Blog by Sophie Wyllie
A few days ago a friend was telling me that a huge turning point for her and her horse was realising that she could let go of the fear of the unknown…. She could finally feel confident to tackle new things, knowing that her horse would not do anything she couldn’t handle. This rang true to me having just started with a new horse who had a local reputation of being a bit of a “psycho” (not my words). As you can imagine, I was waiting for the “psycho” to appear at any time, and in most cases I was ready to pull my feet out of the stirrups and press the eject button to handle the matter from the ground. For the first few days I was on edge: suddenly I was afraid of tractors, odd shaped bushes, plastic bags and puddles. If my horse was going to require someone to assertive and guide the way, it wasn’t going to be me. So, in fear of my closet psycho, I diligently tested my in-hand responses before every ride, giving a lot of attention to her ‘stop’ and ‘step-back’ responses (I wasn’t getting into a fast car without knowing the brakes would work), and got off when ever I thought I might have a challenge on my hands (10 year old me was probably pointing and laughing). I can’t really remember when it occurred to me that I could handle anything she did, but when speaking with my friend, asking what the turning point was where she was no longer afraid, she said she “just trusted the training”, and that’s exactly it.
Unless you’re a dare devil and just get on and go, you’re probably working your horse every ride, testing your training – riding transitions, circles, adjusting speed and tempo. If you’re not, start doing it, because it’s your pathway to confidence. I speak with a lot of people who never leave the arena, or don’t ride in the back paddock, or leave the property because they don’t trust their horse’s behaviour. I wouldn’t suggest that they should just take a leap of faith and get out there, but if you can reliably stop your horse, then you can be certain that in a moment of flight, you can hit the breaks and stop it from escalating. If you can’t, then practise ‘stop, step back’ regularly in-hand and under-saddle until you feel confident to test it in new situations (if you’re not sure how to do this, there are lots of articles on ESI’s website about training). Don’t spend your life in the arena, it’s not very fun, and not good for your horse either. There is no shame in getting off and working through a challenge on the ground if it means you can work through a ‘scary’ situation. Next time, you’ll be able to handle it in the saddle, and onwards and upwards from there. The 13 second rule is also a brilliant tip – if your horse spots something and spooks, just stop, count to 13 (research shows this is the amount of time before the horse’s fear reaction turns to investigative behaviour), scratch him and talk to him, and when he lowers his head or looks away, then gently ask for a step closer. Baby steps. You don’t need to be brave, you just need to be calm and consistent, and don’t give up.
The best part of taking on new challenges is realising how far you’ve come, and if your training is in place, then what’s the worst that can happen? (don’t over think that, it’s a rhetorical question), but seriously, if you can control your horses legs (stopping them if need be), then you can control the horse. Simple as that.
Before I go, this is Ruby trying the new bridge looking terrified, yet obedient… but it didn’t start out like this….. I got off and lead her over first (my fear of the mare labelled “psycho” does resurface from time to time).