A bolting horse is a terrifying experience, and so it should be.
I can remember once, a long time ago, asking my wise instructor: ‘what do you do when a horse bolts?’
He paused. His reply was very clever. ‘Look down at the saddle’, he said. ‘You’ll notice that somewhere between the pommel and cantle, there’ll be a nut loose in the saddle’.
Funny guy! And ouch! Bang on the money.
His meaning, as I took it, was that I was the one in control, I set up the situation, and I had to take responsibility for how it turned out.
Riding horses has an inherent risk. We know this before we start. We are putting our bodies on top of 500kg prey animals, and horses are horses, we can’t blame them for acting under instinct- instinct is a lot older than we are in their psyche.
Any healthy horse, no matter what his advert says, can and does kick, buck, rear, and bolt if he is given the freedom to do so. That is a part of being a horse. That he doesn’t under saddle is a big deal, but instinct has a flashline to his go button, a superhighway in the brain built by millions of years of evolution as a prey animal, that gives priority to safety, every time. The moment he thinks he is not safe- and horses can think that a lot- the adrenaline is ready to fire,. We have a tough act to follow- we need to make sure that we are a go to instinctive source of safety/calmness for that horse as well. Can our horses override the need to flee to accept the potentially claustrophobic alternative of bending to a stop before it’s too late?
We are talking emergency brakes. Your lateral flexion and hindquarter control may be great at home, or from a standstill or walk, or even trot and canter; but how is it when he is overexcited, adrenalised, or frightened?
This morning I was riding my friend, mare Magic, through the sand dunes. It was windy, and spooky. Magic shied at a couple of things but came back to me immediately each time. When we emerged into the beach she scooted forward in a mini panic for whatever reason; and within three strides she was easily disengaging, turning, blowing out and soft, then ready again in a few seconds to head off again calmly. No panic, no fight, no tantrums. We were able to get up, and come quickly back down to calmness, our baseline requisite.
It wasn’t always like this. It was actually quite a breakthrough.
Magic and I have had our moments. I have owned her since she was 8 months old, she is now 11, and she has always been an interesting horse for me. She is self confident, sensitive, and opinionated.
But self confidence is not all there is to it.
There are 5 areas of confidence.
confidence in self;
and in learning.
Magic is brave, but can be environmentally spooky. Also, because she is self confident, she is not the sort of horse who is generally looking for leadership. She is well trained in that you can pick up a rein and she’s soft as you’ll let her be, but in the past I had inadvertently created a bit of a problem.
Because I ‘knew’ Magic was sensitive, and that she was responsive because I had trained her to be, I expected this under all circumstances.
So what happened was that she wasn’t actually always soft under the duress of spookiness or a heightened adrenalin burst, and I wrongfully got righteous and critical about it.
I would bend her, she would resist, we would spin and argue until I outplayed her. Sometimes this meant getting off and groundwork, but it was always an argument, and not an ideal way to stay safe. She would be frustrated and stressed, and so would I.
She is not overly difficult, and it never happened often enough or ‘big’ enough to bother me, which possibly made it worse, because we got to practice mild forms of it a lot-bad idea!- and hey, if you know you can regain control, that’s enough for many of us until we can’t.
Magic would comply all right, I never ‘lost’, but we would have such a grouchy ears and a sulky face. It wasn’t prolonged fear; it was a resentment that superseded the initial behaviour trigger. As I grew more aware, I started to realise that actually, maybe I had ‘lost’ a bigger prize.
The good old one one rein stop has saved my bacon a few times with this horse, but it was upsetting that she plainly felt I was not helping. Her reactions seemed to say; ‘I was scared, but I don’t need you and you’re annoying me and making everything worse, get off me so I can deal with this by interspersing staring, and running away’.
Today’s ride was a complete contrast.
So what has changed?
I have. I have continued to learn and grow, and now I know better. I know how to prepare my horse so she is able to respond to me under worse .circumstances.
It will always be different for every horse, but I believe that every element that can exclude a horse from appropriate response to pressure is a vital one. In Magic’s case, it was attention, and priorities.
As a self confident horse on the lookout for danger, she puts energy into scoping out the countryside. I need to be able to interrupt that pattern before she fixates on a distraction from the job at hand, and have her happy to check in with me.
I started at home with exercises that gently and non offensively ask her up bring attention back to me as soon as she went ‘on guard’. It’s not about staring at me, or my egotistically demanding , but just asking for awareness. It was the very least I could do to get her attention, then leave her alone. Lifting the rein, touch her neck, make a noise. Noticing her signals. Maybe looking at what it is too and sighing. Breathing together. It’s a two way conversation.
I extended this outside, and built in little impulsion games of focus, as in ‘follow my focus now to this obstacle over here by the nice grass, then stop, wait, and I will cue you to eat.’ I used positive reinforcement as well as release, because she is a smart thinker most of the time and very food motivated. I showed her it paid to pay attention, and while, to start with, such a tactic would never supersede a panic, it helped chip away at myelinating that new superhighway brain access I was working on for attention to me.
It’s not what happens, it’s what happens before what happens, happens.
The ideal picture for Magic right now under saddle is flicking ears. I don’t say ‘don’t look around’ but I will say ‘remember me. Think about me. Follow my focus’. Her ears still have to look here and there, but so long as they are also checking in on me, we have softness and we have response and we have no brace. Zero brace means we have no bolts, and no bolts proves there are no nuts loose in the saddle!