Tag: psychology

The Bolt

All 3 horses spooked sharply. Conditions for a hack that December day were great, admittedly it was cold, but the sky was blue and the wind was busy ruining someone’s hair in another part of the country. It was quiet and frost still lay unthawed in the shadows of the hedge-line. These are the worst spooks, initiated by things you didn’t see or hear coming. This wasn’t a chip-wrapper gently blowing toward me in which I had time to communicate to my horse it’s okay. This wasn’t a florescent lycra-clad cyclist passing me from behind. This particular monster was silent and unseen.

The most dangerous kind.

All riders should spend more time riding along hedges preparing for the day monster’s are out of view and quiet. I’m certain all pheasants harbour psychopathic tendencies that enjoy waiting until your horse is only 12 inches away before squawking their disapproval, then deliberately flying straight at your head.

Pigeons aren’t innocent either. Forget the picturesque image of a beautiful country cottage adorned with a lone pigeon perched on a thatched roof gently coo-cooing. No, pigeons hold meetings in tree’s plotting your demise.  10 even 20 of them sit there giggling and elbowing each other as you approach. Meticulous timing and planning goes into the exact moment they all simultaneously take flight. All those flapping wings are comparable to the sound of a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall.

I still have no idea what unsettled all three horses, yet it goes a long way in explaining my passion for the horse, their power is formidable. The rapid change in direction and the speed they can complete this manoeuvre is astonishing.

Sadly one of our small group would never ride again.

My friend and I react instantly, although it would take another thousand words to describe what our bodies and muscles did in that split second. Another thousand words to explain how and why we had their trust, what they may have been desensitised to and what training they’d had, all culminating in stopping a bolt.

You either stop a bolt from occurring or you manage a bolt. Once that flight instinct kicks in and the horse is in full flow I don’t believe it’s going to end quite as soon as a rider would like.

The times I have found myself in this situation I have let the horse run initially, what else is there to do? Fighting with his mouth will be ineffective if he is convinced a lion is about to sink its teeth into his backside. You are not there in his mind, he is quite literally running for his life. Adrenalin plus instinct is a powerful force in any animal.

Fighting with a horse’s mouth is also unseating as you are not concentrating on anything else that could be done to calm your horse. The direction he is heading in should be a focus. There could be a left turn coming up or something to jump, even something to stop dead at, have you seen it and are you prepared? I’ve seen many a rider come off at a sharp turn simply because they hadn’t seen it coming. In nearly every case in my experience I have found the horse a short distance away calmly grazing, or at times circle around to rejoin the group. If the rider had just sat the corner regaining control may have only been seconds away. Although it has to be said, losing the rider may have contributed to calming the horse. The rider may have added to the stress and prolonged his flight instinct by panicking.

Hacking along the side of a canal while talking on my mobile may seem complacent to some, especially when a gust of wind revealed a huge orange sack that had been hidden in the tree until it billowed out full of air. My horse bolted away from the canal edge and across a field. I was still talking on the phone by the time I regained control. So not complacent at all, control was re-gained far quicker than dropping my phone and frantically pulling on the reins.

There isn’t an organism on this planet that expends energy for no reason, not a plant, an animal or microbe. The horse wont either, so don’t give him a reason. It’s a myth that horses left to their own devices will run around all day, or the wild horse will cover great distances on a daily basis.

They don’t.

They stand around grazing, grooming each other, resting or sleeping. Movement will occur as they graze and move between water and food sources. Horses would rather eat than run around needlessly. Watch the horses that are in paddocks when they are spooked. They will herd up while running, but they soon stop, look in the direction of fear, snort…then drop their heads to graze. They literally can’t wait to start grazing again.

Observe how they look to the first animal that has started grazing, that’s very likely the herd leader. They look to their leader to find out whether it’s safe to graze or not. The rider experiencing a bolt should also be the herd leader by communicating to the horse that everything is fine, a rider cannot communicate this while frantically pulling on the reins. Riders that do this aren’t calm, they are frightened and the horse knows the difference.

You are giving them a reason to keep running.

My friend and I came across approximately 30 children out in the country-side out on a school trip. The sight before us was a sea of colour, their anoraks and pack lunch boxes in every colour of the rainbow. They had all sat down for a picnic and all those small faces turned to us, mainly to look at the horses. I can’t berate the teacher here, I’m certain the decision she made was to not spook the horses. The correct decision was exactly the opposite of what she asked the children to do.

