BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
We have all seen the videos in which a rider falls while show-jumping, and the horse continues to jump the fences. Most of the video comments have a very positive outlook on such an event. Most people will agree it’s because the horse loves jumping and has been trained well. The more ignorant comments will suggest that the horse is attempting to finish the competition without the rider. Actually, a well-trained confident horse would stop jumping once the rider has fallen.
Of course even the best trained horse can become frightened when something unusual happens, for example the rider falling or the horse stumbling. Pain can be caused to the animal in any number of ways, the harsh pull of the bit, a misplaced spur, knocking a pole or wing or strains caused from jumping. Pain and fear will undoubtedly trigger the flight response even in the most experienced equine, causing them to initially panic and bolt. Once a horse is in flight, show jumps are seen as obstacles the horse must negotiate to find an exit. They will not expend energy in an inefficient manner, or lose time by going around the jumps. Being slowed down could mean the difference between life and death in the mind of an equine. Therefore, whether the horse is well trained or not, most of the horses that continue to jump are doing so not because they love jumping, but because they are bolting.
A horse will run as far as it can until it reaches an obstacle such as a show jump. In this case it will either jump the fence or keep running alongside the fence looking for a way out. Moreover, it’s not just because horses always run to the arena or field perimeter, it’s more of a case they are impeded by it. Observe horses out at pasture when spooked, they consistently run close, or next to the perimeter fences. Therefore a bolting horse in an arena will generally react in the same manner, by looking for escape. The horse will behave exactly the same way if show jumps have been erected in the arena also by attempting to run on the outside track.
Additionally, if you want to protect yourself when one or several horses are spooking, stand in the middle of the arena or field. People instinctively feel protected by standing close to something solid, such as a wall or fence. This could be dangerous because this is exactly the place they are likely to be run over as the horse bolts. It is a dangerous belief that horses will not stand on, run over, or trample a human. A human is insignificant in the mind of a frightened horse galloping in fear. If one or several horses are spooking in an arena, go and stand in the middle! The horse will calm down, and generally remember which way it came in i.e. the gate.
Sadly, onlookers that watch a horse continue to jump when its rider has fallen seem to enjoy the spectacle. Perhaps if they understood they are witnessing a frightened, confused animal desperately looking for escape, the cheering and clapping might cease. The best reaction to a horse running loose in an arena is to do nothing, at least until the animal has calmed down somewhat. A horse in a familiar environment may initially bolt while looking for escape, before remembering the location of the entrance. A horse in unfamiliar surroundings may bolt on one rein looking for the exit and – when not finding it – will change the rein to again look for escape. Horses need to see things from the right and left rein, the right and the left eye. This is why people may assume the horse is attempting the competition without its rider. But the horse is not turning to complete another jump, it changes direction to continue seeking escape, but from a different aspect.
People are quick to admonish scenes of cruelty when presented with a bull-fighting scene because the animal is frightened, and in pain. Most reasonable people would step in when witnessing a dog cowering in fear, because in both these cases the discomfort and distress is obvious. A horse bolting in fear is also in distress, and could be in pain. Bear this in mind before you clap and cheer when a horse continues to jump after the rider has fallen.