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Trust or Fear?

Km Walnes and The Gray Goods at the 1982 Eventing World Championship competition. Photo credit Mary Phelps.

The relationship between trust and fear is like two sides of the same coin—on one side there’s calmness and an ability to focus on what’s in front of you, while on the other, there’s anxiety, turmoil, and a self-preoccupation that obstructs forward progress.

Or so I’ve found it to be.

That’s especially true in my relationship with Dorian. I ride him a lot by myself--out on the trails, in the woods, up inclines and out into wide spaces where we can canter along the edge of a pasture planted with tall corn.

Most of the time, I ride with my heart open to the calming beauty of the world around us. I love listening to Dorian breathe, watch his alert curiosity, relax my body into his . . .

I love being by ourselves in a world I understand as safe and restorative, rather than fraught with danger.

And so I think, in some ways, my ignorance—or maybe it’s faith—is our protection from danger.

Dorian's stare down with a deer.

There was one time we headed up to the far pasture, riding around it to the farmhouse and barns with an old tractor or two lurking outside.

The first time we approached it, Dorian had a hard time moving forward—I don’t think he’d ever seen anything like the big, rusting shed or the bulky, red machinery out back. But he was able to maneuver around it and, day after day, he got better at walking by and on to the back trail along the pasture.

But one day as we approached, I could hear two dogs baying; they belonged to the family living on the property. Dorian’s ears flicked, but he kept going forward. He couldn’t see them, which made matters a little more frightening for him.

We kept going and I bent over his neck, patted it softly, and told him things were fine.

Then the little dogs raced through the corn and suddenly they were behind us, barking. Wow!

If I would have tensed and been afraid, Dorian would think he should be afraid, too. So instead I heaved a big sigh, ignored the dogs, stroked Dorian’s neck and again softly told him over and over that all was well, and forward we went.

Kim Walnes might be a name some of you in the show jumping, cross country, and eventing world know well. She and her horse, The Gray Goose, won the Rolex Three Day Event in 1982, as well as wining two bronze medals at the World Championships that year.

1985 Rolex Competition. Photo credit Mary Phelps.

Walnes was not a trained eventer when she won the Rolex. She accomplished those things through study and hard work, and—according to her—listening to her beloved Gray:

“I think that, because I wasn’t trained, and I didn’t know the ‘right way’ to do things, we just did it our way, and I listened to him a lot,” she added. “Out of that grew respect. And out of respect started to come trust and love. It was that love that turned his fear into trust.” (The Chronicle of the Horse, December 17, 2017).

Kim's calmness and the connection between her and Gray is visible.

Gray’s fear could be dangerous. Walnes recounted an experience she had when flying to Australia to compete in 1986. Due to overcrowded conditions, she couldn’t accompany Gray on the plane and neither could his groom.

She told the person who would accompany him that Gray could be very dangerous if he got scared—so dangerous that he might run the groom over.

If Gray did get scared, Walnes told him: “Look him straight in the eye and tell him what the situation is and what you’re going to do about it.”

There are observation, too, that Walnes talked Gray through cross country courses —telling him what the jump looked like as they approached it and providing reassuring information all along the way.

Walnes and Gray (used with permission).

The bond between the two was clear to everyone who watched them compete.

Gray did get scared loading onto the plane and the groom said had Walnes not told him what to do, the situation could have been very bad. But he spoke to Gray the way Walnes had instructed, and Gray calmed down. Then the remedy for his fear of a fractious stallion next to him was put in place and the flight to Australia went comfortably for all.

World Championship in Germany--Bronze Medal winners. Photo credit Mary Phelps.

The pair's courage and bond was evidenced in their experience winning the Bronze medals in Germany's World Championship.

"We won those two bronze medals under extraordinary circumstances.  Six weeks before, I’d had a fall in our last show‐jumping school and broken two transverse processes on the left side of my spine.  Those broken vertebrae left me in a lot of pain. I was unable to support myself on my left stirrup, and I could not use any pressure on the left rein.  I recovered sufficiently to compete, but as we were flying around the cross‐country course, my attempt to follow a huge effort by Gray over a maximum‐ width oxer tore the bones apart again." 

"Halfway through this course, which had already severely challenged the best in the world, I suddenly found myself without any brakes, and barely any steering.  Worse, I couldn’t help Gray when he needed my leverage of body weight, and the hardest fence on the course was the second‐to‐last obstacle.  Gray and I took a quick assessment when he landed, and we knew I was in trouble. But we decided we could do this!  I clung to the mane with both hands and steered him with my eyes. We took all the short cuts, and at the end of the course he had to go through the last water complex—where one rider had already lost his life—with absolutely no support from me.  

We made it around clean with only a few time penalties.   The next day, when we had to do show jumping, he cleared every fence save one, to win that bronze. Though I was in an extreme amount of pain, my tears that day were all of joy, and of gratitude to my amazing horse." (The Way of the Horse).

Walnes says of Gray: "He was my partner and best friend for 25 years and in the process, he shaped my life."

In 2012 Gray was inducted into the Eventing Hall of Fame. Now Kim teaches about the "heart and science of riding"; you can find out more about her here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her experience. I’ll never be the accomplished rider she became, but I take heart that her first priority was to listen to her horse. Then came respect, trust, and love.

In my experience with Dorian, the most important of those is love.

So I think we don’t have to flip that coin I mentioned in the beginning. We don’t have to give in fear—fear we don’t know enough, fear we’re too old or young, or incapable of progress . . . whatever the nasty suggestion is at the moment.

Our horses respond to love, trust, and respect. They do listen and they always understand the language of love.

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