A glorious dawn ride down the beach this morning with my good horse McCoy, and my friend with her beautiful young warmblood, who I call The Unicorn because he is simply too pretty to be allowed. McCoy is innately a ‘react first think later’ type, and the young horse was green as grass, but very well prepared for his ride by his savvy owner.
The tide was in and the beach was stony, so we decided to come back through the tracks behind the dunes, a hilly, brush covered area with narrow paths, good firm sandy footing and lots of bushes and plants. The track is fun and McCoy felt full of himself as he surged up hills and gave some beautifully walk/canter transitions. We have hooned that track before, so he has exciting associations with it, but today we had the baby Unicorn with us, and I myself was very aware that McCoy was fresh too, and hadn’t been out for a while, so we were keeping it generally to a walk apart from the occasional hill.
As we were walking along in single file, McCoy and I in front and The Unicorn behind, suddenly Something Happened. We don’t know what ‘it’ was, and being in NZ with no crocs, bears, or wolves to worry about, I expect it doesn’t really matter; though later in the inevitable raking over, we surmised it may have been one of our own dogs.
What does matter though, is what happened to our horses, as they both went from a walk to a flat out gallop in a single horse moment; which is equivalent to the one quarter of a second that it takes a horse’s reflexes to kick in.
Both horses panicked and both riders, within four strides, had already applied our one rein emergency stop, so both horses, in synchrony, stopped, bent to the left, disengaged and ended up looking back the way we came.
All of us had bounding heart rates and a massive adrenaline hit from the near miss, as we assessed the danger and reset our nervous systems.
This could have gone wrong in so many ways. I think that had I been travelling with a less experienced rider on the Unicorn, or had she been riding with a less experienced combination, that the story would have been quite different. If either one of our horses hadn’t had a good one rein stop installed, or if either rider wasn’t so conditioned that we instantly reached for it instead of pulling back with two reins, it would have been a flat out bolt for home, taken longer to stop, been much more dangerous as the speed increased, and other combination would have been in much more trouble as well as the bolting horse departed. Most likely it would have been two horses running for their lives.
So the lesson is this. Preparation has been drilled into my by my mentor Russell Higgins.
Or as the good man Warwick Schiller also succinctly puts it- ‘you need to create a tool to use a tool’.
Lateral flexion is a part of the picture. Your horse needs to instinctively respond to one rein with a soft yield, even if his fear is up. Hindquarter control is another part.
There’s a train of thought that tells us that hindquarter disengagement is not a good thing biomechanically for our horses, and this is true. It requires that the weight go to the forehand in order to move those hind feet. However it’s pretty critical in moments when you need to take the power away from the engine that is that powerful, pushing hind. For this reason I have a little routine when I mount up, that I run through every time. Lateral flexion to left? Check. Hindquarter disengage to the right? Check. Weight change, lift forehand, step forefeet around hind, move forward out of that, Check. Backup, weight back on quarters? Check.
Repeat both ways.
This little routine solidifies my muscle memory for each move, and checks out how responsive my horse is at it too. It reminds me to use different rein, leg and seat cues to affect different parts of my horse’s body. It’s a great game as you can test how little it takes, every time, and it’s a little prerequisite test to every ride to ensure my horse and I are in tune.
I think it saved my butt today, and helped my friend save hers too, just as her own prior preparation meant that she too could bring her horse swiftly back under control, in what could have been the perfect storm.
We did good, I think!