BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
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 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.
Deborah Jane Nicholas has been around horses for nearly 40 years and has worked within the horse industry in a number of roles. Deborah’s other passions are her 2 dogs, countryside walks and writing, which she does here.