What does trust mean?

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Before Christmas, I talked about how I had been thinking a lot about trust in the context of RDA: "it's in the root of every achievement". Over the intervening weeks, I have been both thinking and talking about it more. Any coach or educator knows, or should know, its value, but what does trust mean? I've been working on my own interpretation for an RDA setting, with the input of others from across the RDA community who have been kind enough to share their experiences with me. As someone who relies, as all RDA coaches do, so heavily on trust to get almost anything done at the stables, I thought it was time I worked out what it means to me.

A trusting place

I don't write to introduce other RDA volunteers and coaches to the concept of trust, because I think as an organisation it's already in our DNA. One of the first people who opened up to me about what trust meant to them was an RDA participant (who has asked to remain anonymous) who explained that finding her RDA group had encouraged her to end an eight-year break from riding. She said that she felt a bad experience at a non-RDA riding school, when she was bucked off in trot, had not been dealt with sensitively and jeopardised her trust in the stables and their staff. Since starting riding with RDA, she has found the people and horses at her group much more accommodating and encouraging, and has since competed at the National Championships. I have seen for myself on countless occasions the way that trusting RDA coaches, volunteers, and horses can have a transformative effect on a participant that grows and grows. 

Karen Thompson describes trusting someone (or something) as "taking a huge leap into the unknown". RDA is well-versed in interpreting and bridging this "unknown": our participants often find us by recommendation and referral, rather than through wanting to ride or having an equestrian family. As a result, the world of horses is a big unknown for many participants and their families. Whether those who ride with us seize their new identity as an equestrian with both hands and join the ranks of the pony mad, or prefer to view their RDA sessions objectively as a good form of physio, their relationship with the organisation is made productive by trust. The way that we present the possibility of trust at the point of "unknown" is essential to developing such a relationship.

Levels of trust: where the role of a coach lies

Educators and psychologists (or students thereof) are likely to be familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This theory is often cited when conceptualising responsibilities in positions of trust (e.g. for teachers). When I was considering what trust meant for me, in my own position of responsibility as an RDA coach, I decided to refresh my memory of it. I think Maslow gives a pretty good framework for where a coach's responsibility, and indeed trustworthiness, should lie: I've included a version of the hierarchy below which I sketched in my coaching journal (so far so good for that resolution!).

At the bottom of the hierarchy are a person's physiological needs: your basic eating, sleeping, breathing kind of deal. Whilst we aren't responsible for facilitating this for our riders during the hour or so a week we spend with them, a trustworthy coach must be aware of these needs and respond to any concerns about them not being met. This is what safeguarding training is for.

One level up are safety needs: the most basic of our direct responsibilities. Safety around horses is neither guaranteed nor absolute, but a coach has to take charge of making their sessions as safe as is reasonable. This is about participants (and their parents) being able to say "I know that there are risks in what we are doing, but I also know that you will do everything you can to manage and minimise those risks." I once had a nervous teenage rider blurt out to me before entering the international arena at Hartpury "I know you won't let anything happen to me!" As touching and flattering as it was, I was struck by the horror that I could only prevent so many bad things from happening. Ideally, we are looking for trust to be a bit more level headed as far as safety is concerned. Gayle Hartrick described trust to me as "being relaxed in somebody’s company, knowing that they will do their very best to help and assist you in what you are doing without putting you in danger." That's what we're looking for.

Above safety is belonging. This is where the hierarchy steps into the zone of the "good" coach. We don't have to foster a sense of belonging, friendship, or mutual understanding in our sessions, but it's going to strengthen the trust our coachees have in us if we do. One of my riders' parents wrote last year that her son's "connection with the volunteers opens him up in a way that I don’t see at home or at school. I think it is the sense of belonging he feels when he is with everyone and with the horses." This is a wonderful thing to hear because it shows that as a group we are more than able to cover the "belonging" stage of the hierarchy. (You can read more about the rider in question here!) There is something very special about the way an RDA group can feel like a team and a family.

Second from the top is esteem. Those of us who teach any kind of skill, whether a sport, art, academic discipline, or anything else, should find that this level plays into our hands. It's wonderful to foster a sense of belonging, but it's extra wonderful to be able to make our participants feel good about themselves because they are achieving things. Acknowledging progress across the board, respecting riders' ambitions, and celebrating accomplishments of all sizes are all things which a good coach can and should do to deepen their riders' trust.

At the very top of the hierarchy is self-actualisation, which I see as the apex of esteem and belonging. Whilst understanding and providing the latter two is the work of a good coach, self-actualisation is the art of a great one. A coach who knows how to empower their students to fulfil their potential, whatever it may be, whilst also maintaining the integrity of their other needs is a coach worthy of the highest levels of trust. Reaching this point doesn't just require emotional dedication; it also requires technical expertise and all-round conscientiousness. Even if it requires us to give a lot of ourselves, there's no reason we can't aspire to get as close as possible.

I think that the hierarchy of needs provides a solid framework for understanding the levels of trust required of us as RDA coaches. Trust may well be "fragile and precious" (Kay Alty), but that doesn't mean its building blocks have to be. 

Trusting horses

"Trust is in our humanity, but animals are better at it." (Lizzie Bennett) Trust is more nuanced for those involved in equestrian sport by how it has to be extended to non-human beings: horses. When we find a good horses or pony for use in RDA activities, there is something special about them which is very difficult to quantify or, frustratingly, replicate. Janet Abrahams also wrote in a blog of her own (which she was kind enough to share with me) that "the most moving and important relationship that develops (in RDA) is between the participant and the pony – it is truly wonderful to have facilitated." I agree wholeheartedly that being able to put our participants in a place to learn to trust, love, and ride their equine allies is the most beautiful part of being involved with RDA. That aside, it is the entire point of RDA.

