How to Defuse a Horse Bomb

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Maybe you’re mentally arranging your to-do list, or rehashing an imaginary rant about something that happened at work, or just daydreaming with the sun on your skin. But that’s when the UPS truck backs over the trash can. Or the wild turkey drops out of a tree on top of your head. Or some kids on dirt bikes come screeching out of nowhere. Life is just a bit more complicated if you’re on top of a horse.

If the reason for his spooking isn’t obvious, riders say that their horse just came apart for no good reason–a random coincidence. It’s the common excuse used when our inadequate human senses don’t pick up on what’s actually going on around us. Or the opposite; riders frantically try to see what their horse saw, as if intellectualized trash-can-physics can resolve anything. At this point it doesn’t really matter how it started.

Horses come apart just one step at a time, but if he’s already leaving at a dead gallop, it’s probably too late to negotiate. If things have gone that far, best to hang on, be glad you wear a helmet, and perhaps consider what cues your horse gave that you might have missed.

What happened just before he spooked? Did he freeze for a moment? Did he toss his head? Did his gait change? The sooner we recognize a change in his emotions, the sooner we can help. The challenge is that it’s our first instinct to tense and speed up just like a horse does. Anxiety and fear are contagious.

Here’s what we know: As much as we’d like to, we can’t control the universe. Beyond that, we can’t control how a horse will respond–even to ordinary things. Horses have a mind of their own. It seems our only option is to control ourselves. We can become our own bomb squad.

Adding energy to a volatile situation is a bad idea so how to start defusing the situation?

Don’t yell, don’t chase, don’t panic. Then tell your horse don’t pull, don’t run, don’t go nuts. But it doesn’t work to give negative cues. Just DON’T isn’t a cue either of you can take. Less correction; more direction.

Begin again. Take a breath. In a hot environment, breath the best calming cue you can give your horse. And leadership means you do it first. Please don’t underestimate the value of breathing; then take a deeper breath. Especially now.

Then instead of telling him what NOT to do, give him a simple task that he can succeed at. Then even if he only thinks of doing it, reward him generously. A verbal “Good Boy” warms his ear, builds confidence, and now the conversation has started.

In dressage we believe we get a horse’s attention by doing transitions and a transition is anything that you and your horse aren’t doing now.  Start with you: Require elasticity and softness in your arms. It’s counter-intuitive, but at the very least, force yourself to slightly slack one rein. Then alter the length of his stride up and down, and get positive. Let responsiveness be the goal and work light and happy. Replace his anxiety with a conversation about partnership. It won’t come naturally for either of you. Do it anyway.

And just like every other moment in the saddle, go slow and aim for the peace of consistency.

Can you plan ahead for the next bad situation? Yes! If there is something that you routinely do to relax your horse, perhaps at the beginning of each ride, you can ask him to do that and the familiar routine will help him settle.

My favorite warm up exercise is what I call a Flat Figure Eight. Walking on the rail, (or an imaginary straight line in a field), on a long rein, do a 5-to-10-meter half-circle, and return in a diagonal line to the rail. In other words, walk a pear-shape or teardrop-shape on the long side of the arena, and then once you have returned to the rail, repeat that pattern the other direction. (So this figure eight isn’t two round circles, but rather, round half-circles connected with long diagonal lines, that’s flat or a straight line on the rail side.)

The value of this exercise in a warm-up is that the half-circles, cued by the rider turning her waist, warms up the horse’s shoulders and rib-cage, as well as encouraging suppleness and connection, on both sides alternately.  It can be done as a leading or ground driving exercise, or under-saddle. Gaits could be the walk or trot or best, a combination of walk on the half-circles with trots on the diagonals–making more transitions within the exercise. As your horse advances, canter, lateral work, and extended gaits can be added. This exercise is kind of like a soup starter; you can add your favorite ingredients. Best of all, it warms up the horse’s responsiveness mentally as well as his body physically. I start every ride this way.

If you have an exercise like this ready-to-go in your training toolbox, both of you can have easier access to it for an emergency, especially if you’ve both lost time over-reacting—like most of us do—in a fearful situation.

