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February 18, 2020 6 Comments
Written by Don Jessop - Mastery Horsemanship
"It came out of the blue," she said. "There were no signs leading up to it. He just started bucking and I fell off."
"I understand where you're coming from." I replied. "I've certainly been surprised by a horses actions. Especially a good old, trusted horse. But something always happens before what happens happens. So I want you to think back. What happened first?"
"Nothing! I swear." She replied, slightly blushing with either embarrassment or anger.
"It's okay." I expressed. "You didn't do anything wrong. You just might have missed something. We all miss things. We can't possibly see everything, all at once. And experiences like these, especially because you survived, are good experiences. You get to learn about your horse in a way you never knew you needed to."
She took a deeper breath and softened her tense face. "I was walking along casually, and everything was going great. He was relaxed. We all seemed happy. Nothing spooked him, that I could see. Then I felt like trotting, so I asked him to trot, and he did. The next thing I know, I'm on the ground."
The story you just heard is not uncommon. Good horses... do bad things... sometimes. As a horse psychologist and behavior specialist, I know exactly what happened before what happened happened. I know that her horse, like thousands of other horses, have a surge of energy related to upward transitions. The horse could have been spooked or pinched by the saddle suddenly, that's certainly worth looking into, but more likely the horse just sparked a bit too much energy all at once. Imagine too much electricity surging through a toaster oven and you see sparks come out. Horses have energy surges too. They seem to come at random times, but when you look closer there are subtle signs suggesting the horse is a little on edge, or... a little sleepy. If he's on edge the extra energy required for an upward transition overflow and you get bucking. If he's a little sleepy the extra energy wakes him up too fast and spooks him just a bit. Imagine someone tossing cold water on you while you're sleeping. It would shock your system and you might say words that rhyme with bucking bronco.
The point is that energy isn't constant, even in good horses. It's more constant in good horses for sure. That's why we call them "good horses." They tend to regulate their fear and energy output better because of training or personality but they still have energy surges that surprise the human from time to time. This kind of energy surge doesn't surprise a good trainer, however, because trainers know this can happen. At least the good ones do. They know that horses will be horses and anything can happen. This is why good trainers never let their guard down and I recommend the same for novice riders. NEVER LET YOUR GUARD DOWN.
That doesn't mean you can't relax. You can relax driving your car right? You have subsystems that take care to watch for potential hazards and you do pretty good. So good in fact that you can carry on a conversation in the face of bumper to bumper traffic, horns honking, green lights that are too short and so on. You need to take these subsystems with you when you ride.
All too often when someone gets hurt it because they didn't see it coming. They assumed their horse was unlikely to do anything silly and then, out of the blue... the horse does something silly. One of the biggest, most magical gifts, that horses give us, is a reconnect to nature. When you're on your horse, you feel part of nature again. But this gift is also a huge liability, especially for those who think connecting with nature is always serene and calm. Nature can be quick, powerful, dangerous, then back to calm, all in a short period of time. I never want to lose sight of that, no matter how good the weather looks. I still bring a rain jacket in my car, just in case. It should be the same for horse riders. No matter how good the horse is, you should keep one eye on potential hazards and excessive tension or sleepiness.
So now we've emphasized the importance of keeping up your awareness, we can chat about solutions for potential problems like the one described above. How does a good horse trainer avoid the upward transition, energy surge issue? Believe me when I say there are thousands of techniques and no need to be defensive about any one technique you've learned. This isn't about right and wrong this is about principles so when I describe a technique, stay open. When a rider asks a horse to go forward, knowing there could be a potential energy surge, the best thing to do is ask for less. Don't go from a walk to a trot. Go from a walk to a faster walk. If that pans out like you hoped, then consider a trot. Following this principle, you can almost always manage a horse's energy output before it explodes. The same goes for trot to canter transitions. Smaller asks ensure time to correct.
Upward transitions aren't the only thing that can upset a horse, even a good horse. Sometimes things spook horses that you don't think should spook your horse. If you teach a horse to drag a plastic tarp behind you while riding and she learns to truly trust that silly dragging tarp, there is still the possibility that she won't trust the tarp if it meets her at a different angle. For instance, some horses are fine with scary things approaching from the front but freak out when that same object approaches from the side, or vice versa. Master horsemen and horsewomen are aware that any given stimulus changes in the perception of the horse when you show that stimulus at a different angle or speed.
Recently my wife lowered a bag from her horse to give to my daughter standing on the ground. This horse has always been a "good horse." But something about that bag, at that angle, at that moment in time, spooked him and he jumped. He's the type of horse that would chew that bag to bits if you left it hanging on the fence. He would pick it up and toss it around for fun. Yet in that moment he surprised everyone. That's not a problem. Everyone gets surprised. The point is, you look back in your memory like I suggested in the beginning and try to see what happened before he jumped. Was there tension? Was he kind of sleepy, and I caught him off guard? Then ask a new question. What could I do to help him be okay with it in the future?
Usually, it's simple. All you have to do is take a couple of days ensuring he can handle that thing from every angle and every speed. Play some confidence games until he seems good. Then take him to an area that could hold a little more tension and play some confidence games. As for the upward transition energy surge thing. The strategy is kind of the same. Just take a few sessions to ensure you respond appropriately to upward transitions. Ask for more transitions and eventually ask for transitions in spaces he wouldn't expect them, like in the middle of a sandy stream bed. Games like this tend to expand the horses' confidence and awareness.
As always, you have to judge your own skills when you set out to help a horse. Stay safe, be progressive. Don't rest on your laurels, keep your guard up and learn to relax and have fun, the same way you relax and have fun when driving a car on a dry mountain pass. You're always checking the responsiveness of the car but you're enjoying every minute.
And never forget... even good horses still act like horses from time to time.
I hope you enjoyed listening to this story and I hope it's helpful. Please share this with a friend and comment below.
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