BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
Horses are complicated animals, very complicated. Less complicated to an expert perhaps, but only after years of dedication, observation, gaining knowledge and working around them does an expert understand equine behaviour and psychology. In this respect a novice has no clue to the complexities of the equine brain. To a person that has no knowledge of horses whatsoever they must seem very uncomplicated, perhaps just a four legged mammal that people ride. This is why I write about horses, if I live another 40 years I will still not have even scratched the surface of the many subjects relating to equine behaviour. It’s a harrowing journey in some respects because as I gain more knowledge, I am also haunted by the mistakes I have made in the past. My aim now is to spend the next 40 years striving to get things right. I write because if I could help just one person avoid my mistakes and help someone understand their horse better, I know at least that horse will have a better life.
Country Squire Magazine was contacted recently by a reader concerning one of my articles, The Perfect Yard. In this article I described that one particular yard offered some of the best hacking any rider could wish for, but was spoiled (for me) as off road bikers would also use the same tracks. Although for two years the bikes were no more than a nuisance, I remained tolerant as I reasoned that these people had the same right to enjoy the tracks as I did, even if their mode of transport was different. More often than not the biker would actually turn the engine off, and either remove his helmet at my request, or not, depending on how I felt my horse was reacting. The location also mattered in how I dealt with the bikes. If it was in an open field I could stop and let my horse look, before either allowing the horse to move closer, or gently moving off to continue my ride. Many tracks were narrow and ran along steep embankments, affording me approximately 12 feet to pass the bike. This wasn’t worth the risk, only then would I politely ask the biker turn off his engine, and only after clear indication that my horse was comfortable would I pass.
These are details I didn’t expand upon in The Perfect Yard. If I was to include every detail my articles would be close to 20 thousand words each, easily. Although I am going to expand on this now, because I have an agenda, which I will get to shortly.
Meeting one or two bikers out on the tracks was never a massive issue, they were polite and we’d often chat. The people in question were friendly and would often be fascinated by the horses. 99% of the time interaction between horse and biker went well. Then one day we heard many bikes approaching from behind. My horse became skittish and wanted to turn to see what was coming. 10 bikes came into view from over the brow of the hill. They slowed when they saw 2 horses, and I raised a hand to indicate I wanted to speak to them. The man leading this group stopped and I asked him to give me 2 minutes to move further down the track away from them, and he agreed.
Just 5 seconds later all the bikes passed us at speed making a hell of a racket. My horse became unhinged, literally. I spent the next 30 seconds sitting multiple rears and bucks while simultaneously stopping a bolt, and unfortunately I was at the edge of a steep embankment. Because I was trying to stop a bolt I didn’t dare use my leg to move her forward away from the edge. At every rear I would look down and see that one back hoof was just 2 inches from the edge. It was a horrific situation to be in.
Even an hour later my mare was still shaking and covered in sweat. I wasn’t particularly upset for myself although the experience was frightening. But it still affects me to this day how cruel (very very cruel) and unfair it was to my horse. I have no idea why the lead biker did this, but I decided not to put my horse in such a situation again.
I blame myself.
I know in order for a horse to remain calm in any situation and environment, there should be a great deal of preparation. I had schooled my horse in traffic, around farm equipment and had also completed 100’s of hours of in-hand work in many, many places. But never in my wildest nightmares did I ever imagine I would meet so many motorbikes at once in open country-side.
Live and learn.
Here is where understanding horse psychology is important, because it could save your life. Those same 10 bikes could have passed us on the road, and my horse would have not reacted in the same way. This is because she expectsto see and hear bikes on the road. I use the word ‘expects’ loosely, because when she sees a bike she understands it will not harm her, as she has seen many bikes on the road in her life, so in this particular environment, it isn’t abnormal to her, therefore no fear is involved. For example, a horse may accept that a large piece of tarpaulin is always flapping about in the corner of the yard. Take that same tarpaulin and put in the paddock and there will be a completely different reaction from the horse… simply because the situation and environment has changed.
Moving on to my agenda; I have ridden on many roads, both country lanes and A roads. Of all the rude, inconsiderate, ignorant drivers I have met, they have always been car drivers. Not everyone of course, but the few times a driver has been irresponsible it has been behind the wheel of a car. I have never once met a rude biker (on the road) or lorry driver. Literally, never. Im uncertain how many lorry drivers or bikers will see this article, nonetheless…
Thank you for being so considerate!
A very special thank you to the reader, who is in-fact a biker himself, that contacted Country Squire Magazine. Mr MF kindly offered to bring his bike in order to help school my horse. To take the time to contact the magazine, and willingness to give up his time is commendable. What a kind considerate person he is and I am very grateful, thank you so much for this generous offer.
Of course though I must refer back to my tarpaulin example, and the fact my horse is normally very comfortable with motorbikes. Therefore in order to avoid such a situation again, I would literally have to head back out into the country-side and school her with an off road bike, then 2, then 3 and work our way up to 10 bikes passing her at speed. The environment and situation would have to be similar to that which scared her in the first place. That’s horses for you, and this is exactly why they are dangerous in the hands of people that do not understand how the equine brain works.
No matter if it’s an umbrella, a barking dog, a car horn, truck air brakes, a falling branch, a pheasant, or even a fire-work, if the horse becomes frightened, bolts, falls and hurts its rider, we can only blame ourselves for not preparing our horses to cope with all manner of noises, sights, situations and environments.