When you work with or ride horses for long enough, there’s bound to be at least one moment where you find yourself with your heart pounding, your stomach in knots, and all-out fear pulsing through your body.
Scary incidents are an unfortunate byproduct of working with such large, powerful animals. Sometimes, a frightening scenario plays out because of human error. A person (often out of ignorance) may startle a horse or push him too hard or too fast. Horses are our athletic partners, and rider decisions made in training and competition can cause dangerous scenarios to unfold. Sometimes, the horse’s instinct for flight or fight is the source of danger. It does not matter how much you love your horse or how much you think he loves you—the fact remains that horses are hardwired for survival, and they possess teeth, hooves, speed, and size to make that possible.
The good thing is that we can educate ourselves to limit the number of scary incidents and keep riding and working with horses safe. The more we know about the horse and his instincts, the more we respect his power and teach him to respect our presence, the better we are at our chosen discipline, and the more secure our seat, the safer we will be. And, when we feel safe (not scared!) we can have more fun doing what we love to do.
Here’s what Buck Brannaman says about fear and how we can defeat it with knowledge in 7 CLINICS WITH BUCK BRANNAMAN:
Riding in Real Life: The Runaway
When I was ten years old I went on a hack with my riding instructor. She was on a green training project and I was on an older OTTB mare. I’d ridden since I was five and was a confident kid. I’d also ridden the mare before in lessons.
We crossed the main road and headed up a fairly steep ascent. I don’t really remember how far we had traveled when the mare I was on decided she’d just had enough. She spun, and I stuck on, but then she was off, galloping downhill on a gravel road, faster than I’d ever gone in my life. Sitting here, typing this now, I can feel my heart racing at the memory of it…of how I couldn’t stop her…how I pulled back with all my strength and seesawed the reins, but the mare just pulled back harder and ran faster.
At the time, the only answer I had to the situation was to get off. At the time, hitting the ground hard seemed less scary than plummeting downhill toward a busy road on an out-of-control horse. I’d learned the emergency dismount when I’d started riding and managed some skewed form of it, flinging myself out of the saddle and then rolling, as I remembered being taught, away from my horse’s flying hooves.
I had a helmet on (thankfully). I didn’t break anything (thankfully). I was sprained and bruised and shaken, but other than that I was okay. The mare, too, survived her skidding, sliding navigation across the road and back to the barn, where we found her with lathered chest and heaving sides, reins dangerously looped loose up near her ears.
The tool I had needed when my horse ran away with me, but didn’t have yet, was the “pulley rein” or “one-rein stop.” I needed to know how to redirect my horse’s energy. Sergeant Rick Pelicano, author of BOMBPROOF YOUR HORSE and BETTER THAN BOMBPROOF describes it this way:
The Pulley Rein
1 Hold one rein tightly, braced on the neck and grabbing mane if you can.
2 Pull the other rein straight up and toward you.
3 Lean back, push your legs forward, and sit deep in the saddle.
Training Tip: Clinton Anderson has a great One-Rein Stop exercise to help train your horse to immediately stop and soften at any gait when you pick up one rein. Check out CLINTON ANDERSON’S DOWNUNDER HORSEMANSHIP.
But what about my instructor? What could she have done in my runaway scenario? Caroline Robbins, Publisher at Trafalgar Square Books, says that some of her scariest experiences riding were out on the trail with others, watching as a horse bolted and took off, and not knowing what to do or how to help.
Sean Patrick, author of THE MODERN HORSEMAN’S COUNTDOWN TO BROKE and one of this year’s Road to the Horse Wild Card Contestants, began his career as a high-country guide in the rugged mountains of British Columbia. I asked him about his experiences in groups and what onlookers should do when a fellow rider is in trouble.
1 Avoid reacting yourself. When a horse is pulling a tree out of the ground, jumping sideways or bolting off, remain still and quiet. When a handler rushes toward a reacting horse or yells, “Whoa!” the result is rarely helpful. A runaway does not need another horse to run behind it as well. The fleeing reaction might continue.
2 When in the saddle, the sound of thundering hooves can initiate a startle reflex with your own mount. When you feel this anxiety building, it might be best to simply take one rein and turn your horse to face the opposite direction. A well-trained mount will be able to stand quietly, but a more-novice horse may feel influenced by the other horse’s fear.
3 When a group is together in a pasture, and one rider is having great trouble, there is very little to do except keep yourself safe. This way the runaway horse is more likely to relax, slow down, and come back to the group. If a fall happens, at least you will be in control and able to come to the rider’s aid. When in such situations, I’ve learned to sit quietly and respond after it’s over.
Horses can bring us joy, peace, companionship with other people and other creatures, and they can bring us closer to the land that surrounds us. As long as we keep learning and strive to better understand the horse and react in more appropriate ways to his own reactions, as long as we seek instruction from others with more experience so we are prepared to handle whatever happens in the saddle, then we are on our way to keeping the “scared” out of riding and working with horses, and the joy in it.
Stay safe. Have fun. Happy Halloween
–Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor
All the books and DVDs mentioned in this post are available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is always FREE.