Riding out the Silly Season


In the media summer is the silly season, but in the northern hemisphere of the equine world, March is prime time for goofy, bizarre, and downright alarming horse behaviour.  So this week we’ll take a break from swordplay and wrestling to tackle the question of how to ride those spooks.

Staying in the Saddle

There’s an old saying that horses are afraid of two things: things that move, and things that don’t.tempesta rearing horse

As tongue-in-cheek as that is, there is truth beneath the joke.  The horse’s natural defense against predators is to flee first, ask questions later, so the default response to anything new or startling is to run.  That response is modified by experience, and we can change our horses’ experiences to modify their startle reflexes, but any horse, no matter how bombproof, can spook.

What kind of spooker do you have?

Not all horses spook the same way.  Some bolt straight ahead; others will do a 180 spin; some do a tap-dance and then freeze, legs spread; and others jump sideways or canter at a half-pass across the arena.  A very few will buck or rear, but usually if your horse is actively trying to get you out of the saddle you are dealing with a behaviour issue, not a simple spook.

Figuring out your horse’s spooking style will help you be prepared to deal with it, although every rider will at some point in her life be caught off guard and left in the dust by a spook that came out of nowhere.

When you know an explosion is imminent

You know the type of day: it’s a little windy, your horse hasn’t been ridden for a while, there’s a new building going up next door, or some other horse at the barn is acting up.  All these can contribute to making your horse a little ‘hotter’ or more reactive than normal.

  • Be aware of your horse’s emotions. If your horse is craning his neck to look around he’s paying more attention to his surroundings than to you and is likely to react to them.  If he’s jiggling or prancing you know he’s got more energy than usual, and a little bit of adrenalin going which will make him more reactive as well.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. If you see a tarp waving in the wind or a bicycle whizzing down the street towards you be prepared.  Don’t pre-emptively tighten your reins or your legs, as this will cause your horse to know there’s something to be frightened of.  Just be ready to react if he does spook.
  • Choose your battles.  You may want to proactively avoid the corner of the arena where the bushes are waving in the wind, or choose to steer clear of the trail route that will take you past roadworks.  There will be other, calmer, days to teach him that tarps are harmless and construction workers just humans with funny hats.
  • Choose your companions. Some horses wind each other up.  If you have a younger or flighty horse, pick an old campaigner to head out on the trail with.

Riding the spook

When you know it’s likely to happen, you become a little more tense anticipating the spook that’s coming.  Your horse is an expert reader of your body language, and the minute you tense up he thinks “she knows something I don’t, there must be a tiger in those bushes after all.”  This turns into a vicious cycle of increased tension for both of you.  The key to riding the spook is to relax, before, during and after.  Yes, it’s hard to relax when you know a spook is likely, but you can convince your brain, and thus your body to be calm.

Before

  • Slow your breathing. This tricks your brain into relaxing, and tricks your horse into thinking you’re calm.
  • Avoid gripping with your legs. This will only make the horse more active. Instead focus on putting your weight into your stirrups and relaxing your inner thighs — this is good riding mechanics anyway.  Roll your shoulders back and focus on your perfect, relaxed posture.  Not only will you be in the best mechanical position to deal with sudden movement, you’re working on your riding.
  • Keep a loose wide focus. Avoid looking at potentially scary things — your horse will know you’re looking at them and worry about them more.
  • Keep your horse busy. Do some circles or lateral movements to keep your horse focussed on you and not what may be ouside the arena.  On the trails you can use shoulder-in to keep your horse’s eye off the scary bushes.
  • Scratch the whithers. This companionable grooming action has a calming endorphin-releasing effect, and reassures the horse he’s got a friend with him.

