A little while ago I told a friend that I thought I’d lost my nerve. She immediately, and very kindly, said I could come and ride her quiet mare any time I like. I considered this very thoughtful offer and realised that I hadn’t explained myself clearly at all. I hadn’t actually lost my nerve at all, I would happily get on a horse that I knew, as long as they were relatively safe and sensible and I knew they’d be happy to be ridden. What had actually happened was I’d become more risk averse. I didn’t want to do anything risky that might result in a fall and injury.
I last fell off a few years ago and had a very near miss. My horse at the time got panicked by a stag and spooked then bucked repeatedly, then when I hit the floor he put both hind feet on my left leg as he bounced off and galloped away from the scene in blind panic. Very fortunately for me we were in a stubble field and it was after a spell of wet weather so the ground was very soft and my leg, instead of breaking, sank into the muck. After a moment or two to gather myself, I was able to get up and hobble after him, bruised but thankfully not broken.
I think that was the point when it dawned on me that I really couldn’t afford to get injured! I am self employed and if I can’t work, I don’t get paid. I’m also a mum, my husband works full time and we have a menagerie of animals. Who would care for them all if I was incapacitated?
Quite apart from anything else, in many cases, accidents happen when horses are a bit stressed, a bit overloaded, a bit unhappy about what is going on. Ethically, morally, this doesn’t sit well with me. Why would I be sitting on a stressed horse? Yes, I want to feel safe, but I also really really want my horse to feel safe. And that means training with care and managing situations so that potential threats are minimised or avoided where possible.
The fall I had happened because of a factor beyond my control: I didn’t know there was going to be a stag on the other side of the hedge. But I did know that there had been a stag hanging around the farm, and the horses had been unsettled as a result. And I did know that my horse was not his usual happy self that ride, and hadn’t been for a few days. I had been testing things out and trying to work out what was bothering him. Of course, if I had been one of my clients, I’d have said,’Don’t ride until we get to the bottom of this’. I would definitely have said,’If he seems unusually tense, just hop off and lead him home’. So I did take a risk, I rode a less than happy horse, and I paid the price. I learned my lesson!!
Over the few years since that happened, I have definitely become more risk averse. The covid pandemic hasn’t helped, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. But what I’m appreciating now, more than ever, is that we absolutely must pay attention to how our horses are feeling, and respond appropriately. There is rarely, if ever, a place for a ‘sit tight and kick on’ attitude. We aren’t ‘giving horses confidence’ when we do this. We are in fact bullying/ donineering/ forcing them through sheer strength both physically and strength of will.
The best thing we can do is, in fact to listen to the horse. Offer reassurance. Hop off and use our positively trained tools to help them re-engage with us and shift their focus off whatever is worrying them and back on to us. Retreat if necessary. Return to a safe space. Do whatever we need to stay safe in that moment and then make a training plan so that whatever has happened to upset the horse doesn’t happen again.
I have a lovely young horse at the moment, my gorgeous Kaikoura. He came to me as an unhandled, late gelded, very kind but very strong three year old. He has been a slow training process because I’ve had to work really hard to teach him to stay with me no matter what. He would have been a nightmare with traditional training methods. He was so strong and had learned to use his strength incredibly effectively in the herd environment. Plus, he had a very reactive nervous system and was very quick to spook and run.
But he’s such a sweet horse, incredibly cuddly and kind, and he has come around amazingly. I’m still taking the riding slowly because I don’t like taking risks anymore, and I don’t want to ride him unless he’s relaxed and happy in his environment. He likes the odd little sport, for fun, and that’s okay and easy to sit, I don’t mind that so much. But he doesn’t like surprises. Whereas in the pa, t he would have spooked and run, with careful work, we’ve now got to the stage where he spooks on the spot. The spooks are much smaller and more rideable, but there is still work to do. By paying close attention to his stress/ arousal levels, I can make sure that he doesn’t get stacked up. This means he is less reactive, and the spooks are not so big.
When I think back 10 or 20 years, I’m fairly sure I would have taken more risks with this horse. We might have been doing more at this point, but I don’t think I would have had the same overall progress with him.
I think there’s a lot to be said for the saying ‘Go slower, you’ll get there faster’!
More importantly, the moral of this story is LISTEN to your horse. Take steps to help them feel better. Never feel under pressure to make things happen within a time frame. Go at your horse’s pace. And don’t worry about not wanting to take risks, you’ll be a better trainer because of it!!