that second large fast, I could feel her checking in with me, offering to slow down just a little bit. And that could be taken as a problem because I’m in the middle of showing and I’m running a large fast circle and my horse is saying, what about a tiny bit slower? But because I’m trying to develop this language with her, when she said, what about a tiny bit slower, I actually said, sure, we can go a teeny tiny bit slower for a couple strides and then I’m going to ask you to go just a little bit faster, back up there again. And so in doing that, I answered her question, but I didn’t give up the movement or the maneuver that I was the middle of. And when you watch it on the video, you can’t even see the shift. I’m watching exactly where I was in the circle in the video and it’s not visible, but it was definitely something I could feel and something she experienced because she was right there when I backed off. And that’s how I can get these horses to where I’m riding on this very loose rein, because they’re checking in with me mentally. But I knew several years ago that if I took Willow straight to the reining arena and started going very fast, that this was not going to be an easy road for her to figure out because she wasn’t going to see where she could be asking these questions. So I chose to go up through the dressage and Western dressage to then get to the reining and then to reach this tipping point this last weekend where she’s going fast on a loose rein, and still asking questions. That is a very advanced version of what I’m talking about with Presto when I’m doing groundwork. And when I’m doing groundwork with Presto and he’s escalating and I’m saying, OK, do this turn, OK, stop. OK, back. Turn, back up when I’m leading you. When I’m asking him to stay responsive and holding him accountable while I’m leading him around a show, I’m looking for him to check in with me. But I’m not just doing it in a boring place, I’m doing it in places where the environment around us is likely to trigger them asking questions. So to me, that’s where the dance of the horses getting–spending time with them and the training. That’s where that dance, developing that language, and spending the time but not boring time. This time when they can ask questions and you can answer them, which means that you’re functioning at a level that both of you can handle and it’s and it’s a little bit stimulating and a little bit challenging and it stretches that comfort zone. To me. That is absolutely how I develop that deeper bond with my horses because I know that that dance of time and training is magical.

Stacy Westfall: One of the biggest challenges that I see people facing when they’re learning to put all this information together and into practice is this: learning how to read the horse’s body language. Hands down that is the most challenging thing for people as they’re moving through learning to train their own horses. And that is because if you want to understand the horse’s mind, it’s going to be expressed through their body. So the horse tells us about their physical experience with their body and the horse tells us about their emotional experience with their body. And when you’re asking a horse to do things that stretch their comfort zone, it’s why you often will hear me say you are like their personal trainer, you are like their personal coach. And what that means is that if you hire somebody to push you to exercise more, then that person is going to be stretching your comfort zone. And there are going to be times when you’re not super excited about some of those physical challenges. They can seem like a lot, and those are some of the experiences that your horse has. So not only is this a challenge because you’re reading the horse’s mind as it is expressed through the body and the body, as it is expressed through the body, it’s untangling all of this so that you can say, well, I can see the reason the horse is having this challenge cantering this four leaf clover pattern. It’s because they lack the muscle strength to carry this canter through this or turn. Or maybe the horse is saying, I don’t know if I really want to and I’m not sure that I’m going to listen to that cue. So how do you tell whether this is originating in their mind, as I don’t think I need to clean my room, mom, or whether it’s originating in their body where they’re saying, this is really hard and this might be bordering on too much for where I am physically fit right now? So the better you get at reading the body, the better you can make decisions. I actually really considered making a course on reading your horse’s body language, and instead I ended up deciding that I’m doing group coaching because inside of group coaching, what I do is I can teach people to read their horse’s body language by reviewing video of them working with their horses. So inside my group coaching program that you can find on my website right now. I’ve been doing this privately for people for years. What I do is I take have people submit videos and I review them and I tell them this is what I’m seeing, this is what I would do if I were in this situation. What if you try this exercise? And so I’m giving them my experience by reading the horse’s body language. For them, it’s like coming into a live classroom with me twice a week where I basically teach the stuff that I’m talking about here in the podcast. But I teach you with workbooks and videos and live Q&A where people are submitting videos with their own horses. If that sounds like something that you would be interested in doing, jump on over to stacywestfall.com And click on that “work with me” tab. Because I think it’s really important that you learn how to read the horse’s body language, because as you’re making this decision about does this need to be more time? Is this more training tools? Where can I push a little bit more? Where should I back off a little bit more? Is my horse telling me something emotional? Maybe the horse is telling you they’re bored and they’re trying to be creative because they’re bored with the lesson. Or maybe the horse is telling you this is too hard. I know what I do with my horses is that I’m always trying to figure out how to have this ebb and flow, but pushing on that envelope so that that horse is being stretched emotionally and then coming back to that comfortable place like what Presto did this weekend for the first time at the horse show. And I’m pushing them in the physical level so that they can learn how to be challenged and get stronger and come back, because the dance between the emotional and the physical training is very real. I have definitely noticed that the higher level I train my horses to physically understand their own body and the communication that I’m doing with them, the more emotional strength they also have. And that’s what I got to experience this weekend with Willow. So what you need to do is you need to be testing the things you’ve been doing consistently with your horse. You need to be testing them in some way. That adds a little bit of pressure so you can see where the cracks are so you can go back and add more training. And yes, that might be taking more time, but oh my goodness, if you have a weekend like I just did, it’s so worth it. And I should say that I achieved one of my goals for the year. Over the weekend, Willow became an official NRHA, that’s National Reining Horse Association money earner over the weekend. So my idea of having a horse that could show in classical dressage and Western dressage and reining just all came together for me over the weekend. So she’s officially a money earner and a point earner and a world champion in all these different divisions. World champion in the Western dressage, she’s earned eight points in USDA of recognition, and earned my bronze medal with me in traditional dressage, classical dressage. And then she’s a reining horse, NRHA money-earning horse now as of this last weekend. So I know I–when you’re listening to this podcast that it sounds like, my goodness, there’s a lot to do here. There’s so much time and there’s so much training. It is so much fun, so rewarding. It’s not always fun. It’s always work. But there is always a reward inside of it if you look for it. So thanks again for listening and I will talk to you in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Daphne McNeill on May 17, 2022 at 5:47 pm

    Good Morning Stacey,
    I have been listening to the Warwick Schiller podcast The Journey on and I came across your discussion, I loved listening to yours it really stirred something in me that I feel I have been searching for in my journey with my horses. Thank you!
    I actually found your podcast only a couple of days ago, I feel it is helping me a lot! Without writing you an essay I have come to a very important part of my journey in life with a new horse that I know is going to change my life it is confronting me on every aspect. I seem to be going in circles and searching for something more that just the mainstream, which hasn’t always worked for me in the past.
    This morning on my way to work I was listening to the goal setting and obstacles podcast, which is great! I was wondering is it possible to get the work book and feelings wheel that you talked about in that podcast?
    Once again thank you so much I just wish that I could visit you in person and work with you! I am in Australia so if there is any chance that you may consider coming to Australia please let me know!
    Kind regards
    Daphne McNeill

  2. Lori Bradley from beautiful PEI on June 18, 2021 at 9:01 am

    134 episodes in, my lightbulb finally sparked. First, I need to grab a dedicated notebook to reference topics and titles of all these episodes. This will be an investment for my future searching for titles to listen again. This episode helped me ponder more queries I have about my partnership with my horses. Today, I need to correctly define so I clearly understand what “accountability” means to the horse and to myself. Then practice consistently in different environments. Seems so simple, right.

    • Stacy Westfall on June 23, 2021 at 6:47 am

      Glad it helped! I love writing in journals❤️

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