I was looking forward to finally riding Nash last Sunday. He’s been off for over a year and a half, and is finally fit and sound enough to return to work. As he is the best trained horse in the barn, I’ve been hungering to be back on something with power steering! He seemed a bit snorty walking out to the arena, so I gave him a chance to run – up and back seemed all he was interested in. Our lunge warmup went off without a hitch, and it was time to get on board. As we walked away from the mounting block, he acted a bit twitchy, turning his head to each side with seeming irritation. Concerned that I had the wrong saddle for his current state of condition, I attempted to swap it. In the process of settling the new saddle, Nash suddenly leaped sideways and the saddle was in the dust. Clearly I had a problem! As I stood there facing a bug-eyed appaloosa, his head high and nostrils flaring, I pondered the possibilities. At this point I could take one of several approaches, most notably:
A. Bad horse! I could take the approach that this was a disobedience, and choose to discipline him. In similar situations, I have seen many a person react by taking the aggressive approach – jerking, beating or chasing the horse in circles until he finally stops out of desperation. This rarely accomplishes anything more than allow the person to release their frustration. It certainly doesn’t teach the horse anything. Horses are reactive by nature, and you have simply shown him that his initial reaction was justified based upon the terror that follows. If I felt the need to address it as a discipline issue, I would begin with confirming the “stand” command and reintroducing the saddle. But, since this behavior was completely atypical, I needed to look elsewhere.
B. Poor baby! I could take the approach that something had disturbed him, and attempt to soothe him. I’ve watched many riders react to such behavior by talking in soothing tones and stroking their horse, while the horse remains on alert – or worse, escalates the behavior. In my experience, we humans aren’t all that good at soothing horses. In a few situations, my closest equine partners have looked to me for comfort when experience extreme pain, such as post surgery. But, in general, horses seem better at soothing us than we are at soothing them. In most cases, if a horse has been disturbed, the best approach is to act as if nothing has happened. As I’ve heard Charles deKunffy advise, act as if it’s all so boring!
C. Houston, we have a problem! In this approach we don’t so much directly address the behavior as take the approach that something caused it. The point it to uncover the cause in order to know how best to address it. If you can uncover the cause, then you have a head start on the best approach to solving it. Maybe it’s my lifelong love of detective shows, or my passion for solving puzzles, but I always prefer to root out the cause. Since this was highly unusual behavior for Nash, this was certainly the right approach.
My first check was for pain. Although he showed no movement aberrations, he had been slightly sensitive in his back while grooming. But, examinations showed no particular issues. Having ruled out a pain event as very likely, I decided to give him another chance at a run. The result? Nearly ten straight minutes of unprompted galloping!
Every few laps he would pause to compose himself, then off he’d go again! As my mother said, it was as if he released 18 months of pent up energy all at once! When it was all over, and he finally came up to tell me he was done, we threw the saddle back on. This time he was the usual level headed fellow we expect!
The moral of my story is this – I could easily have made an issue of his reaction to changing saddles. I could have spent a lot of energy dealing with the “misbehavior”. Or, I could have attempted to soothe him, replace the saddle and try to ride what was apparently bottled up dynamite. Instead, I decided to let him tell me what the problem was – and the result was a tired but very happy horse!
Be good to your horses!