It’s an ordinary day. Quiet, no wind. You could be on the trail or in the arena. You might be thinking about work or what to make for dinner or how much you love your horse. Something changes, but you don’t notice. Then that something changes some more. Maybe your horse’s stride gets shorter, maybe he loses that nice tail swing. Now his poll is tense and his eyes wide. You are starting to notice by now. Without asking, your body takes over. Legs clamp down, hands pull the reins and bit tight to your belly, metal on bone in his mouth. You’re more worried about what he might do than what he is doing. You’re as tense as your horse. It doesn’t matter what he saw, you’re both clenched! Breathing? Forget it.
Or you’re training something. You’re not confused about how to ask; you’re actually confident you know how to train it. It isn’t your horse’s first time doing it, he knows what you want. But he’s resisting. So, you ask again. Your cue is a little louder this time as if you are enunciating it. Still resisting. So, now you spell it out, bluntly with heavy cues, your jaw set. His jaw set. You might notice the start of frustration, but you’re too distracted by his resistance, so you don’t notice. You apply more pressure. Horses are supposed to give to pressure, right? His poll is high and tight, his flanks feel like boards. Kick him some more, he’s disrespecting you. Harder, feel your heels hit. And he bolts. Breathing? Forget it.
The only cue you want to give is a loud, resounding, “NO!” But that isn’t even a cue, is it?
You’re having a runaway. No doubt about that. Sure, you can blame it on the horse, but can we talk about the runaway that you had, all your own?
The first case might be debatable. You can say he started it but it’s a small consolation. You joined in with enthusiasm, of a sort. It’s still your job to bring it to a safe end.
In the second case, it is totally on you. Most of us were taught to escalate our cues; that with each ask, we raise the volume, with the idea being that a horse will choose a smaller cue next time. It’s that old idea of respect; that your horse will obey you if they respect that you mean what you say. It’s what we were all taught, and it isn’t totally wrong.
It’s just that horses can’t learn when they are afraid. Some horses will blow up and some shutdown, but no learning. They have an autonomic nervous system and when the flight response kicks in, that’s all. Or they’d be dead. We have the same type of nervous system, but we don’t run as fast. It’s our default to fight.
If this isn’t bad enough, horses have the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. But you’re in a full-blown fight, and he’s in full-blown flight, so this information isn’t exactly helpful now. Science says his response time is 7X quicker than ours. How are we supposed to be the leader when we start this far behind?
Escalating cues equals escalating anxiety. For both of you.
Do over: There are things visible in hindsight that might not have been as clear before the runaway. You are not in control of a horse. There is no bomb-proof, there is no scenario where a horse stops being a prey animal. Humans, on the other hand, can change their behavior and if we can respond differently, there’s a chance to help horses be more confident when something does happen.
The thing before the thing… The first thing that happens, for both horse and rider, is that breathing stops. Our nervous system does that all on its own. Notice your tight ribs, his tense flanks? Once adrenaline kicks in, it’s hard to fight instinct.
The art of de-escalating begins with breath awareness.
Stay in the moment. You can’t pretend nothing is happening, but you can train yourself to breathe. When panic thoughts come, politely excuse them. You can learn to refuse to take the dare; your quiet breathing will have a positive impact when your horse is frightened. Yes, this is all happening in a split second. It’s the place you have to start. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it’s where you have to begin.
Adversarial cuing breaks trust. Less correction, more direction.
If you’re training and he resists, reward him for thinking. The cue doesn’t need more force behind it. Lift the energy, leave the emotion out of it. Think of it as explaining rather than yelling.
Breathe and ask again, slower and lighter. Be more mindful, rather than escalating the cue. Reward him when you can tell he’s thinking about it, so he’ll learn to trust himself. Let the mental part before his physical response matter, because responsiveness and trust start in his brain. Good training isn’t only about the physical answer; we have to see the whole horse.
You must let him move. Don’t throw away the reins, but at the same time, he needs slack to breathe. A dead hold puts a not-imaginary brick wall in front of him. His only way out is to bolt or rear. Give him some slack, think of it as a cue to relax. You can ask and release with the reins, you have the last resort of a one-rein stop, but give him a chance to find himself in partnership rather than punishment. This is the seed of confidence; reward that. Let him find his feet and hold himself.
Get on the good side of their response time. If they come apart 7X quicker than we can respond, then they also come back together 7X quicker. The sooner you breathe and get present in the moment, rather than rolling down the hill like a hysterical snowball, the sooner your horse can feel calm again.
If a calming signal is a horse’s way of telling us they are no threat, and it is, then we can give the same signal back to them. Demonstrate the quiet you want him to feel.
Horses don’t just learn from us when we’re giving a cue. They also learn something about us.
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