So many incidents happen when riders become complacent. Have more respect for your horse and take nothing for granted, whether you are riding or on the ground. Stay aware of your horse’s body language and calming signals. Most of all, don’t ignore what he’s saying. It can feel inconvenient, especially if you are riding in a group, but do it anyway. Slow down before things explode. Take the time necessary to relieve the stress or fear your horse is feeling.

Instead of paying lip-service—only talking about putting your horse first—actually develop habits that meet that goal. Then mentor your horse, over time, to return the favor. The other word for that is trust.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

30 thoughts on “How to Defuse a Horse Bomb

  1. This is so perfect for me today!
    That paragraph about breathing?
    Oh my gosh…so much yes!
    I just came in from having to cut a chunk of tail off my mare…somewhere in the pasture over night, she found a length of rusty barbed wire and got it tangled up in her tail.
    We’re on land that was used for many things before us, and things like this keep surfacing when we least expect it.
    We clean, and clean, and clean, and clean. And yet, something comes up. *sigh*

    But, this morning, trying to cut this length of wire out of the tail of a sometimes reactive horse, who gives me as much of her trust as she can, but knowing she could explode at any second, remembering to breath was hard.
    When she turned her face to me and breathed straight into my face, it took me a moment to realize, she was trying to comfort me. It’s what I do when she needs to relax for whatever reason, breath in her nostrils.
    She was returning the favor.
    For a moment, it was all we could do, breath together, and then I got the job done.

    And then, I come in the house and read this, with tears running down my face because it resonates within me.
    Thank you.

  2. Darcy West

    Good Morning Anna
    When I started reading your post, my thoughts went to my fall back which is a laser focus on anything and everything in a 5 mile radius. And there was always something to be concerned about. As I continued reading, I realized that your post was about focusing on your horse and being a good leader and having tools to assist with both. I have come to realize that I can not change/control the environment in which I ride. However, I am working on controlling my awareness and response. And what do you know, the horses I am riding are much more relaxed!
    Again, thanks for a great post!!

  3. RaeAnn

    Excellent advise Anna. Should help those who need to tune in a little sooner to what is going on around and underneath them.

  4. Thérèse Cartier

    Hello Anna! Another very good blog. I have a question: what do you do with an intelligent horse that learn the routine quickly and insist on doing it all the time on his own, even if you decided to change it? My poney is of that kind and can get opiniated at times. He is also recovering from injury, has you know, and is full of energy and very opinionated and flighty when exercised, to say the least!

    1. I’d do the exact same thing, I’d just have to be better at it. Sorry. Your horse is a challenge coming back from stall rest, I know. Sorry it can’t be easier.

      1. Thérèse Cartier

        Thanks Anna. If some nights the sofa calls me, I still go to the barn and yes, go trough my routine with Petit-Prince; clean his stall, light bruching, 40 minutes of lunging, a visit to the spa for a good shower and an hour or so of grazing to top it off, leaving the retraining part to younger kids…. In the end, it is all worth the time past with him, just the winny when I get out of my car and the fatigue goes away. Yes, I will stick to it. Thanks for the encouragements.

  5. Deb

    Great, well written advice again. My first horse was a young Arabian mare who cued off everything scary. It took a lot of alone riding time to figure out that she needed me to reassure her and take a leadership role when she was nervous. When she would ramp up, I would sit back and sing ” I got spurs that jingle, jangle jingle…:)” over and over. She would prance, I would sing and we would circle until she was calmer. It took months but I will always remember the special bond we had and how much she taught me about horse intelligence..
    My current 15 year old neglected gelding is similar as he was never really trained, just used as a ‘walk behind trail horse’. He gets diffused when he is first on a group trail ride. I’m enjoying teaching him that he can think for himself and yet rely on his rider. I’m much older now, however, and have a harder time controlling my own fear factor, so I’m back to singing again. 🙂

      1. Lynell Abbott

        My song is “Dover had a Little Lamb…” I know it works because every time he hears his name, he’ll cock an ear back toward me waiting for instructions! I was told singing helps you breathe. So I use it often as I’m one of those “Waiting to Exhale” gals.