With that said, I do think it's important not to build up trusting horses as some sort of mystical, we-are-not-worthy, uncontrollable-by-human-hands sort of experience. We should be under no illusion that trustworthy humans have an essential role to play in nurturing trusting relationships between RDA participants and horses. I am very proud to have coached riders who trust me and the environment of our group enough to be able to hop onto any horse presented to them and make a go of it, but being willing to have a go and willing to place trust in a particular mount can sometimes be worlds apart. 

There will be some combinations which will click immediately, some which will test each other, and some which will be non-starters. In any of these cases, the onus is on the coach (and to some extent, supporting volunteers) to control and evaluate constantly how a horse is working for a rider. I could get it wrong in more than one way: trust a horse too much or without enough reason, and I could be making a rider unsafe. If I don't trust the horse enough, I could be getting in the way of the rider making progress. I feel the pressure of this responsibility above perhaps any other: if I get it wrong, I'm damaging my rider's trust in me and in the horse. 

I still do not dispute that there is something magical about a trusting human-equine relationship. Horses are able to understand a lot more of a person with less information than humans need. Their starring role in RDA participants' achievements, often super-human capacity for empathy, and ability to inspire also means that they can tap into the hierarchy of needs without even trying. Trusting a horse often seems a more organic process than trusting a human, almost as if our additional processes and ways of communicating actually get in the way of building trusting relationships. It is a purer and more implicit form of trust, but I do think that we should give ourselves some credit as humans for being able to facilitate it. 

Natalie, a rider who can't see, is my go-to example of trust in action. Would you be happy to close your eyes and let somebody else guide you through a riding lesson? I think I'd struggle after a couple of minutes, and that's a generous guess!

Trust obstacles (and clearing them)

Many of the conversations I had about trust when planning this post were centred on its beauty, and I completely understand why. The little flashes of growing trust that I get each week at the stables are genuinely beautiful. It is, however, important to acknowledge that gaining someone's trust is not a straightforward endeavour, and that there are often obstacles to negotiate in doing so. Lizzie (quoted above) gave me some really interesting insights on trust from her perspective as an RDA coach and participant across multiple disciplines, amongst which was:

"As a coach, trusting the horses the kids are on is only really possible when you know the horse at least fairly well. I also find, as a coach, that our helpers can be reluctant to trust the horse and rider. Most of our riders are on the lead rein, and asking someone to step away from the horse - right away! - so that the horse can focus on the rider (and vice versa) is very difficult. This makes it scarier for me, because if something goes wrong after I have insisted that they step away then I feel all the more guilty."

I think her words gave an honest perspective on the ways that trust has to interact between parties during an RDA session. A lot of the most common trust obstacles are things beyond our control: the duration of a lesson (pretty short for developing trust), volunteer turnover, equine health, even the weather can strain relationships and dent confidence in a growing partnership. Trust is about balance, rather than not doing X to make Y happen. Neither rider nor rider's parent is going to trust a coach who pushes too much, too soon, but it can be just as damaging to their trust if the rider isn't pushed enough. As they become more capable in the saddle, we owe it to them to up the reciprocal trust and trust them to spread their wings (or, as Lizzie says, trust the horse enough to step right away).

Another, very experienced coach said (amongst many other things): "Trust is often threatened and abused by egos and competitive results. Trust is also celebrated when those egos and competitive results are satisfied." This really lingered in my head. For more ambitious riders, competitive results can be a really big deal; for a coach who helps to achieve them, like a tick in the box for the "esteem" and "self-actualisation" levels of the hierarchy of needs. To an extent this is true, but high stakes and high levels of emotional investment from all sides can actually be toxic for trust, win or lose. It's important to be able to step away from traditional measures of success, like a percentage on a score sheet or the colour of a rosette, to be able to appreciate the full picture of a result. A competitive rider might trust their coach to get them good results (or vice versa) but this is a very dysfunctional type of trust. A healthy, productive partnership is one with mutual respect for effort, personal challenge, and resilience. This means that trust can stick, win or lose.

Finally, "ego", which I think holds the key to surmounting most if not all of the trust obstacles we all encounter. I wrote in a post from October that the longer I coached, the more I realised it wasn't about me. Nurturing trust requires focus on the other party and their needs above yourself. If it's not working, sharpen the focus.

How will I know (if they really trust me)?

At some point in this discussion comes a wall: we can theorise trust all we want, in RDA or elsewhere, but we can't really measure it. It is something which can't be expressed as sincerely as it is felt, and not everyone whose trust I try to gain at the stables is able to express something so nuanced. It's also very hard to collect accurate answers to the question "do you trust x?": if I were to ask someone this question with myself as x, and they did not trust me, would they trust me enough to tell the truth? The pursuit of trust is a solid plod towards something which is fragile and flighty. It's the honesty, earnestness, thoroughness of our approach to this pursuit which will help us the most, rather than starting with the goal itself. One common theme that ran throughout my conversations with other RDA coaches was trust's need for constant maintenance: even more reason to take our time and appreciate every step.

I also don't expect my riders to be aware of the approaches to trust I have discussed here. They don't need to be, if they're doing the trusting themselves. For those of us aspiring to be the trusted, I think it's important to remind ourselves constantly of the reasons and responsibilities behind such a position. We keep nurturing those core needs, we listen, we encourage, and we wait. We won't be able to miss it when it pays off.

Rosie (and supportive entourage) during her first ride back on favourite horse Malcolm. Rosie has been rebuilding her confidence after a fall (an unfortunate, but often inevitable riding milestone) with the aid of the trust in her friends, coach, and helpers.