Horses, Humans, and Trust

Q: What does it mean to earn a horse’s “trust,” and is trust the same for horses as it is for humans?

—Via e-mail

A: Trust is essential to forming and maintaining social attachments, and when people are in trusting relationships, they are healthier, happier, and more productive.1 Cooperative horse-human partnerships also seem to be based on trust, and various games have been promoted for building trust in horses.2 Recent research in equine-assisted mental health has explored how people develop trust by working with horses,3 but is trust the same for horses as it is for humans, and how does one go about gaining a horse’s trust?

What is Trust?

Trust involves giving up control and accepting vulnerability, with the expectation of being protected from harm. Trustworthy people are consistent and compassionate, and can be relied on to safeguard the best interests of others. Importantly, trust is only earned and tested when an individual is at risk of physical harm or emotional distress.4

The balance of power in a relationship affects the balance of control and trust. Most friendships and romantic relationships have an equal balance of power, and both parties give up control and learn to trust one another. In contrast, employer-employee and parent-child relationships have an unequal balance of power, with a leader and follower. Some leaders are trustworthy and earn cooperation, but other leaders control through coercion, intimidation, and aggressive domination. When there is an imbalance of power, followers can be exploited and can become fearful, apathetic, or depressed.

The horse is a mindful actor in the horse-human relationship, but most interactions involve an imbalance of power with the human as leader and the horse as follower. Consider, for example, a horse and rider preparing to jump a four-foot wall. Jumping serves the rider’s interests—recognition and a ribbon! The horse, however, takes a risk by jumping, and given a choice most horses would probably take the safe route and go around. An important question is, why does the horse cooperate and jump? Does it trust that the rider will ensure his safety? Or does he jump to avoid pain that might result by not cooperating?

How Does Trust Develop?

In both humans and animals, reciprocal altruism—also known as “tit-for-tat”—is the leading theory explaining why animals cooperate with each another.5 Reciprocity means adjusting one’s behavior to match the other’s previous actions. It can be positive (rewarding kindness with kindness), or negative (punishing aggression with aggression). Trust is earned through positive reciprocity and violated through negative reciprocity.

My off-track Thoroughbred provides a clear-cut example of reciprocity. On most days he will come directly to me from the pasture, and gets grain, carrots, and a leisurely ride in the park (positive reciprocity). But if, instead, he gets his hooves trimmed or his teeth floated—a trust violation!—the next day he will trot away from me or try to hide behind his enormous Friesian friend Diablo (negative reciprocity).

Trust is fragile, and repeated trust violations can damage both present and future relationships. In humans and other animals, reconciliation following a trust violation is essential to repair relationships and restore trust.6

Are Some Individuals More Trustworthy Than Others?

People who are trustworthy have personalities high in “agreeableness”4,7 and tend to be kind, cooperative, warm, and empathetic. In human relationships, “unconditional kindness” could be the single most important quality for earning the trust and cooperation of others.4 High emotional intelligence (EI) has also been linked to trustworthiness, as well as to secure human-animal attachments.8 People with high EI recognize emotions in others, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Horse-human relationships might be improved by adopting these trustworthy traits and behaviors.

Like people, some horses are more trusting and trustworthy than others. Whether personality also influences trustworthiness in horses is an intriguing, but unanswered, question.

Is Trust the Same for Horses as It is for Humans?

Little is known about trust from the horse’s perspective, but it probably does not mirror the human experience. People have an emotionally based social need for companionship, and relationships with animals appear to satisfy this need; people with dogs and other animal companions have improved mental health, physical well-being, and social confidence.9

In contrast, a horse’s social needs are rarely met through his relationships with humans. In a recent article published in the journal Behavioural Processes, Payne and colleagues reported that horses are more interested in and form stronger connections with other horses than with humans. Horses tend to be wary of humans at first, whereas humans are generally more trusting. Payne also found that emotional attachments between horses and humans are more limited than attachments between two people, or between dogs and humans. Attachment to humans might be stronger when horses are hand-reared, but Payne cautioned that “the negative welfare implications of keeping horses socially isolated from conspecifics may constitute an ethical dilemma for caregivers wanting to increase their horse’s attachment to them.”8

Take-Home Message

Harmonious communication and physical coordination between horse and humans relies on mutual trust and cooperation. Leaders gain trust by demonstrating competence and ability, showing kindness and goodwill, and making an emotional connection with others.10 To earn a horse’s trust, people can model these qualities by using consistent and skilled handling techniques, developing sensitivity to the horse’s emotional state, and responding to the horse in a gentle, fair, and forgiving manner. Frequent positive experiences are also important for creating a foundation for secure and trusting horse-human relationships, especially early in life.8


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