  6. Sue Anderson

    As the owner and rider of a very sensitive, athletic and timid Anglo Arab I can relate to this article!! My horse of 17 yrs and I ride out in the foothills in all weather and there have been a million “situations” to survive in all those rides. I totally agree with the “keep breathing” advice and I also practice dressage on the trail to keep him with me mentally. What has helped my horse actually become calmer and braver over the years was something I read in a dressage book about riding in dicey situations.The trick is keeping your seat in the saddle no matter what, keep your back loose and hips swinging in the same walking rhythm that you want the horse to come to. It was hard at first to not let him tip me off balance and dictate the rhythm but now my center of gravity stays in place and my tempo wins him over within seconds. i think of it as a physical “We’re OK” rather than a verbal one. This herd mate is not stampeding so why should you? I always wear a helmet and leather full seat breeches. Sticky and safe is good.

  7. Evelyn Conoley

    Love your “Less Correction, More Direction” and have it posted everywhere and whisper it to Susie Mare and me all the time. Peace and Calming! Thank you for a great blog, once again! Ev and Susie Mare

  8. Liz Goldsmith

    I LOVE the title of this post. My TB can often be described as a horse bomb waiting to go off and I spend a lot of my rides figuring out how to keep him calm, relaxed and listening. We had a day a few weeks ago where he broke through the cross ties (still scratching my head over that one) and was so reactive when I rode him that I declared a win when I got him to walk on a loose rein and make a few circles at a trot. What I love is when people tell me to “let him have a good gallop”. As if that will settle him down! Not.

    1. I agree; worthless old-school advice. Us humans really struggle with a Less is More approach. Stick to your process. A relaxed walk is a gift to him. Thanks for sharing your comments.

  9. Love this: “Don’t yell, don’t chase, don’t panic. Then tell your horse don’t pull, don’t run, don’t go nuts. But it doesn’t work to give negative cues. Just DON’T isn’t a cue either of you can take. Less correction; more direction.”

    I find it funny (but not) when some riders yell at their horses in English and it’s like they expect the horse to know what they’re saying and change behavior accordingly.

    Right now one of my barn friends is treating her horse as though he is a ticking time bomb. I can’t blame her really because she had a bad fall several months ago. But the other day she kept referring to him as out to get her, he wanted to kill her, psycho, etc. I noticed her riding in her lesson and he looked quite lovely. I said, “I think he’s a nice horse most of the time and maybe you should start talking about him that way.” Thankfully another person nearby backed me up and said something about being positive–you get what you expect, etc. Thanks for this post!

    1. I agree; it cracks me up that people think horses have a plan for world domination. The power of words is amazing, not just to us bloggers. The words we use, the names we give them, make all the difference to a horse, whether they speak our language or not. Words are intention. Thanks, Susan, (whose horse’s name is Knight.)

  10. Thérèse Cartier

    Hi again Anna! I just remembered something that goes along what you said in your blog. Last fall the barn where the hay was kept burned down, 8000 bales of hay up in smoke and flames; it was next to were my poney was housed, at the time with a relativaly frech injury. The owner took time to phone all the howners, to inform us of what was going on. No need to tell, I rushed to the stables to make sure my guy was ok and sure enough, he was beside himself, with all the smoke getting inside de stable and all the fuss going around. He definately wanted out! And you know what? I decided to clean his stall as a way of calming him, something I do every day. I was with him, doing somethig quite ordinary as if nothing was hapening, and it worked! Now you have it. Keep up the good work, love it!

  11. I just started lessons and last week was the first time on the back of my lesson horse, a sweet little Paint/Arab mare. So exciting, and scary! The advice here is much appreciated, thank you Anna and friends. I use breathing and stall cleaning and other routine things to calm my donkeys, but I don’t ride them! I’ll have to remember this all when I’m on my little mare’s back. I have so very much to learn, and it’s been amazing…

    1. Oh Julie, Congrats!! So happy to hear your news. Between breathing and mucking, I know you’ll have a wonderful adventure. Keep me posted and best wishes to you and your sweet mare.

  12. Sharon

    Anna, Great review as the weather finally decides to be more conducive for us fair weather riders, slow, steady, breathe… Thank you

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