Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Does the Horse Feel When You Fall Off?

I think, a lot of times when we fall off, we think a lot about how we feel, and our friends/relatives think about how we feel - scared, hurt, mad, betrayed - all the reactions that we can feel when we (unexpectedly - we think) end up on the ground.  And sometimes, we can dust ourselves off and get on with (horse) life, and sometimes we're injured and take time to recover and have fear issues to work through.

But - here's a different question - what does the horse feel about our falling off?  If we're working to build a partnership with our horse, and suddenly we're on the ground, where does that leave the horse?  As Mark Rashid says, a horse expresses how it is feeling with its body - there's no intent there to cause us to fall off -  the horse did something - bolted, reared, bucked, spun - and we came off (I strongly believe that only an abused horse ever "intends" to do harm to its rider - I've met horses like this but they're rare and man-made).  Both Mark Rashid and Harry Whitney (the subject of Tom Moates's books referred to in my prior post) ask how does the horse feel about what we are doing, and what can we do to make the horse feel better inside?

The first time I became aware of the effects of a rider falling on a horse was in 2009 at the Mark Rashid clinic, about horse #8.  I would suggest that you read this post now - it's pretty interesting and relevant to what I'm talking about in this post.  The horse in that post was a young horse, and its inexperienced rider came off on a trail ride - the horse was very disturbed by the experience, and lost a lot of its trust in people and its training.  Now Pie is a very steady and basically calm horse, but I think he was also pretty disturbed by my fall, and although he's more confident in his prior training than horse #8 was, he's had his issues since I fell off.  Here's a set of comments by Laura Crum and me to a prior post:

Kate--Being nervous after a fall is normal--for both you and Pie. Did anyone see your fall? From what I've understood you don't remember what happened. If you had some info on what actually occurred, it might be helpful to sorting out what Pie is feeling. I agree with you that more miles is the answer and that following a solid older horse is absolutely the best way to get those miles. You are a very thoughtful, astute, and positive horseperson, and I know you'll find the right path. But that nervous feeling is no fun, as I know from my own experience. Good wishes to you and Pie.
Laura - we're not really sure what happened when I fell - it could be that I had an arrhythmia and passed out and fell - or Pie could have spooked - when he's startled he can do a big, fast, spin and I've come close to coming off a few times before. Suddenly moving/appearing objects seem to be his biggest issue - he had a lot of trouble when I got him with bicycles and running children, neither of which I think he'd ever seen before. From when I fell, I have a vague (and perhaps unreliable) memory of some bicycles coming along the adjacent road with those tall flags on the back, and turning Pie to face them . . .
Kate--If, for the sake of a theory, Pie spooked at the bicycles and you came off--and were not immediately up and talking to him, making things "normal", which I assume you were not able to do, then it makes sense that he would retain the notion that there was something truly bad/scary about those moving things, and be worried about them. Pie has always struck me as a very well-intentioned horse, but spooking is part of the package with virtually every young horse, as I know you know. I think that following a solid horse on lots of rides and seeing that nothing bad happens and the horse is not afraid, even when bikes..etc are around, will help him a lot. . . 
I think that, for a young horse like Pie - he's only just turned 5 - who's probably never had a person fall off - I'm pretty sure his prior owner, an older, very experienced horseman who started him and was pretty much the only person to ever ride him before I got him, never fell off him - having a person land at his feet, after he was scared, and then not reassure him, must have been pretty upsetting.

Pie's behavior since I fell is consistent with this - he's been more "looky" and more likely to not just march on with confidence, and I don't think this is all due to my own nervousness in riding on the trail - he's just more uncertain than he has been since perhaps he thinks something bad may happen again.  I strongly believe that it's my job to reassure him and make sure he understands he'll be OK, even if something scary (in horse terms - people terms don't really matter) happens.  I had a good example of this the other day.  We were getting a delivery of hay bales at the barn, and in preparation, some old hay bales had been stacked in the barn aisle.  When I brought Pie in from pasture to groom and ride him, he was spooked by the hay in the barn aisle - this sort of behavior would have been very odd for him before my fall.  He snorted and wanted to spook.  I kept gently asking him to step forwards, and he would look at me, snort at the hay bales and then take a step forwards.  Gradually, he made his way into the barn and once he was in there, he was fine.  He was clearly looking to me for guidance and reassurance.

I think we're making progress - today we went on our longest trail ride yet, about 45 minutes, with Charisma and her very considerate owner.  We experienced a bicycle rushing up at high speed from behind on the adjacent road - Pie did a small spook and then relaxed, as well as walking by a large childrens' playset and a very scary blue tarp out in the middle of nowhere - Pie snorted and walked by when I reassured him.  I see my job as making sure he gets reassurance whenever he needs it - I think the idea that we "train" our horses to be spooky by "rewarding" them with reassurance when they need it is just plain hogwash.  If the horse needs to be reassured, then reassure the horse - my job is to make the horse feel better about things so that the horse and I can do more together.

