"Defensive Riding School". Part 1.
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, March 18, 2023 08:26 PM
Statistical analysis says that riding a horse is 20 times more dangerous then riding a motorcycle! I was shocked to hear that first time. I am sure many riders would agree. However, if you think about it, it makes sense - a motorcycle does not have a mind and will of it's own. And a horse has. Plus, the horse is a pray animal with strong survival instincts, fast reactions and powerful movements. It is easy to ride a horse in walk when he is slow, calm and steady. It gets harder in trot and even harder in canter even though the horse can still be rather slow, calm and steady. However, when the horse is not calm, when he is fast, changes things suddenly without "consulting" his rider, now what!
What got me thinking about all this was a Youtube channel Dressage Disaster Series by DressageHub. There are a few videos where riders lose control of their horses to the point of a bolt, buck and a consequential fall. If you read the comments it is a lot about overhorsing, trigger stacking, dressage is bad, horses are overworked, tense, etc. To some extend in some particular instances it is true. But nobody talks about the fact that riders didn't do the right things in right moments. Which I clearly saw. And even more, when a very skillful rider deals with similar situations quickly and effectively that is considered just a minor incident.
If a rider never experienced dealing with bolts, big spooks, spins, runs backwards, bucks or kicks out she may not know at all what to do regardless of the level of showing. It is not like we all can go to a Defensive Riding School and get to practice all that. What do you want to ride today - a bolt, a rear, a big spook???? :D
When I teach and an opportunity to coach a rider through such moments arises I always step right in to not only help the rider in a heat of the moment but more importantly to explain and debrief after - what, why, how, etc. So riders learn first hand from their experience and be better prepared if it happens again. Which can be today or next year. There are riders who can ride for decades and not know what to do in such situations. They try to avoid them at all costs instead of learning what to do. Which is wrong. Because if you are riding horses sooner or later it will happen. I witnessed first hand how a well trained, reliable, old, very experienced show horse reacted leaping like a Lppizaner up in the air because a wasp stunned him. Can you predict that?...
It is interesting that a beginner rider who is a bit worried and doesn't know what to expect can pay more attention to the horse than an experienced one. This brings me to the first aspect which is always pay undivided attention to your horse the moment he is within your sight. It is mindful attention - calm, nonjudgmental, very observant, like your life depends on it, which it does actually. The second very important quality is to have the right muscle tone in your body when you are on a horse. This is not easy to explain, it must be experienced and developed. Beginner's tension is hard and in wrong places, tension of a scared rider is also too strong, with impeded breathing and jerky movements. To be too relaxed is also wrong because a horse can move big, fast and sudden. Riders have hard time keeping the correct tone due to lack of fitness particularly in their core and upper back but also due to seemingly lack of necessity for it when everything goes well. They almost need a certain level of worry to create that tone in themselves. That is why skillful riders are not caught off guard when something happens. They have the correct tone ALL THE TIME as long as they are on a horse.
The next aspect is even harder to wrap your brain around. A rider must respond not react to horse's intentions, actions, movements. Even better - to feel it is coming and be proactive. What is the difference - reaction is when a rider caught off guard, usually emotions overpower everything - fear, annoyance, anger, etc... Response is CALM, observant, can be quick but mindful/trained adjustment of rider's actions. For example, to steady the contact, to sit deeper, to deliver a strong half halt, to close the leg more, may be to say something to a horse, etc. What I see often are two reactions: flight or freeze. Pretty much like in horses. A flight rider will react by standing up in the stirrups, folding forward, screaming, jerking the reins. The freeze reaction is when a rider appears in shock and does nothing at all, almost looks literally frozen and allows the situation to unfold.
Lets look now at two possible scenarios:
Spook is in the making
Now we come again to the fact that a horse thinks for himself. That makes him very capable of making his own decisions. He is also very capable of being completely lost, at worry, undecided and uncertain. When it comes to arena riding the horse must be guided at all times. Otherwise, he is left to himself to wander, look, spook, make decisions, get ideas...
If we think of guiding a horse and employ that principle to a developing spook very rarely things happen completely out of the blue. Most horses will be showing the signs of tension, heads and ears come up, steps slightly quicken or slow down. If a rider is focused and has good balance and right muscle tone she will immediately notice those slight changes. She will be reapplying and may be increasing her guiding aids controlling line, speed, flexion, frame, etc. Such response may eradicate a growing spook all together, or at least diminish it and keep within control.
Very sudden, big spook
Lets now imagine very sudden spook which can be a duck and 180 turn, big jump sideways or/and an acceleration from 0 to 60 (technically 40 km/h). Having a deep seat with legs wrapped around the horse and correct muscle tone will help a great deal to stay during sudden turns around, sideway jumps or accelerations. During fast acceleration the rider's upper body may sway backwards but must immediately recover through strong core, legs wrapped well around the horse's sides allow the seat to stay with the horse. If a rider happened to have reins short enough to ride a horse at least connected if not on the bit setting your arms by your sides and delivering a strong half halt with deep seat and slight leaning backwards is all is needed to stop many horses. Provided a rider does not ride with limp arms and half open fingers. If the reins were long like in a free walk, during a break or a trail ride after initial sit through the beginning of the spook the rider must SHORTEN the reins. The rider must NOT pull on the long reins!. It is completely useless and will make the rider lose her balance. So, if you had reins in two hands, put them into one hand slide the other forward to shorten them then separate back into two hands. Or, if your horse is known to spook suddenly keep reins in one hand when they are long, to speed up the time needed to shorten them. If your horse didn't listen to initial strong half halt but not yet in full bolt you can do pulley-rein. You grab a mane or a saddle strap with one hand and you deliver strong, rhythmical upwards/backwards pulls on the other rein. You must sit deep, lean backwards (how much depends on a strength required) and IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES stand up in the stirrups. You must not pull long and steady! With big, sudden spooks quick responses will be your best bet. If you allow the horse to gain speed or even a mental momentum to start bucking or something else you are putting yourself in more danger then the initial spook. In many such situations riders stay on during initial spook, even a big one. They fall much later when a horse was allowed to "build".
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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