She told them to all stand up.

What was once a quiet carpet of colour, became a large moving noisy wave of blues, pinks, reds and oranges, consequently…my friends horse bolted. It’s actually a happy memory, one we still laugh about today. She looked at me with some rolling of the eyes as I waved goodbye. She didn’t change a thing, not her position or rein length. I stayed in the same place, until it dawned on her horse we weren’t following, and nothing was chasing him. Within minutes her horse was back at my side.

On that December day however things didn’t end well. The rider fought with the reins, her grip was so tight that when the horse pulled against her for release, she tipped forward. Even if nothing else was to occur, it was obvious her position was now at the point of no return.

Her upper torso was lying on the horses neck, and not accustomed to this position…he bucked. She hit that ground from a distance of approximately 15 feet. Humans, as I learnt that day can actually bounce. But this is meant as no joke, I actually wish I could erase that sight from my memory.

Bolting does not have to be a horrific experience that ends badly. Of the situations I have been in or witnessed, remaining calm is key to regaining control quickly and safely. Added to that, with experience and preparation bolting can be averted 99.9% of the time anyway. Lastly, with so many British roads flanked by hedgerows introduce your horse to the psychopathic pheasants, plotting pigeons, barking deer and rogue plastic bags in the countryside first…and well away from traffic.

Horse Blaming

The two ladies were heading down the hacking track toward me, they were talking loudly which caused me to look over. One of them was riding a horse, the actual owner was walking beside the horse holding onto both reins. It was apparent by the rider’s position that she was a novice. It begs the question why was a novice sat on a horse that needed 2 pairs of hands on its reins? As they passed me I heard the owner informing the rider that with this horse you had to show him who was the boss,  to be firm and not to take any nonsense.

I carried on watching as I knew there was about to be a problem as the horse looked uncomfortable, he was head high and his steps were tentative. I was waiting for him to pull backwards as he had every right to do so. With the owners hands being in that position the horse was essentially being led from pressure below and behind the chin. The movement occurring in that horse’s mouth must have been very distressing, at best confusing if not a painful experience with 4 hands yanking on his bit.

The horse reared up. I watched the owner more than the rider as she was the one shouting. She stepped away horrified, only then did she let go. This is yet another situation where a rider puts their trust in a human that allegedly has horse knowledge. However at the moment the owner became scared, and out of her depth… she stepped away. If indeed that horse had any nonsense on its mind, the situation would have ended catastrophically for the rider.

The threesome turned around and headed for home. Again they passed me and I could hear the owner verbally berating the horse. It hadn’t reared out of malice though as I’m fairly sure horses have no such emotion (or any concept of what nonsense may mean). This wasn’t a horse that had bolted once the owner let go, it wasn’t even napping. It simply wanted the pressure in its mouth to stop.

I felt bad for the animal and I mentally apologised to it on behalf of the entire human race.

This owner was not new to horses either, she had been at this particular yard for 20 years. Yet she had no knowledge or understanding of what her hands were doing, and was quite prepared to take a novice out into open country-side on a horse which in her words needed to be treated firmly. Also its worth noting in the 2 years I was a livery at this yard, I hadn’t seen the owner hack this horse out, not once.

It seems in some cases an equestrian is regarded as experienced because they have knowledge on types of feed, supplements, how to muck out, bandage and tack up.  Yet the horse trainers I am aware of (which I would trust with my life) probably couldn’t even name one brand of hoof oil, or know how to tie a tail bandage. But they understand the animal fully, their instincts, behaviour and psychology. Yet it is common for a potential rider to approach and pay a person for a lesson or hack that has more knowledge of caring for horses, rather than someone that actually understand how horses tick.

Two weeks later I am stood in my stable and I hear more horse-berating occurring. The person is attempting to lead a horse by a rope attached to the bit. She is at least 3 feet in front of the horse and pulling on the rope like she is in a tug of war contest. I point out to her the saddle has slipped and is now sitting on the side of the horse. This particular animal knew something was occurring that felt different on its back, so did not want to move forward. Far from being a stupid horse then as I’ve seen saddles slip before and the horse take flight bucking wildly. However this intelligent animal stopped and waited for someone to notice…while tolerating a metal bit that was being pulled repeatedly. The saddle was adjusted and the horse obediently walked forward.

The same day I was walking passed the arena. There were several small jumps set up and 2 children are riding their horses. For reasons unknown to me one child does not ask for canter in the conventional way but trots to the corner and uses her whip to ask instead. As she reached behind her to smack the horses flank she does not give with the rein and the horse was subsequently socked in the mouth with the bit.

