BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
When out hacking through the countryside or along roads my mare will display anxiety when approaching and passing horse paddocks. If these horses are just standing around grazing she will become head-high and attempt to focus on the herd. I can feel her attention has shifted from me and I’ve become a mere passenger. Horses in paddocks tend to do two things when an unknown horse passes them, they either don’t care and carry on grazing, or come over for a look. The latter don’t usually amble over either, one or two will start to trot or canter to the fence line, which then prompts the entire herd to do the same. In this situation my mare will change gait and speed, even direction. Not to say she turns away, if anything she will turn to face the herd while trotting, sometimes bucking perpendicular to the fence line. I believe the situation is unnatural to her and intimidating.
I have seen no evidence either in real life or in videos that when a domesticated horse meets, or is introduced to a new herd that the entire herd comes over at once, at least not that close. Usually the ‘new’ horse keeps its distance, and the dominant horse is the first to approach. A whole heap of things can happen in between that last sentence, right where that comma is! But generally horses don’t behave like a class of children welcoming the new kid on his first day of school.
So my horse has two choices, keep her distance or gear up to meet the dominant horse while asserting her own dominance. My mare has consistently been the dominant mare in a herd, on many yards over the years. Its only in her senior years I have noticed her lose this position, usually this demotion comes with a hoof shaped badge on her rump. That’s nature.
If doesn’t choose to keep her distance then I become a passenger, and have a front row seat to her dominant display. Obviously a situation I haven’t addressed or resolved fully, although my leadership status is quickly clawed back. However it shouldn’t have been momentarily lost in the first place.
The worst situation however is when the horses are either galloping around from a genuine spook, or because someone has just turned out a couple horses and they are kicking up their heels. The galloping, bucking and snorting is when my horse chooses to keep her distance, and this particular situation happened just a few months ago.
The hedge alongside the farm track was high, only because of my elevated position could I see into the field. My mare would only have been aware this paddock contained horses from smell and hearing. I didn’t catch what set these horses off, it may have even been caused by us moving behind the hedge unseen, but they made a terrific noise at flat out gallop.
My horse chose to leave the area, and took off down the road at trot. Forget brakes, I didn’t have any, plus read my last article on this subject why it would be useless, even dangerous to fight with my horses mouth. I have a name for this manoeuvre:
The Slow Bolt
Check the dictionary for the word bolting that pertains to animals. It doesn’t say flat out gallop, it means to flee, to make a sudden, swift dash, run, flight, or escape; spring away suddenly.
My horse was bolting at trot!
No matter the speed, gait or direction, if your horse has chosen to do something that you have not asked for…its bolting. The slow bolt is just as dangerous as bolting at gallop. If the slow bolt is not handled correctly and resolved, the horse will very likely pick up canter, then gallop.
Rightly or wrongly I choose a light seat at the slow bolt. Some may argue that position may instigate canter, but it never has for me. My position would be entirely different if the bolt was at canter or gallop. I don’t rise to the trot, I don’t sit to the trot, I put all my weight on the forehand. To ride a trot which is comfortable for my horse could even sustain the bolt, if anything I’d be making it easier for her to maintain that gait and speed.
Only after a short distance do I gently use one rein to apply pressure, only for a second, then I drop the pressure. I ask, I stop, I ask, I stop. I get her focus back with a good degree of patience. There is no tugging on the reins, or snapping them backwards, after-all I am trying to communicate to my horse there is no lion chasing us and the last thing I want to do is send pain signals to her brain.
The video featuring Shamrock on YouTube is a perfect example of showing a slow bolt. I can see from the cheek straps bending outwards, and the taut reins that pressure is being constantly applied, the rider just keeps pulling.
Shamrock has learnt this pressure means nothing, and he can ignore it, which he does.
The rider is heard saying walk but the reins remain at the exact same pressure, which are actually full on, so there was no way of even increasing the pressure. Attempting to immediately apply the brakes, and continuing to haul on the horse’s mouth is exhausting, and will quickly tire a person. Shamrock started this bolt at trot, and it should have been resolved during trot. The moment the horse breaks into canter my heart sinks, video below.
We train our horses to disregard dogs, wildlife, traffic, litter, loud noises and a million other things. Much we take for granted, but don’t also unwittingly train the horse to ignore pressure from the reins. The more a rider strives to keep their horses focus on them (which should be their trusted leader) and trains the horse to respond to even the lightest of pressure contributes tremendously to managing and stopping a bolt sooner rather than later.
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.