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Marbles in the Marble Jar- Building Trust with Horses.

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

True leadership is only attainable through gaining your horse’s trust.

Imagine you have an empty marble jar and a handful of marbles. Each marble represents a bit of trust.

A marble goes into the jar each time you make a nice gesture like letting your horse scratch an itch, not jerking on the head, or spending time hanging out without judgement. There are a thousand ways to put marbles in the jar and there are thousands of ways to have them tumble out. The more marbles in the jar, the higher the level of trust.

When the marble jar is filled with trust marbles you will find you have gained a true friend- someone that will show up when things go wrong and will work together with you through a bad situation.

What is the Webster definition of trust?

"Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something."

To achieve trust your every action needs to be attuned to the things they value:

  • Clarity

  • Comfort

  • Connection

  • Protection

  • Resources

  • Safety

Marbles and the Horse’s World View

Since horses are a prey species, they have evolved to value safety above all else for survival. They are constantly evaluating their surroundings and asking, “Am I safe?” and “What space do I have to negotiate this situation?”. This inborn drive to constantly evaluate their safety is their marble jar. Knowing this and learning how to put trust marbles into their jar is a powerful tool in bonding with a horse.

Feeling safe lowers anxiety and allows the horse to concentrate on what is expected of them and the job they are being asked to do.

Trust is earned through small acts/moments (one marble at a time), not through grand gestures.

A Small Gesture might look something like this:

Your horse hears something behind both of you and wants to look around. Instead of jerking their head or ignoring their concern you both turn and really look, listen, and wait for the resolve.

The small gesture has great long-term value to the horse based on their world view and their need for safety. Looking and really acknowledging their concerns puts a marble in the jar.

A Grand Gesture on your part might be:

You come to the barn and decide you are going to bring a bag of carrots and give them several extra- just because.

The grand gesture will indeed put a marble in the jar, and is great for the moment, but has little lasting value. The horse will come to expect treats and might even get a bit annoyed if you do not bring them. Then you are faced with marbles being taken out of the jar. It is a zero-sum game.

Why is Trust Between Your Horse and Yourself So Important?

Imagine you are at a show or going down the trail and something surprises your horse. The choices for an emotional reaction are “Rear”, “Bolt”, “Turn and Spin”, “Take Off Running” or “Spook in Place and Wait”.

Which option would you prefer? Me too. “Spook in place and wait” is a lot less scary and a lot safer for both the horse and rider than the alternatives..

That reaction gives both of you the opportunity to calm down without the danger of a wreck. (This process of calming down is also known as down regulating or “Going to Zero” in Horse Speak®.)

When you build trust one marble at a time in different situations you both learn you can count on each other in a stressed moment. The horse’s tendency to react rashly and dangerously is minimized. Since they trust you to be aware and do the right thing, they are less likely to stay panicked. Building this trust is, necessarily, a gradual process and takes both time and patience, but horses really want to trust you and will reliably respond when it is offered.

The moment you approach a horse you are asking the horse for a conversation. How you handle that conversation will either add marbles to the jar or take them out.

An Example of Marbles Out of the Jar

You are leading your horse from the barn to the round pen. Your friend calls you

on the phone to find out where you are meeting for a ride later in the day.

You spend five minutes or so discussing several options. During these minutes, you are NOT paying attention to the horse’s concerns. The horse had no idea what you want them to do. Horses cannot read minds, but they are masters at reading body language. It is obvious to them that you have stopped leading and paying attention to your/their surroundings. Because of this, they feel “abandoned by their herd (you)”. They begin to feel alone and responsible to make their own decisions- causing them anxiety. As their level of concern goes up, marbles start hopping out of the jar.

A human example of this is easy to imagine. You are having a great conversation with a good friend at school or work. You are getting into some really heavy personal areas and you are enjoying the interchange. Suddenly your friend’s phone rings, she turns and walks away from you to talk. You would feel confused, ignored, and abandoned. This stress would cause marbles to jump out of your jar with this friend.

The Best Way to Put Marbles in your Horse’s Jar and Keep Them There

  • Make all arrangements for the upcoming ride before approaching your

  • Put your phone away.

  • Before haltering them do a Greeting Ritual (Horse Speak) and wait for a response.

  • Before moving off to the grooming area make sure they have squared up their front feet, have soft eyes and everyone is breathing deeply.

  • If there are other horses being left behind, quickly acknowledge them by saying their names. This helps address their concern.

All this gives them time for a transition from what they were doing and an opportunity to gather their thoughts before moving off calmly with you. As you walk to the grooming area you maintain a watchful eye on your horse and your surroundings, always acknowledging their concerns along the way. Doing this consistently will fill up the marble jar of trust very quickly- a wee bit at a time.

This is where you want to start for trailer loading or any other task.

What Does a Full Marble Jar Look Like?

Here is a true story of Attencion (Cion), my Warlander, who has been in my life for 18 years. We were on a trail ride up in the mountains by Green Lakes (near Bend, OR). There was a small river coming up, so I decided to get off the trail, cutting across a meadow, to find a good place to cross. As we walked across the meadow, we came to a small log. Cion is is a big boy (16 hands), and the log was only 12 inches in diameter so I did not foresee a problem. As we approached, he stopped and backed up a step. I tried again, but he showed reluctance. I had a decision to make. Do I force my will on him and insist that he step over the log (as I was quite certain I could) or do I look to him as a true partner and acknowledge his concern and look for another way around it?

I choose to go around as it was obviously quite important to him and I had no pressing reason to insist. As we walked around, I was curious why he did not want to cross it. I looked closely at the other side of the log. I saw that bees had built a nest on the other side where we would have walked. I noticed him looking back at the bees too. I realized that we could have been in trouble had he disturbed the log. I had trusted him and had put a marble in his jar. I realized, yet again, that his senses are much more acute than mine. We can, and should, allow the horse to use its keen senses to help keep us out of trouble on the trail. Partnership.

Since both of our marble jars of trust with each other were quite full, he trusted that I would pay attention to his concerns. I also know that if it had been really important for us to cross that log, he would have done it- for me- despite his misgivings, but some of the marbles would have definitely bounced out if he'd gotten stung.

These wonderful animals we call horses are sentient beings that have emotions and are cognitive of their world. They have a world view built on what they need in the world to survive. They crave a full marble jar because it has survival and safety value for them. It is truly remarkable to watch the change in a horse’s behavior as their jar fills up.

Experience It for Yourself

I have guided many of my clients toward filling their horse’s marble jar and watched the relationships with their horse’s blossom.

I hope you can join us here at BentWire Ranch for a clinic and experience this for yourself either with your own horse- or with one of ours.

In all classes we cover the whole Equine Mandala.

  • Their Central Nervous System and Brain

  • Their Language- Horse Speak

  • How horses learn Operant Conditioning, better known as pressure and release as used in Natural Horsemanship.

  • How horses behave in the wild, and by extension, how they behave in captivity.



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