Of course each new horse-rider combination I am asked to work with presents almost a forensic approach to the entire process. There must never be the tendency to group each new pair in a common expectation or theme. Each half of the pair brings their own history, memories, level of energy, expectations and goals which must be dealt with in a highly individualized process. To expect the same level of progress and current ability from different combinations would be ludicrous and possibly damaging to the learning-training process.
Hunter demonstrating sudden dangerous behavior under saddle
I received a fairly frantic phone call from Nancy, a woman who had just moved her horse back to a boarding facility that she had previously been in for almost a year. Falcon was a hunter, and Nancy had been riding him safely and successfully in the previous stable, and before he had always been fine in the place she had recently returned to. She said that lately he had become almost unmanageable in the indoor. He had started spooking and bucking with her so that she was becoming afraid of him. I agreed to come over for an assessment and evaluation. I asked her to not even have him groomed. I wanted to observe him from the very beginning as she started to prepare him for her lesson.
When I walked in the barn Nancy had Falcon in cross ties. He was very tense. Unless a horse is very aggressive, I always approach a new horse in a slow, almost apologetic way, actually asking permission to enter his space. Some recent publications and clinicians speak about immediate dominance over a horse, kind of an “us against them” approach. What a horrible attitude toward a creature whose main emotion is fear.
I had Nancy take one cross tie off and put a lead rope on that side so that Falcon did not feel claustrophobic. My low energy and breathing soon reassured him and I did a quick “body check” on him. This was to assess any sore areas, but also, as I do it as a type of massage also, it helps the horse trust me. I found some soreness behind his poll, and tension through his hamstrings, so I demonstrated to Nancy the “high crest reflex” massage to do behind his atlas/axis joint and showed her how to do it. Falcon relaxed and was much better.
Then we checked the fit of his tack. The pommel was too wide, coming down too low on Falcon’s withers and causing him discomfort. Nancy really needed the saddle to be reflocked or to purchase a new saddle. In the meantime, I used a closed cell pad which does not increase the psi on his back. It actually served to absorb much of the tightness on his back and allowed Falcon to work in relative comfort. His bit was a French linked snaffle with the oval in the middle which was soft and prevented any nutcracker action in the horse’s mouth so I thought it may prove acceptable.
All of these factors must be considered, especially in working with a new client and their horse.
Nancy said Falcon would not lunge — that he would dash around the ring. I have never had a horse that I could not quiet quickly on the lunge by using low energy and my voice and explaining the objectives of lungeing, ie., relaxation, stretching, and obtaining a listening, accepting relationship with the handler. Although Falcon became more tense at first as he entered the indoor, he soon relaxed and I then started teaching Nancy the correct method of lungeing.
I then had Nancy mount, and there were many factors that contributed to her being less effective when riding so that her horse could understand her aids. Her lower leg was in front of her which was caused by stiffness in her hip joints and the fact that she did not start out with a neutral pelvic angle. She simply rode behind the motion, I taught her an exercise called “teeter-totter” which allowed Nancy to identify when her seat bones were in alignment with her pelvis. In this way she could independently determine if she was in a vertical position at walk, sitting trot and canter. Being behind the movement of her horse would hinder her lower leg being able to be in the correct position and it would unconsciously result in her not having an independent hand and pulling on Falcon’s mouth.
Everything improved greatly. The quiet lungeing had relaxed the horse and allowed him to be confident enough to learn. Helping Nancy with her position had allowed them to become more of a partnership and have a positive schooling session. We worked up to transitions back and forth from walk to trot, trot to canter, and then down transitions. Circle and slight lateral work in leg yields were introduced. I saw no evidence of any of the explosive behavior that Nancy had previously mentioned.
Then everything changed. Another instructor taught at this facility. He specialized in hunter-jumpers. I knew him slightly, but knew nothing of his work. We could hear his voice as he readied his student to come into the ring and Falcon immediately tensed and spooked to the side. I put him back on the lunge with Nancy on him for safety’s sake. The lesson came in. They almost immediately began jumping in the far end of the ring. Without a correct suppling warm-up, and with an off balance rider, the horse quite understandably refused at the first obstacle. The rider was instructed to hit the horse several times with a bat. As all of this was happening Falcon was becoming increasingly difficult until I had to hold him and instructed Nancy to dismount. When the other horse was hit, I told her to lead Falcon as quickly as possible back to his stall.
I had her speak to him and repeat the massage techniques and it was then that I learned the progression of the bucking. It apparently had begun when this instructor first was abusive to another horse in the ring. As the abuse continued, Falcon became worse and then he began bucking. The other instructor offered to get on him and “show him the way to Jesus”, one of the worst phrases I have ever heard a trainer use, but thank goodness Nancy declined.
I believe that horses have a sense of fairness in what a rider does. When one of their herd members is suffering, frightened, or in pain, it telegraphs immediately to them.
Since Nancy had had such a positive lesson until the trainer entered the barn, I suggested that if she wanted to stay at that facility that she get specific times that lessons were being given. I told her to never ride in any proximity to the trainer. If he came into the ring unexpectedly, to just dismount quietly and leave. It would only be counter-productive to expect her horse to listen to her when another horse was telegraphing fear and pain.
The happy end to the story is that the people in the area stopped going to this trainer and he moved to another barn.
So consider all aspects of your horse’s environment, his mental and physical state, his past experiences, saddle fit, your body position, etc. when assessing your schooling program. Your horse will tell you ….just listen.