"Marbles in the Marble Jar" - Building Trust with Horses.

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

Imagine you have an empty marble jar and a bag of marbles next to it. Each marble represents a bit of trust. A marble goes into the jar each time you do 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.


· dependable

· reliable

· responsible

· safe

· secure

· solid

· steady

· calculable

· tried-and-true

· trustable

· trusty


· dodgy [chiefly British]

· uncertain

· undependable

· unreliable

· unsafe

· untrustworthy

I would like to add to the synonyms - accountability, non-judgment, generosity, boundaries and “holding my personal stories/journey” in confidence.

Horse’s World View Pertaining to Marbles

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 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.

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

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. 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 “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. This, necessarily, is a gradual process and takes both time and patience.

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, and she turns away from you to talk, at length, about last weekend’s trail ride. You would feel confused and ignored and devalued. 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 horse.

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. You can even talk about your friend’s horse if you have ridden together many times before.