Does the rider’s focus, intention and/or emotion play a role in how the horse they are riding behaves?
This is Brooklyn riding Hank. Hank is now 25. He has been at Meadowsweet since he was 12 and has been a great horse. He became one of our lesson program mounts shortly after his arrival here and has been ridden both in the indoor and outdoor arenas and out on trail, including several barn/student trips that we have taken over the years.
During one lesson a while ago, he spooked at the far end of our arena. The rider stayed on but was nervous after that and each time he came close to the spot he had spooked at; he would spook again. Since the student could not get past feeling nervous each time she was coming to “the spot”, we cut the arena shorter for what we were working on.
A few weeks ago, a student and I spent time together with Hank at that ‘spooky’ spot while he ate some chopped hay from a pan. He was content and relaxed the entire time. When the student mounted and was going to do a walk around the arena to get focused on her seat and beathing, Hank spooked about two thirds of the way down the long wall towards the “spooky” end of the arena.
I wanted to teach the student a one-rein stop because her immediate response to his spook was to pull back on the reins. The student could not control her fear. It got to a point that even with me walking along beside the two of them, she could not make it even a quarter of the way down the long wall, so we ended the lesson a bit early.
The other day Brooklyn had her lesson on Hank. I told her what had been happening and told her that if she could not stay focused on what she wanted to happen, we may run into trouble. I asked if she remembered how to do a one-rein stopped and she said vaguely. We started her riding time off with me at the end of a rope halter lead under Hank’s bridle walking along side the two of them and slowly working our way back and forth across the arena toward the scary end. Then we worked on one-rein stops because, in my opinion, when a horse spooks, you are asking for bucking if you pull back on the reins and make the horse feel like it cannot get away from whatever is frightening it. With Hank, I believe the spooking at the scary end had become learned behavior, or a habit, or is feeding off the rider’s emotions, because he only does it when ridden. Since he can eat down there, perform other groundwork down there perfectly relaxed I think he is noticing the rider’s emotions. I believe that bending a horse that spooks, is safer than pulling back on the reins.
After Brooklyn was comfortable with bending Hank in both directions all on her own, she rode him around the entire arena, staying focused on what she wanted to happen. Exhaling at specific points as she approached the scary short wall, walking along it and leaving it. Watch this video ( https://youtu.be/UPzAxz3c2KI ) to see how calm he was with Brooklyn.
You must remember that we are predators. It is amazing that horses even allow us to ride them. But, if we, the predator, is afraid, why do we expect our horse to stay calm? I think one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for your horse (or a horse you ride) is to learn to breathe into and from your diaphragm. Exhaling from your chest does not feel the same to the horse as when you exhale pushing the air out from your belly. Diaphragmatic breathing not only helps to keep the horse you are riding calm, but it also helps you stay calm. Try it and let me know how it works for you.