During

  • Don’t grip. This is the hardest, but try not to grip with your legs when your horse makes a sudden movement.  Gripping with the legs is a cue to move, so you’ll only exacerbate the spook.  Keep your weight in your heels, and let your relaxed hips follow your horse’s movement rather than trying to counter it.
  • Go with the flow. Unless the spook is taking you somewhere dangerous, like into traffic, move with your horse.  He is in panic mode and not listening well anyway, so following his movement will put you in a better position to correct him a moment later, rather than fighting him.
  • Stay upright. The novice rider’s impulse is to bend forward and grip the mane.  This puts your body weight forward of your centre and makes you more prone to a fall.  If you feel you need to grab something, grab the pommel arch (or horn, in a western saddle) and pull upwards, keeping your body tall and centred in the saddle.

After

  • Don’t punish your horse. A spook is an honest fear reaction, not a disobediance.  Using whip or spurs after a spook just teaches him that there was something to fear in this situation after all.
  • Continue on as if nothing happened.  Some riders like to make their horses approach scary objects until they stop spooking.  This can lead to a day long battle, and actually teaches the horse that this object is somehow significant or worrisome.  If you’re in an arena you can gradually widen your circle with each pass and until the scary corner is no longer an issue.  On the trails, continue on and forget about it.
  • Relax. Breathe out any adrenalin rush you might have and consciously relax to show your horse how silly he was to be afraid.  Continue to enjoy your ride.

The more calm and confident you are when you deal with your horse’s spooks, the more he will begin to trust your leadership.  The more he trusts you, the less likely he is to spook, which in turn, boosts your confidence.  This is the opposite of the vicious circle of tension; this an escalating spiral of relaxation that leads to happier, safer rides.

 

Upcoming Classes

Please note: The Mounted Combat Workshop and Mounted Combat Skills dates were switched for this month due to arena conditions.  The Mounted Combat Skills was held last Sunday at Academie Duello, and the regular Mounted Combat Workshop will be held at Red Colt on Sunday March 23rd.

Cavaliere Class
Sunday 16 March 1 – 4:30pm
Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op, 12320 No 2 Road, Richmond
cost: $60
Instructor: Jennifer Landels
Horsemanship, Riding and sword drills for all levels of riders and swordsmen
prerequisites: none, Intro to Mounted Combat recommended

Mounted Combat Workshop
Sunday 23 March, 1- 4pm
Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op, 12320 No 2 Road, Richmond
cost: $60
Instructor:  Devon Boorman
Swordplay from the ground, the falsemount, and from horseback.
prerequisites: Intro to Mounted Combat or permission from the instructor

Cavaliere Class
Sunday 30 March 1 – 4:30pm
Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op, 12320 No 2 Road, Richmond
cost: $60
Instructor: Jennifer Landels
Horsemanship, Riding and sword drills for all levels of riders and swordsmen
prerequisites: none, Intro to Mounted Combat recommended

Intro to Mounted Combat Workshop
Sunday 6 April, 10am – 1pm
Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op, 12320 No 2 Road, Richmond
cost: $149
Instructors: Jennifer Landels & Devon Boorman
A taste of everything in the program.  Learn about grooming and tacking up, get some swordplay fundamentals, and ride a horse with sword in hand.
prerequisites: none

Mounted Combat Workshop
Sunday 6 April, 1- 4pm
Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op, 12320 No 2 Road, Richmond
cost: $60
Instructor:  Devon Boorman
Swordplay from the ground, the falsemount, and from horseback.
prerequisites: Intro to Mounted Combat or permission from the instructor

 

Package deals

Cavaliere 4- and 12-packs are available.  These packages are valid for all classes offered in the Cavaliere program, as well as for private or semi-private lessons.

4-pack: $200 ($50 per class)
12-pack: $480 ($40 per class)

When you purchase a package you are automatically signed up for all upcoming Cavaliere program classes.  If you are unable to make a class and let the front desk know in advance, you will be credited for a future class.

 

Jennifer Landels Jennifer Landels heads up Academie Duello's Cavaliere Program. She has been swordfighting since 2008, and riding since before she could walk. She started the program as an excuse to combine those passions.
Read more from Jennifer Landels.