I winced.

The horse which I assume was reacting out of pain threw its head to the floor and stopped dead, the child took a short flight and landed in front of his head. Within 1 minute there was a group of people standing around the crying child. However the horse which was now standing in the corner with its reins on the floor was completely ignored. It’s worth noting also the horse hadn’t gone to the gate, leaving the arena wasn’t on its mind. Sadly no one seemed interested in checking that the horse wasn’t injured and in pain, or even removing its tack and taking it out of the arena. When asked what had happened I could hear the second child informing the adults that the horse had thrown the girl off.

Again I mentally apologised to it on behalf of the entire human race, but as ever…the horse always gets the blame.

The Natural Born Killer

The gentle horse roams silently in the paddock while softly swishing her tail, two mouthfuls of grass are grazed and a hoof moves forward creating a steady rhythm that is soothing to watch. It’s a beautiful autumn day and a Red Admiral carelessly surfs the soft warm breeze. At least that’s how I like to remember this day, the reality is not quite as poetic. It’s an autumn day and there may have been a butterfly, a moth, maybe a few dung beetles kicking about.

My horse catches my eye because she is behaving peculiar. Her head carriage is relaxed, which somehow makes this even worse, and she is twisting her front right leg on the spot in semi-circular motions. Of course I go over to investigate and she doesn’t move, I also see nothing on the ground in the vicinity of this one hoof. The semi-circular motions continue and it’s quite a bizarre sight! I push against her to encourage her to move but she stands her ground so I reach down to pick the foot up. She resists me, but after a few pulls I have lifted the hoof and underneath… I see fur. At best I think it’s a patch of rabbit pelt, the remnants of a meal from a fox or kite. But as I lift the fur it’s heavier than expected, in fact I soon discover it’s an entire rabbit. My horse has pummelled this poor creature into the ground, and she has done it without a care in the world.

But our gentle equine friends don’t kill, do they?

I was enjoying a steady canter on this mare through an open field, my only other companion being my faithful labrador who would run alongside us effortlessly. We must have disturbed a hiding fox as suddenly one darted out in front of us, to which my dog took off in hot pursuit, unfortunately…so did my horse! She quickly outpaced the dog and I had to scream at him to get out of the way. Rather than being trampled he barrelled sideways down a ditch. It was too late for me to stop this rather bizarre ‘bolt’ as I had already been at canter, I had already wasted a few precious seconds trying to save the dog and I had never even for a second anticipated my horse would chase a fox. My mare’s head carriage was very low, rendering the bit useless. Her nose was 2 inches from the floor and 6 feet behind the terrified fox. Her ears were pinned flat to her head and she was without a doubt either going to sink her teeth into this fox or strike out. Eventually the fox used the same tactic as my dog and I lost sight of it as it also barrelled sideways down a ditch and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Other incidences of my mares murdering ways involve squishing rats in her stable and chasing dogs out of her paddock.

HORSE ATTACKS DOG IN UNLIKELY GAME OF CHASE

In all seriousness, it isn’t just my horse that kills, all horses can kill. In fact horses are somewhat formidable killing machines. But the horse is a ‘prey animal’ you may be thinking, maybe…for a lion. This term gives people the idea the horse is defenseless and will run away from anything. This couldn’t be further from the truth and horses will quite often stand their ground. A stallion will protect his herd, a mare will protect her foal, and these are the same instincts that are alive and well in that horse that stands in the stable eating hay.

I can understand my horse probably recognised the fox as a predator, perhaps she saw me and the dog as part of her herd, and she is without a doubt a dominant mare. Rats are creatures that scurry around her feet and perhaps she’s been nipped, perhaps not, maybe she is being territorial…perhaps she just doesn’t like rats! The killing of innocent rabbits in the field has me scratching my head however, is she protecting the limited resources or is she being territorial or both. It’s tempting to think she was just being aggressive for the sake of it, but animals rarely expend energy for absolutely no reason. Also when I saw her stomping the rabbit none of her body language exhibited aggression, she looked very calm in-fact. …answers on a postcard please.

