You are out trail riding alone on your trusty steed on a familiar path. Suddenly you encounter two adrenaline-crazed deer being chased by wild hogs dragging a tarp behind them. Your horse is teetering the edge of sanity, leaping and snorting — and then your right stirrup leather breaks with an emphatic cracking sound. What do you do?
You are riding in a clinic with twenty riders in a covered arena at a county fairground facility. There are approximately fifty other events going on in other parts of the fairground — each with their own screeching microphone system, unruly audience and random booming sounds. Your horse (who is always a saint at home) decides this is a good time to really work on his bolting and/or bucking skills. Two other horses in the clinic agree with him and join his wilding spree across the arena — so they can attempt to corner and kick your horse. What do you do?
You are about to mount your green (but sensible) young horse. As you swing your leg over his back, a giant tree falls to the ground in the nearby woods — setting off massive whacking sounds, multiple branch explosions and what feels like a Richter scale earthquake across the ground. Your green horse feels that the best way out of this situation is up, over and away (not necessarily in that order). What do you do?
These are extreme examples — but nearly every rider I know has encountered situations of unwelcome trouble while horseback. I personally have dealt with more mundane versions of all three of the above scenarios (sans tarp dragging wild hogs though) — and while I don’t recommend the experience, it is definitely part of riding that sometimes things will go wrong just when you’d really rather be working on a nice, mellow walk.
So, what do you do (or don’t do)? Here are the top five Dos and Don’ts that I have learned from personal times of trouble:
This sounds so obvious, but it is truly the most important item on this list. Panicking never helps — ever. If you are convinced that you are going to die at the hands of the adrenaline deer freaks, then at least coach yourself to go out with some dignity instead of shrieking, thrashing and hyperventilating when the deer are still yards away. Seriously, think back on every horror film you’ve ever seen — does anyone who panicked at the sight of the monster/serial killer/zombie gang ever survive for the entire film? No. And for a good explanation of how to combat the fear behind panic, here’s a short clip of Buck Brannaman from his Seven Clinics DVD series:
Curl into a fetal position
This never works. It is a natural instinct to become a shrimp when feeling scared — but that’s one reason why shrimp are a menu item. Making yourself small will not ward off the trouble. And even worse, the fetal position is really horrible for your balance in the saddle. It puts your center of gravity in a precarious place and sends a signal of zero confidence to your horse. You won’t be able to direct your horse’s feet, ride out a big crow hop or balance during a brief bolt — and you will most likely fall off long before your horse did anything to truly force you out of the saddle. Even if your horse is racing into a forest of low-hanging branches, the fetal position is a bad idea — to avoid branches or other head whacking things, you want to bend from your hip (keeping your back as straight as possible) and your eyes looking forward.
Blame the horseUsually the horse is even more worried than you are when trouble hits — and is just trying to survive the situation.
Always the wrong approach. First of all, horses don’t walk the earth thinking of ways to scare and upset people. Usually the horse is even more worried than you are when trouble hits — and he is just trying to survive the situation. Being angry at him won’t ease his anxiety — or put you in the right mental state to find a good solution or way to support your horse. Plus it wastes time to berate the horse and reflect on how bad he is — and time is usually not in abundance during a troubled situation.
Rush or Freeze
These are flip sides to the same coin of being reactive instead of responsive to the trouble. Spastically yanking on the horse’s mouth while frantically pumping his sides won’t be helpful (no matter how fast you do it). Neither will freezing into blank stiffness, hoping that the problem will just go away if you don’t move. Responding thoughtfully to an unwelcome development is much more likely to bring about a solution — and that requires measured action, rather than overdoing or undoing. Think of a car skidding on ice — rapidly stomping the brakes and frenetically spinning the steering wheel is a bad idea. And so is just sitting in the car with your eyes closed, praying that the car will figure how to avoid trouble on its own.
The ride is already plenty full of excitement, so don’t add whipped up emotion to the scenario. Yelling, babbling, whimpering, repeated use of the phrases “oh MY God” or “please someone help me” are pretty much useless to your horse. What they do instead is draw attention to you and what your feelings at that moment. But it’s really not about you, it’s about the horse — and horses aren’t ever helped by melodrama. So get steady in your outer demeanor (even if you are totally faking it) and leave the drama for another time.