But then there's the whole question about holes in training - holes in the horse being able to stay "with you" - that show up when things cause the horse to spook/bolt/buck - I've been thinking a lot about these things since my fall off Pie, and then Dawn's buck-and-bolt and Drift's bolt - and Tom Moates's book has brought some new dimensions to my thoughts . . .


  1. I think you are absolutely on the right track. When Brett first got Flash and came off after a spook, poor Flash was so upset and confused. Fortunately Brett's pride was the only thing hurt and the confusion on Flash's face and actions made it impossible to do anything except reassure him.

  2. I saw this with Smokey. I made a mistake when I stayed away from him after my scare on him, it really had an impact on his emotional well being. I didn't realize the reinforcement he needed. To be fair, I couldn't provide it, but now I've learned that lesson. Like with kids, you have to step it up, even when you "can't"

    One lesson down, 4,792 to go.

  3. I came off of Shorty regularly learning to jump. He was an old hand and would stop if I jumped up his neck. But he expected me to stay on and appeared horrified and upset when I didn't.

    I only came off Scotty twice and both times he deliberately bucked me off. Once I deserved because I scared him and nearly caused a wreck going xc, the other time he was higher than a kite and just couldn't control himself. He appeared satisfied with the results both times.

    I haven't come off Nina yet (knock wood). I suspected at first that I might get a well planned kick to the head if I did but that phase is over and I think she would be upset.

  4. Great post, Kate. Brave you for moving past your own fears to meet Pie's needs of reassurance.
    And I agree with you about horses needing reassurance.
    I am aware of that with my mare when we are out riding on the trails. If I chose to ignore the spooky thing or yell at her, she would just learn to be either unsure of me or scared of me.

    On our last ACTHA ride, we walked by a Mule tractor that was parked by a tree. Normally she is not afraid of them, even when the engine is running. But this one was quiet as we walked past and as soon as we got about 20 feet past it, it revved up and her body clenched and she hopped a step or two forward. I just talked her through it and told her what the sound was (partially to ease my own fears, too) and then rubbed her neck. She visibly and physically calmed down and didn't feel like a ball of tension ready to spring forward. And we continued on down the trail relaxed and calm.


  5. Good post. I'm sure Pie just needs some time and reassurance when he gets a little looky or spooky. He's a sweet, calm, smart horse and he's still young. He's had a good start with a good horseman and with your continued work he will continue to be St. Pie.

  6. Interesting insights , and well worth discussing and looking into

  7. When Tucker bucked me off because of a huge horsefly attack, his initial reaction was one of total surprise. He stood there, staring at me with complete confusion, until the fly attacked him again, and he took off, leaving me there as he ran home. The last time I went off Toby--my old guy--for some stupid reason or other, he just stood there, as if to say, "Uhm, just what are you doing down there?"

    I think a lot might depend on the circumstances of the fall. If the horse bucks you off as a reaction to something you have done, then perhaps, he would be less likely to be upset than if the fall was a consequence of an accidental dump--spook, fall etc.

  8. I think there's some wisdom to the old saying that you need to get back on after a fall - if physically possible. Most of us think that's for our sake, to help the process to regain our confidence - and it is. But I agree that the horse needs that affirmation that everything is OK.

    Several years ago when I was riding Morgunn, he fell with me. I remember looking up at him and he had a look on his face like, "What are you doing down there? That's not where you belong." I wasn't hurt so I was able to remount quickly and he settled down quickly after that.

    Thanks for sharing all that's going on with you and Pie. It's something we can all learn from as you journey through your learning experience.


  9. Kate...I have the greatest respect for you and your approach to working with and understanding horses. Such thoughtfulness. There are not too many people I know, who are as invested as you. Your horses are very lucky to have you in their lives.

  10. I too think you are spot on. Especially with knowing how Pie previously reacted to things, and how he does now. It very well could be that Pie did not get the reassurance he needed. I know the one time I have fallen off of Milo, immedietly I got up and assured him.

  11. Love this post and that you are so invested in looking at it from this very kind and caring perspective! I completely agree with you especially about the reassurance and the fact that it does not reinforce the spookiness to reassure.

    There is no doubt in my mind that horses have feelings about their humans coming off. Several years ago my daughter was sitting on the pony bareback in the arena - she hadn't been riding him that day, just hopped on for a moment to show me she could do it from the ground with no mounting block.

    We were standing there talking as she sat on him, all three of us very relaxed. A flock of birds suddenly flew up from the back field, making quite a commotion, and the pony lurched sideways. My daughter simply slid off his back - and was not hurt in the least. BUT she was in a pre-teen drama sort of stage and she lay there being very disgruntled and saying she couldn't get up.

    The pony looked horrified. Daughter went inside and didn't come back out. The gate to the arena was open (i.e. he was able to leave on his own to rejoin the herd) so after patting the pony I went on with my chores and later realized he had not moved from the spot he was standing when she fell!

    I went out and reassured him and then he went to the other arena gate and stood staring at our back door, so I led him out of the arena and told him it was okay, she was fine, etc.

    A little while later I found him standing in a corner of the back field, almost like he was giving himself a time out. His head was hanging low, and he just generally looked miserable.

