Maybe you’re mentally arranging your to-do list, or rehashing an imaginary rant about something that happened at work, or just daydreaming with the sun on your skin. But that’s when the UPS truck backs over the trash can. Or the wild turkey drops out of a tree on top of you. Or some kids on dirt bikes come screeching out of nowhere. Life is just a bit more complicated if you’re on top of a horse.
If the reason for his spooking isn’t obvious, riders say that their horse just came apart for no good reason–a random coincidence. It’s the common excuse used when our inadequate human senses don’t pick up on what’s actually going on around us. Or the opposite; riders frantically try to see what their horse saw, as if intellectualized trash-can-physics can resolve anything. At this point it doesn’t really matter how it started.
Horses come apart just one step at a time, but if he’s already leaving at a dead gallop, it’s probably too late to negotiate. If things have gone that far, best to hang on, be glad you wear a helmet, and perhaps consider what cues your horse gave that you might have missed.
What happened just before he spooked? Did he freeze for a moment? Did he toss his head? Did his gait change? The sooner we recognize a change in his emotions, the sooner we can help. The challenge is that it’s our first instinct to tense and speed up just like a horse does. Anxiety and fear are contagious.
Here’s what we know: As much as we’d like to, we can’t control the universe. Beyond that, we can’t control how a horse will respond–even to ordinary things. Horses have a mind of their own. It seems our only option is to control ourselves. We can become our own bomb squad.
Adding energy to a volatile situation is a bad idea so how to start defusing the situation?
Don’t yell, don’t chase, don’t panic. Then tell your horse don’t pull, don’t run, don’t go nuts. But it doesn’t work to give negative cues. Just DON’T isn’t a cue either of you can take. Less correction; more direction.
Begin again. Take a breath. In a hot environment, breath the best calming cue you can give your horse. And leadership means you do it first. Please don’t underestimate the value of breathing; then take a deeper breath. Especially now.
Then instead of telling him what NOT to do, give him a simple task that he can succeed at. Then even if he only thinks of doing it, reward him generously. A verbal “Good Boy” warms his ear, builds confidence, and now the conversation has started.
In dressage we believe we get a horse’s attention by doing transitions and a transition is anything that you and your horse aren’t doing now. Start with you: Require elasticity and softness in your arms. It’s counter-intuitive, but at the very least, force yourself to slightly slack one rein. Then alter the length of his stride up and down, and get positive. Let responsiveness be the goal and work light and happy. Replace his anxiety with a conversation about partnership. It won’t come naturally for either of you. Do it anyway.
And just like every other moment in the saddle, go slow and aim for the peace of consistency.
Can you plan ahead for the next bad situation? Yes! If there is something that you routinely do to relax your horse, perhaps at the beginning of each ride, you can ask him to do that and the familiar routine will help him settle.
My favorite warm up exercise is what I call a Flat Figure Eight. Walking on the rail, (or an imaginary straight line in a field), on a long rein, do a 5-to-10-meter half-circle, and return in a diagonal line to the rail. In other words, walk a pear-shape or teardrop-shape on the long side of the arena, and then once you have returned to the rail, repeat that pattern the other direction. (So this figure eight isn’t two round circles, but rather, round half-circles connected with long diagonal lines, that’s flat or a straight line on the rail side.)
The value of this exercise in a warm-up is that the half-circles, cued by the rider turning her waist, warms up the horse’s shoulders and rib-cage, as well as encouraging suppleness and connection, on both sides alternately. It can be done as a leading or ground driving exercise, or under-saddle. Gaits could be the walk or trot or best, a combination of walk on the half-circles with trots on the diagonals–making more transitions within the exercise. As your horse advances, canter, lateral work, and extended gaits can be added. This exercise is kind of like a soup starter; you can add your favorite ingredients. Best of all, it warms up the horse’s responsiveness mentally as well as his body physically. I start every ride this way.
If you have an exercise like this ready-to-go in your training toolbox, both of you can have easier access to it for an emergency, especially if you’ve both lost time over-reacting—like most of us do—in a fearful situation.
So many incidents happen when riders become complacent. Have more respect for your horse and take nothing for granted, whether you are riding or on the ground. Stay aware of your horse’s body language and calming signals. Most of all, don’t ignore what he’s saying. It can feel inconvenient, especially if you are riding in a group, but do it anyway. Slow down before things explode. Take the time necessary to relieve the stress or fear your horse is feeling.
Instead of paying lip-service—only talking about putting your horse first—actually develop habits that meet that goal. Then mentor your horse, over time, to return the favor. The other word for that is trust.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.