I have never seen evidence that any of the animals she has killed have been consumed, not played with, or even chewed. I have only once witnessed a horse picking up a dead bird and began eating it. I will never know if this horse intended on swallowing the bird as the owner (understandably) removed the bird from the horse’s mouth. Although I have seen a video of a horse eating chicks and its uncomfortable to watch. The video shows dry dusty ground that is depleted of grass, so perhaps the horse has no choice but to eat them in order to survive. There could be evidence of miss-management in this case because rather than remove the horse to grass, or provide hay, or indeed save the hapless chicks from being consumed…videoing of the event was seen as far more important.

The Strict Routine

My horse was very strong on a hack recently, and while we may have only been walking, it was still necessary to correct the speed. I hadn’t asked for this fast paced walk, in fact I was looking for a nice amble across the English county-side. The walk she had chosen felt hurried and anxious, and when I applied pressure to my reins she totally ignored it. Now I could have got home 30 minutes earlier than planned, but this needed correcting. Situations like this are no more than a nuisance at walk, yet my horse ignoring my pressure and deciding her own speed at trot and canter could prove a lot more dangerous.

Very frequently situations in the saddle are not always just connected to riding, and situations such as mine are a consequence of everything else an owner does around the horse. Yet I see very little evidence of people making this connection, I often see just the opposite. Problems in the saddle are just that, it’s a schooling problem, a bad temperament, the horse is in season, it’s the spring grass, the saddle needs re-flocking or a stronger bit is required.

A very sad situation occurred recently in which a young rider was thrown from her horse and received a fatal head injury. I may not know the exact circumstances but the article I read stated that the girl had finished riding and put the horse in the stable. For reasons unknown she brought the horse back out the stable and mounted the horse again. The hat had already been removed, as the saddle and she mounted on the concrete base. The horse bucked her off.

This is a set of circumstances in which having a strict routine could get someone hurt or killed. We see the same routing every day in which someone has finished riding, untacks the horse, grooms and feeds, or some variation of that, but usually some sort of routine is established.

Returning to my own situation of my fast paced anxious hack; this was resolved by giving some thought to what I had been doing the last few times I had both handled and ridden my horse. I had done this very same trail the last time I hacked and when I had finished I untacked my horse, groomed, fed and turned her out. I had unwittingly trained my horse that if we just get finished she will get a bowl of feed and can get back to her herd sooner. Schooling wise, I did correct this pace while riding but this was just 10% of what I needed to do to change this behaviour. I didn’t want a stronger bit, and ideally I wanted my horse not to be anxious when hacking.

The next time I handled my horse I fed her first, then groomed and did some groundwork. Some days I didn’t provide any hard feed and I avoided riding the same trail if I had hacked that way the last time. Sometimes we didn’t hack but rode in the arena, or did dome road-work. Fundamentally I always did things (everything) differently than the last time. My horse is now in a situation where she cannot predict what is coming next.

Is she anxious? No.

My horse is calm because she is not in control of the situation, and if she is not in control then the person who is calling the shots…is me.

Be wary of livery yards that seem proud to advertise their horses have ‘a strict routine’. No don’t be wary, just avoid them. Ideally you want a yard that lets you mind your own business, which is entirely possible in my experience. The horses you see and hear in the morning kicking the stable doors wanting to be fed are not calm and contented horses, they are anxious.

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A strict routine has a knock on effect with everything someone does with their horse which involves riding and handling. The added danger is when you do something that suddenly breaks this routine. If you have ridden your horse at 4 pm every-day for the last 2 years then one morning decide to ride at 7 am, you may very well have a horse that throws a tantrum. It isn’t the bit, it isn’t the saddle, and it isn’t because your horse is mean. It’s because you have trained your horse to expect breakfast at 8 am and to be ridden at 4 pm.

I was made aware of a horseman a couple of years ago, although I do not know his name and I have never met him, all the same I tip my hat to him. He purchased a ‘dangerous’ horse. This horse was turned away for many months while the horseman just observed him. During this time the man could see nothing physically or psychologically wrong with this animal, so brought him back into work. In my mind and without a doubt I feel sure this man was bringing back balance to this horse’s brain. He was undoing years of bad horsemanship, routine, strong bits and uneducated handling…by just letting the horse be a horse for 6 months.

My partner hunted this horse several times after been cared for by this man, so you can believe me when I say this horse was not dangerous and was good as gold when ridden.

Throw that routine out, good horsemanship is not just about sitting in a saddle. Give some thought to what you do around horses. The rears, the bucks, the napping and being strong when led may just have nothing to do with your tack or because the horse is dangerous. It may just be better not to invest your money in changing tack, but investing your time in understanding horse psychology.