    I went in and asked daughter to come let him know she was okay, and to get back on him for a minute so he knew things were fine. She did, and he went back to his normal grazing with the herd.

    Have never seen anything like that and have never forgotten it.

  12. I think horses can absolutely be traumatized by such events, and very few people ever stop to think about it unless the horse was physically hurt in the process.

    I have an old (lightweight) saddle that I use in training to push off our guys to simulate a rider falling off or even the tack. I do start with a saddle pad though to get them used to the idea of things plopping onto the ground next to them. I'll push it off from the left, then the right, then finally off the back end. It may sound silly, but I figure that these things can and do happen and I'd rather do my best to avoid any kind of potential train wreck later on down the road (well, trail ;o) Great post!

  13. I've taken over the early work on two different horses whose owners had done all the ground work, but got thrown (for different causes) on the first ride. Both young horses were very fearful of anyone getting back on them at that point, and it took a little extra time, patience, and reassurance, to get them past that point. Once I had a few rides on each of them, they were fine.
    I wish I had your confidence to work past my current stalemate with Maddie (and continue the work with her little sister, Beth). I'm stuck and not sure where to go at this point...

  14. I really like your blog and would like to invite you to read excerpts on hoofbeats! radio.

    Would you be interested? Could you email an mp3 sound file created on your computer?

    We broadcast out of the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada and at

  15. I think this is quite an original topic.

    My horse is careful not to step on me or into me, so I would imagine that if I fell off he would be upset, especially if I was hurt and unable to talk to him. Pie might have thought that you were just gone after that. That would be extremely traumatizing, especially if he thought the bikes or himself were responsible.

    I heard a story about a family dog that accidentally bit the hand one of the children. Even though he was not reprimanded, the dog ran off and hid in complete shame/fear. The family had to take some time reassuring the dog that they were not angry with him and that he was still loved. Why couldn't a horse possess similar complexities of feeling?

  16. Nice post. I love the topic. I found the book that suggested practicing falling off--Horse Follow Closely. I think horses get very worried about anything falling off them--stirrups (as I had happen), blankets, and especially riders. It's something we don't often practice with our older horses, but we do a lot of it with our younger ones in the intial training. I'm really starting to think that Cowboy's pulling back when I approach has less to do with eyesight or HSS and more to do with his stirrup falling off on that ride. I was with a large group and everyone made Cowboy think something bad had happened. Then when I approached to put it on he thought it was something dangerous. For me, I'm going back to square one with him.

  17. One other aspect to this that is worth considering-- many young horses who are very quiet and "easy" at three and four years old wake up a lot between five and seven. I've experienced this many times. Its not a bad thing--a previously lazy seeming horse will become much more energetic, for instance. But it often results in horses becoming more looky and spooky than they were previously. Pie may be going through this stage and at the same time dealing with insecurity around your coming off. It sounds like you are doing a great job of helping him with this. More good wishes to you both.

  18. Kate, like others have are one of the most thoughtful "horseman" that I know. I've seen Ladde's reaction to a young girl falling off of him. He was traumatized by it, ran to the corner and trembled. He acted as though he thought he had hurt her. When she went to him and reassured him, he let out a big sigh, dropped his head and began licking her. He was obviously quite relieved. She remounted and everything was fine. Ray Hunt once told (yelled over the loudspeaker, rather)me to "don't teach that horse you can fall off!". I've never forgotten that. I don't think they realize you can fall, until it happens. Horses need our reassurance more than we realize. I agree with you Kate, this is a wonderful topic of discussion.

  19. Wonderful point of view and thoughts about what Pie is going through. He is a lucky boy to have you.

    The question of "how does it affect the horse" obviously extends beyond just riding and a person falling off. When Chloe (my now semi-wild mustang) panicked during a blanket training session and slammed me against the wall (breaking a few of my ribs) we both suffered some psychological side effects afterwards. Luckily she really wants to trust so we did not take too many backwards steps in our trust and progress as partners but it was certainly noticeable.

    Charisma and her owner sound like the perfect partners to help you put those miles between what happened and the future.

    Lucky Pie. Lucky you. It's nice to see such a good relationship between a person and their horse.

    Scritches to all three of the gang over that way,

  20. Hi Kate! I am catching up on my favorite blogs now that my Blogger dashboard is finally working again -- it wasn't for more than a week, so I got a bit behind on the blogs I follow.

    I love this topic. I think the circumstances of the fall make a big difference -- when I've fallen off in the arena, Panama has been much less bothered (even coming right back to me like he's checking to see what happened), whereas out on the trail he tends to be more freaked out -- I think because he needs my reassurance much more out there than in a controlled, familiar environment. Also, I've noticed that when I've fallen during a serious spook -- when he was genuinely frightened -- it tends to reinforce his idea that there was something to be scared about.

    I also think that getting right back on can really reassure them that everything is okay. If that's true, then the fact that you didn't may be why Pie is so shaken and unsure now.

    I'll have to catch up on the rest of your blog posts tomorrow, but I'm glad I read this one tonight. I love that you think about things like this, and by writing about them, encourage us to do so, too!


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