BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
My horse was very strong on a hack recently, and while we may have only been walking, it was still necessary to correct the speed. I hadn’t asked for this fast-paced walk, in fact I was looking for a nice amble across the English county-side. The walk she had chosen felt hurried and anxious, and when I applied pressure to my reins she totally ignored it. Now I could have got home 30 minutes earlier than planned, but this needed correcting. Situations like this are no more than a nuisance at walk, yet my horse ignoring my pressure and deciding her own speed at trot and canter could prove a lot more dangerous.
Very frequently situations in the saddle are not always just connected to riding, and situations such as mine are a consequence of everything else an owner does around the horse. Yet I see very little evidence of people making this connection, I often see just the opposite. Problems in the saddle are just that, it’s a schooling problem, a bad temperament, the horse is in season, it’s the spring grass, the saddle needs re-flocking or a stronger bit is required.
A very sad situation occurred recently in which a young rider was thrown from her horse and received a fatal head injury. I may not know the exact circumstances but the article I read stated that the girl had finished riding and put the horse in the stable. For reasons unknown, she brought the horse back out of the stable and mounted the horse again. The hat had already been removed, as had the saddle and she mounted on a concrete base. The horse bucked her off.
This is a set of circumstances in which having a strict routine could get someone hurt or killed. We see the same routing every day in which someone has finished riding, untacks the horse, grooms and feeds, or some variation of that, but usually some sort of routine is established.
Returning to my own situation of my fast-paced anxious hack; this was resolved by giving some thought to what I had been doing the last few times I had both handled and ridden my horse. I had done this very same trail the last time I hacked and when I had finished I untacked my horse, groomed, fed and turned her out. I had unwittingly trained my horse that if we just get finished she will get a bowl of feed and can get back to her herd sooner. Schooling wise, I did correct this pace while riding but this was just 10% of what I needed to do to change this behaviour. I didn’t want a stronger bit, and ideally, I wanted my horse not to be anxious when hacking.
The next time I handled my horse I fed her first, then groomed and did some groundwork. Some days I didn’t provide any hard feed and I avoided riding the same trail if I had hacked that way the last time. Sometimes we didn’t hack but rode in the arena, or did dome road-work. Fundamentally I always did things (everything) differently than the last time. My horse is now in a situation where she cannot predict what is coming next.
Is she anxious? No.
My horse is calm because she is not in control of the situation, and if she is not in control then the person who is calling the shots…is me.
Be wary of livery yards that seem proud to advertise their horses have ‘a strict routine’. No don’t be wary, just avoid them. Ideally you want a yard that lets you mind your own business, which is entirely possible in my experience. The horses you see and hear in the morning kicking the stable doors wanting to be fed are not calm and contented horses, they are anxious.
A strict routine has a knock-on effect with everything someone does with their horse which involves riding and handling. The added danger is when you do something that suddenly breaks this routine. If you have ridden your horse at 4 pm every day for the last 2 years then one morning decide to ride at 7 am, you may very well have a horse that throws a tantrum. It isn’t the bit, it isn’t the saddle, and it isn’t because your horse is mean. It’s because you have trained your horse to expect breakfast at 8 am and to be ridden at 4 pm.
I was made aware of a horseman a couple of years ago, although I do not know his name and I have never met him, all the same I tip my hat to him. He purchased a ‘dangerous’ horse. This horse was turned away for many months while the horseman just observed him. During this time, the man could see nothing physically or psychologically wrong with this animal, so brought him back into work. In my mind and without a doubt I feel sure this man was bringing back balance to this horse’s brain. He was undoing years of bad horsemanship, routine, strong bits and uneducated handling…by just letting the horse be a horse for 6 months.
My partner hunted this horse several times after been cared for by this man, so you can believe me when I say this horse was not dangerous and was good as gold when ridden.
Throw that routine out, good horsemanship is not just about sitting in a saddle. Give some thought to what you do around horses. The rears, the bucks, the napping and being strong when led may just have nothing to do with your tack or because the horse is dangerous. It may just be better not to invest your money in changing tack, but investing your time in understanding horse psychology.
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.