Learning Trust from Rusty

Rusty nuzzles my arm looking for an apple treat. He deserves every treat I gave him over the years at Ring Lake Ranch, an ecumenical retreat center in Wyoming, when I was director and when I returned as a guest. I just got back from the corral and a visit with Rusty – pictured here. He's getting close to retirement now. I dread the day I come back to the Ranch, and he isn't there. As both director and as a rider, I had unfailing trust in Rusty. I think he trusted me in return. On his back, I went up and down steep mountain trails knowing that he would take care of me. As a result I could calm down, enjoy the views, and not overwork this noble horse by trying to "control" his every move.


Horses know when we trust them or when we don't. With some exceptions, they respond accordingly. If we're nervous, they feel nervous, might act skittish, and even act up. If we trust them, stay calm, they will almost always be the same way. Trust breeds trust and good performance.
When I retired as director of the MA in Servant Leadership Program at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI, one of my friends gave me a copy of noted horse trainer Mark Rashid's book Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership. It contains a lot of wisdom about horses and about leading people. All leadership is about relationships, and all healthy, productive relationships are built on trust. True with people. True with horses.

Rashid says, "By giving our horses half a chance to tell us what's on their minds and genuinely listening to what they have to say, we can open a whole new line of communication with them. . . . What I am talking about here is trust. Trusting our horses to do the right thing by us and doing the right thing by our horses. Of course, before our horses can really trust us, we must first prove to them that we can be fair in our decision-making. . . . Perhaps the best way to become a trusted leader for our horses is to first demonstrate that we aren't afraid to be a follower every once in a while."

Trust is hard to come by in many organizations. Workers have learned not to trust management that uses layoffs as a first resort to pad the bottom line, that hires droves of part-time workers to avoid paying benefits, that keeps giving themselves raises while average worker pay flat-lines.

Horses that cannot trust their riders have been known to eventually get their due at the most inconvenient moment. Workers strike back more subtly perhaps, by taking shortcuts on the job, filching items, or committing small acts of sabotage. Who wants to live or work in a place of mistrust? Not me.
We can build trust – one act at a time. We can listen better, put ourselves in others' shoes, and focus on building community: "Perhaps the best way to become a trusted leader for our horses (or people) is to first demonstrate that we aren't afraid to be a follower every once in a while."