Friday, April 13, 2012

Freaky Friday, or Horses are Prey Animals

It is Friday the 13th, after all.  I'm not superstitious, but things felt a bit out of kilter today.  I arrived at the barn this morning about 8:30 a.m. to discover that the indoor arena was being "stirred" - the footing was being dug up and then replaced, by bobcats, tractors and drags.  So no riding in there for me.  I did groom Pie back in the barn aisle - he led through the machinery-occupied arena without an issue.  As we were leading back out, the machinery was still working and he was intently looking out the door to where the horses in turnout were visible.  Suddenly - giant sideways and backwards spook!  I wasn't wearing gloves at the time, and was very thankful for my long all cotton leads - my hand smarted for a moment but I didn't get any real rope burn.  A hay carrier had abruptly backed into the arena from one of the side aisles - Pie was distracted and didn't see it until it was there, hence the spook.  As soon as he got a good look at it, he was fine.

I believe that horses aren't scared of/startled by specific objects, but rather are sometimes disturbed by novelty - that water tank that's now upside down when it was right side up the day before - or by sudden movement, particularly unfamiliar or unpredictable sudden movement or things appearing out of nowhere.  This is all perfectly natural - they're very large and powerful but are at heart prey animals, and they know it.   So Pie was just startled by the sudden appearance of the hay carrier, particularly since he was distracted - perfectly natural.

Today I was also up in Wisconsin riding Drifter.  He's making good progress on his mental and physical softness - the two very much go hand in hand - and his upwards transitions and also forward were much improved.  But he was very distracted when another horse was heading out on the trail - he did some sideways "fading away" - small sideways spooks to orient on the other horse.   We kept on working and he came right back to me.  But then the horse suddenly appeared from behind a dirt pile, directly behind us.  That provoked a full-fledged bolt at a high rate of speed - he just dropped his butt and left, and he's extremely fast - he made it about 50 yards before I was able to turn him slightly and stop him, and send him right back to work at the trot, which is where we started.  The arena doesn't have a fence, but I was able to use an adjoining fence line to help him turn. The good news is that I kept riding and didn't come close to coming off, and was able to get him back - Heather said I did just what she would have done.  One very good thing we learned was that when he bolts he doesn't add in bucking, which improves my chances of staying with him (unlike certain bay mares we could mention but won't, who usually add bucks to any bolting that occurs). Since mental and physical softness are so related, he immediately started bracing and it took a bit to work through that, but then he was able to work again - this was very good.  There were a couple of spots where he particularly braced - where the bolt started and the point closest to the barn, and we kept working in those areas until he was able to let go of the bracing and soften again.

As Heather pointed out, we should never forget that horses are very large and powerful prey animals, and that their natural (and expected) action when startled or afraid is to flee, and that it is a source of amazement that they trust us enough to let us direct and ride them.  Never forget it - particularly on Friday the 13th!


  1. Whoa Kate! Challenging day in the horse world for you. Major bolt outside of fencing. Holy cow...

    What is so great is that you sound like all the challenges did was increase your confidence. More proof that the focused training program was a good idea. Well done!!!

  2. Well, as Mark Rashid says, "you can ride as fast as the horse can run" - can't guarantee I'll always meet that standard, but today I managed to . . .

    And you're right, none of the "events" really bothered me that much . . .

  3. I completely agree!! The more you work together, the more he'll trust you. Sounds like Drifter handled everything quite well, and you too!

  4. I agree with the other comments - you took the challenges in stride and just went back to working like it was no big deal.

    I had a spook/scare while riding yesterday too - luckily I stayed on and my mare came back down to earth after the initial threat was removed...which was a big horse charging the fence when we rode by and I didn't see him coming, so I had no idea what was going on!

  5. Riding a bolt is always at least a little unnerving. You kept you seat and your head. Not a bad Friday the 13th at all!

  6. Thank you, and Heather, for the reminder. We should have plaques with that on our barns in a prominent location that we can see every time we head out to ride!
    I find it amazing how horses see things I can't see, and notice things that have changed locations! We had a near disaster at the therapeutic riding center. We had a client on a horse getting ready to dismount. Another horse was led in and startled because a chair had been moved from one side of the door to the other. He set off the horse with the rider, and the rider almost made a faster dismount than was intended. Luckily it all turned out OK.

  7. Sounds like what I'll be dealing with soon--the sideways fading, etc (good way to put it). There is something to be said for knowing what your horse does in a scary situation and then figuring out if it's something you can deal with or not. They have their "go to" reactions...which are mostly consistent.

  8. So glad you survived both scary reactions - your hand wasn't hurt too bad by Pie, and you stayed on for Drifter's bolt!

    I am thinking you are meaning silly Dawn as a bay mare who likes to throw in a buck for good measure, but you said "mares" plural - surely you don't mean sweet Maisie too?


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