month’s article, I described how a rider’s reactions
effect the horse. A calm rider will help a young or nervous
horse learn to react calmly. Often this looks like the rider
is “doing nothing” to the observer, when in
reality it takes a lot of skill to sit still and focus on
giving the horse the correct feedback when the horse is
doing something spooky. Good trainers practice reacting
to a horse’s sudden movement in a positive way, such
as sending the colt forward again if he spooks to the side.
a horse will bolt forward or run off. If startled, the rider’s
first reaction is usually to pull back on the reins and
if it is a minor spook and the horse is fairly well trained,
it usually works. But for a truly panicked horse, or one
who runs off on purpose, pulling to stop might not have
much effect. One popular correction is to pull the horse
into a tight circle – this is not usually my favorite
choice but it can work. The problem is that it doesn’t
solve the problem, it just stops the horse for a moment.
If the horse is panicked, he will still be panicked. If
he’s angry, he’ll probably be even more so.
the first step is to figure out what starts the behavior.
Is the horse frightened of something? Is he heading home?
Is this a habit the horse has learned (such as always galloping
in a certain place on the trail or when going into an arena)?
I have dealt with horses who used running away as a means
to get rid of their rider, in one case the rider jumped
off when the horse ran through a low roofed barn (probably
a wise thing) but didn’t get back on and put the horse
away instead. This horse would behave quite well for the
first half hour or so of a ride, but when asked to lope
would run off, bouncing into the arena fence on the corners
and feeling for all the world as if he would fall. The harder
one pulled on the reins the harder the gelding would run.
I decided that when he started running, I would not pull
at all, only use the inside rein to guide him in the turns,
and I let him run. The first time he did this for about
10 minutes before trying to slow down. I kept him going
another 5 minutes and finally asked him to stop. After several
sessions of this, he decided that running away wasn’t
such a great idea.
get me wrong. It wasn’t particularly fun to be flying
around the arena at that speed on an out-of-control horse.
There was a very real possibility that he could fall or
hit the fence, but I couldn’t allow myself to react
to that. “Doing nothing” took away the horse’s
reason for bolting, and in this case was the only thing
that worked. I’ve used the same technique on horses
who ran because they were frightened or panicked. After
a short time, the horse would realize that no one else was
frightened and would begin to slow. Then I could offer some
positive reinforcement and praise the horse for overcoming
a rider responds to these unexpected events depends on the
individual situation, the rider’s skill, and being
able to make a quick assessment of the safety for all involved.
For example, one could use this “let him run”
plan in an arena, or out on some trails (uphill preferably)
but it wouldn’t be safe in bad footing or under tree
limbs. For the same reason, yanking the horse in a tight
circle might not be safe on a narrow trail. As a rider gains
experience, it gets easier to quickly choose a reaction
that will get the desired results, and often “doing
nothing” is doing the most!