You know that feeling when a wreck is going to happen but you just can’t look away? It’s a magnetic, anxious feeling, followed by half-hearted guilt; time slows and it would feel better if you could laugh. It’s hoping for the best, but knowing, just knowing…
I was at the rodeo in Cheyenne. You can tell it was decades ago because I can’t sit through them anymore, even if I do want to hear the concert afterward. But there I was in the crowded grandstand and the entry parade had begun: colorful riding clubs and rodeo queens and chuckwagons, one after another, passed in front of us.
The parade continued with a line, stirrup to stirrup, of maybe ten rodeo pick-up men. They wore shiny metallic chaps and bright Wrangler shirts, looking cool and trotting proud. Just behind them was another rodeo queen and her two attendants. This queen’s horse was clearly tense. They sported tiaras on white hats and ribbon sashes that advertised their county fair, waving with cowgirl glamor, beaming huge smiles. The queen’s horse jigged; he wasn’t really trotting or cantering; it was something in between–with a little too much altitude. But the girl-queen was born for this moment. Her smile is bright and her eyes are on the crowd. By now her horse was pounding with anxiety, while the attendants had picked up their reins and rated their horses back a bit. Everyone saw it coming–with dread. I was holding my breath. So was the horse.
The queen waved on. Her attention was on the crowd; she took her job very seriously. Her horse was dancing fast, as if his hooves were burning. He could barely touch the ground, his shoulders were high and he was almost sitting behind. Time stopped, I couldn’t blink. But then the horse got a toe-hold on the earth, all the energy that had been a boiling prance connected together, and his hind end launched them forward like a jet. It was so abrupt that I thought he might run right out from under her. The queen’s head snapped back, but at the last possible second, her waving hand grabbed the saddle horn and they were off.
The queen’s horse slammed into the backside of that line of pick-up men and they scattered like bowling pins. By the time they figured out what hit them, the queen’s horse had passed the chuckwagon and the chain reaction moving forward totally unraveled the parade. It spooked the crowd to silence. A handful of pick-up men gallantly gave chase, but the queen was already out of sight. The crowd was quiet as the announcer filled time, until he could report that everyone was safe.
I felt bad for the horse. He hung on as long as he could but he needed some help. I’m not blaming the queen; he might not have been her horse and it was a pretty strange trail ride they were on. But I always remember this when someone tells me their horse took off bucking for no good reason. That their horse came apart and went nuts when other horses didn’t. Or to a smaller degree, when a horse uses evasive behavior in the arena.
A runaway always starts just one step at a time. It’s a small tension that grows. There was warning but if you miss the first few cues from your horse, it will accelerate and when he’s in full flight–full resistance–it’s too late for a small cue to help him.
Or maybe the first moment the horse tenses, you take that cue from him and tighten your legs and pull on the reins. It’s a natural reaction for us, but it affirms that he was right to be frightened. The result is the same as cuing him to run away or panic.
Some trainers hold the opinion that the answer to any problem is to just ride the horse through it. Let the horse figure it out. That might work for a certain horses in limited situations, but it isn’t dependable. In the worst case, a horse might totally come apart and bolt. And a bad experience can change a horse, making the path back to confidence long and slow.
The bottom line is that a wreck is a perfect time to improve your relationship with your horse. If he’s in trouble, he has lost confidence. He can feel abandoned when you are right there in the saddle. He wants the safety of his herd, in this case his rider. You can push him harder and louder, or tell him he’s done it before and being afraid now is stupid. Or you can take him at his word and slow down. If he doesn’t have confidence, you can’t bully him into courage, any more than a trainer who yells angry corrections during a lesson can expect a soft, sensitive rider at the end. Horses don’t learn when they’re afraid and neither do we.
The biggest gift we can give a horse is the confidence to trust himself.
Step one is stop focusing on everything but your horse. Plug in and listen; ride every stride. If the first thing you notice is that he is totally unresponsive, consider it your reminder to pay attention and feel his tension sooner next time; put him first, so he can have the confidence to do his job.
There will never be a totally bomb-proof horse. There are no guarantees; riding horses is dangerous. But poise and courage can be trained. If you show your horse the respect of listening; if you ride with kindness and keep the conversation going with small challenges and praise, over time the trust grows strong. It’s no coincidence; when your horse is brave and confident, he becomes the horse that will save your life.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.