Tag: training

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.

The Loading…Issue?

My horse does load and travel quite well. But if we were to stop and pass a trained eye over the entire event from start to finish the process is far from a comfortable experience for my horse. This has not proved overly problematic in the past as I have always relied on specific tactics in the event my horse decides not to put a hoof on that ramp. Fortunately buckets of feed and lunge lines haven’t featured in any of the horses I have loaded over the last decade. While it is tempting to divulge the tactics I have used, it would be irresponsible to promote or encourage such practices. Rest assured none of them involved beating, hurting or scaring the animal. Knowing you have a few tricks up one’s sleeve, and having a Plan B can only mean one thing however…the horse was never trained to load correctly in the first place.

A horse that is even slightly suspicious of placing its hoof on that ramp must have doubts. I accept full responsibility that initially I did not train this particular horse to load correctly because I was ignorant. Going up the ramp, coming down the ramp, it’s such a small part of the day that it’s often the case we do not stop to read the signals. People tend to concentrate on the why they are travelling that day. It could be a show, hunting, a sponsored ride or a trip to the beach for example.

Loading2

There must be without a doubt the sound of a million sighs of relief throughout the world on a daily basis when that ramp finally closes and the horse is loaded.

Should there be a ‘Phew!’?

Of course not, and If a person finds themselves feeling relieved then they should address the fact that they must have been worried in the first place.  Addressing this fact is accepting the horse has not been trained to load correctly. Blaming the horse for not loading is only going to reflect badly on its owner because a horse does not teach itself to load.

It occurred to me recently that my horse had not travelled in 5 months. To be honest this should not be a passing thought because this should in fact be part of my training schedule. This is the problem, people fail to even have a training schedule, there’s no weekly or monthly plan. Many owners (not all) consider that all training occurs in the saddle. Training should occur 100% of the time you are near a horse. If I were to write a list of all the things an owner should do on a weekly and monthly basis they would consider it an impossible notion due to time constraints, I think it also. Which is a shame for our confused and mostly bewildered equine friends, but it certainly keeps our horse trainers in plenty of work having to address issues involving mounting, leading, riding, loading, traffic, jumping, bolting, shying and another 100 problems.

Even if I had trained my horse the correct method of loading from the out-set many years ago, handling and training a horse in all manner of situations and environments should still be maintained frequently. We can’t blame the horse for anything, only ourselves.

The EquiShrug

The only reason I looked up from the very important task of minding my own business was because I heard someone shout. You find yourself already looking in the general direction of the noise before it even occurs to you the golden rule of minding your own business has just been broken. The horse tentatively drifting about in what I assume was intended to be a 10 metre circle was wearing what is potentially a nightmare contraption in uneducated hands – a Pessoa. Fortunately it was apparent the horse was completely desensitised to the lunging whip that for some reason was been held high in the air gently swaying. If you had seen the same action from a distance while standing on a beach this person would have resembled a talented kite flyer. Being desensitised to a whip waving about is generally a good thing for horses, but they should also recognise when you are attempting to apply pressure.

From the ground the stick can be thought of as an extension of your arm to communicate with the horse. There is all types of pressure everyone should be aware of which will include your own body language and even the direction of where one is looking. I’m aware of what my feet are doing, my eyes, hands and the stick, and this is perhaps just 10% of what I could actually include in this article, but it’s not possible. This is the reason I hardly ever lunge, I see it as such a fine art to get everything correct that I don’t believe I am good enough. I accept it takes 100% concentration and only a skilled professional can properly lunge a horse. So take on board that if someone can say they have been around horses for nearly 40 years and feels they cannot expertly lunge a horse, then why are people doing it when they have owned a horse for the last 2 years?

They lunge because they are unaware of the fundamental errors they are making, the horse is going in a circle and that is all lunging means…apparently.

I am in something of a unique position having owned one of my horses for over 20 years. I can look back and somewhat painfully recall the mistakes I have made with this mare. Yet when I had professional training my horse transformed before my eyes, my horse didn’t become good as she was always a good horse. Unfortunately she was owned by an ignorant human that could not correctly communicate with her. She has taught me that horses are very forgiving creatures, because even after all my fundamental errors this mare is gracious enough to still have a ground and ridden relationship with me.

As I continued to look toward the horse in the Pessoa the owner brought that stick down and thumped it on the ground behind the horse, the horse took two steps forward and for reasons I don’t understand the person made snapping motions on the line causing the horse to stop. Again the lunge whip came crashing down, and the hapless horse took a tentative step forward. Nope, that wasn’t correct either as the line was again used in the snapping motion. I was confused as the horse! My eyes were darting between the horse and the person’s hands to attempt to understand what they were trying to achieve. I am of a species that is allegedly the apex predator, the most intelligent of this entire planets numerous species, yet I couldn’t understand…so what chance did this horse have!?

Well the horse had no chance of understanding. He’d tried forward and back none of which seemed correct. He did the only other thing that seemed an option, he gave up trying. This is the point I was rewarded for breaking my golden rule of not staring. The horse turned to the owner, sighed and planted himself. The human equivalent of this body language would be a human turning toward someone else, shrugging their shoulders and say ‘What?’ I have termed this the EquiShrug. The owner was quick to shout and call the horse stupid. I wish I could have told her the horse was a kind-natured animal that had done its best to understand the human. He didn’t rear out of frustration, he didn’t buck in anger, and he didn’t gallop in a circle with anxiety. No, he’d done his best to understand and his kind soul had responded with an EquiShrug.

The EquiShrug

Another example of this was again witnessed as I patiently waited for someone to turn their horse into the paddock. I was holding my own horse 15 feet away waiting to use the same paddock. The horse was asked to walk through the opening, which it attempted to do, but again the lead rope was banged under the chin. Different owner, different horse, it was even a different yard! The horse stopped, even backed up which I saw was a completely correct response after receiving such halter pressure. Unfortunately this isn’t what the owner wanted, and the horse was pulled forward again. I turned my back as the horse went through the gate to resume minding my own business. I had to turn back when I heard shouting and for some unknown reason the horse was back outside the gate! I can’t even imagine how this came about, I should have kept watching. The rope was pulled again to indicate to the horse to walk forward, at this point the horse planted himself with the EquiShrug response, to which I simultaneously burst out laughing.