Ray Hunt was right about this. Take a moment to think, to assess the situation and then respond. Thinking involves not just looking off into space pensively — but also being aware of your surroundings, observing your horse and taking note of your body position. If you do that, you might notice that there is barbed wire on the right, the footing is better to the left, your horse is tight in his hindquarters, your reins are too loose, and you have shifted your seat far to the left. In which case, you might decide on a strategy that involves gathering your reins, straightening your seat, untracking your horse’s hindquarters and directing your horse to the left (away from the barbed wire). Even if the strategy isn’t 100% perfect, the mental process of taking account of the situation and formulating a plan will help calm you and begin the process of defusing the trouble.
Straighten upTo straighten up puts you in a position that exudes much more confidence and leadership.
This is important metaphorically as well as literally. As discussed above, the fetal position does nothing to help you or your horse. Straightening up with your shoulders back and chest open creates the opposite effect. Now your balance is better and you can see more accurately. It is very difficult to straighten up if you are crooked in the saddle — so you tend to automatically correct your seat when you are tall in the saddle too. Your horse feels that you are more secure on his back — and this is a good signal to send him. But even more important is what this position does for you psychologically. To straighten up puts you in a position that exudes much more confidence and leadership. Should you choose to accept that role, you now have shifted from feeling like a shrimp to behaving like a rider who can help their horse out of trouble.
I tend to hold my breath in times of excitement and anxiety. This tightens everything about my position (especially in my upper body) and tells my horse that for some reason I am no longer taking in oxygen while in the saddle. Most horses don’t find that to be a reassuring message. To guarantee that I continue to breathe, I often will quietly hum or whistle when faced with an especially “interesting” ride. Humming, singing and whistling all require that you breathe and that you do so in a rhythmic manner (which is soothing for you and the horse). I can’t carry a tune so I don’t sing (for the sake of the horse and any spectators) — but I often will replay a humorous or favorite tune in my head to keep my breathing in that song’s cadence. This is my “go to” mental song in times of excitement under saddle.
When your horse is darting violently about, threatening to buck, dive and bolt, it is easy to feel like the victim. At the end of the day though, you are responsible for taking ownership of the situation and becoming present for your horse. Maybe you did nothing wrong as a rider in the moments before trouble hit — perhaps you were riding along beautifully together, your horse in a soft feel, when giant zombie eagles attacked from above. Even so, you are the rider as well as the team member with a fully developed intellect — so it’s your role to figure out how to get the team out of trouble. That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly become a Ray Hunt ninja and perform amazing feats of vaquero horsemanship never seen before. It might just mean that you need to do an emergency dismount or head for the clinician in the middle of the arena. Or that you decide to do a one-rein stop or steer your horse into a circle when he insists on cantering rapidly. Being responsible isn’t the same as being perfect. The key is that you take responsibility for helping your horse — instead of slipping into the victim role and passively waiting to see what happens.
Practice when there isn’t trouble
When trouble arrives, it is easy to revert back to old patterns. If you and your horse have practiced one-rein stops, short serpentines and rolling the hindquarters, then bringing the front quarters through during relaxed, happy times — then it will be much easier to do those during a tense or anxious situation. You also will become more aware of how your horse’s body moves as you refine and practice these movements. Because of that, you might actually feel trouble starting to brew before it officially arrives — and then nip it in the bud. Which of course is the very best strategy of all for dealing with trouble — to redirect it when it is more of a minor pest rather than allowing it to grow into a surly monster.
It is natural to feel a little queasy at the thought of trouble under saddle. My own attitude toward trouble started to change when we filmed our DVD on Retraining Racehorses with Tom Curtin. During that filming, one of the horses (Wooden Phone) had some trouble during a session that involved opening and closing a gate. He got pretty worried about the situation — but Tom didn’t have any concern at all. After that day’s filming, we asked Tom about Wooden Phone’s reaction.When your horse is darting violently about, threatening to buck, dive and bolt, it is easy to feel like the victim. At the end of the day though, you are responsible for taking ownership of the situation and becoming present for your horse.
Tom’s response was that often people get too focused on what’s going wrong with their horse during trouble. But to him, he always sees so many things going right in those moments. In Wooden Phone’s case, he was pleased that the horse stayed respectful, never tried to take over, learned to work his hindquarters efficiently, understood (maybe for the first time ever) that he had to keep trying at new things and finally realized that he could come through a situation that scared him and be more confident afterward. All of these were hugely important for Wooden Phone — and that session quite literally changed his life in many positive ways.
For people like Tom, times of difficulty are actually great opportunities. That’s an attitude I would like fully embrace one day too (though I still stop breathing a little during those “special” opportunity moments).
Note: This post describes my personal “top five” examples for Dos and Don’ts that I learned the hard way from my own less than smooth riding days. What would you add to the list from your own experiences?