*Note: Safety first! Always use any of these suggestions at your discretion. Always check to see if your horse is reacting to some discomfort or misunderstanding, especially if the behavior is unusual. There is no one-way-cures-all method to riding. Feel free to change anything to meet the needs of you and your horse.
When you start to ride horses, there comes a time when you must face your own mortality.
Because riding horses isn't just about feel-goods and swoon-moments and lovey-dovey pet him behind the ears satisfactions (although those surely are wonderful occasions).
Invariably, one day, your horse looks you in the eye (or not) and says, "No!"
Or maybe it's more like he sees/hears/feels some great horse-eating monster-thing and suddenly, his flight or fight response kicks in and sure enough, he FLIES! Good luck to you, wingless human, who wishes to share in his space and time continuum! 🙂
After one or two (or more) parting of ways, you will surely begin to dread, or at the very least, physically tense, in anticipation of the next event. You might find yourself nervously looking around for the next monster. Occasionally, you might become reactive or even apprehensive and then you become part of the problem.
However, in possibly all horse disciplines, you are taught to never show your fear to the horse. If you do, the horse will pick up on your emotions and respond in kind. There is some truth to that. Horses are mirrors of us and often read our body language much earlier than we intend. So your tension can breed his tension and then you both end up spiraling into something that becomes much worse than it could have been.
Why Fear is Good
Never apologize for your fear. In horseback riding, think of fear as a good thing. It is what protects both you and your horse from danger and keeps you safe.
Fear can help you draw the line that guides you into making life-saving decisions. Instead of fighting it out with a 1000-pound animal, maybe it's ok for you to get off his back and call it a day.
Instead of pushing the situation to a level that makes you deal with something you cannot or should not or do not want to have to go through, you can tone down the exercise, going back to an emotional level that your horse can tolerate or that you can comfortably ride.
But sometimes, you don't get a choice in the matter. What to do then?
How to Ride Through It
1. Focus on Your Seat
Easier said than done, right?
There is one key method to staying on when the horse throws you a spin, buck or lurch.
Loosen through your seat.
Take every bit of energy and strength you have, and through the up/down/sideways/lurch moment, let loose. Rather than tightening your lower back, make it move with the horse. Find that saddle and let your seat glue in and go in whichever way it has to. The rest of your body will follow (trust me on that!).
Put all your attention into (not tensing but) releasing.
Stay open in your body. Avoid hunching over into a "fetal position."
Think, "Velcro seat!!"
Ride through it.
Keep your cool.
Don't get mad/even/offended or feel resentment.
Then, as soon as you have a semblance of balance and you feel confident enough to start talking (physically) with your horse again, go right back to what you were doing before the excitement began. Do Step #2.
2. Stay on topic
Your job, other than staying on, is to be an active rider by continuing to give The. Same. Message.
Just like that. Calm, cool, and thinking... "We were having a nice conversation before you interrupted!"
Go right back to getting that inside bend. Restore your balance by reestablishing the horse's balance, rhythm, straightness, stride length - anything and everything that will help him go back to his calm outline and way of going.
Then be ready for the next time.
Of course you're going to look for the next spooky corner. Or listen for the next sound.
It's perfectly fine and even useful for you to be aware of your surroundings. You SHOULD know what causes your horse's behavior and be able to predict what's coming next. Just don't let your horse do the looking.
Make sure that your body "stays on topic." You might not be able to stop the next spook from coming, but if you were planning on going with a nice bend through that corner, you aids should clearly keep telling the horse to bend. Sticking to the program helps the horse know that you are predictable and consistent.
Prove Your Leadership
The horse is almost always relieved to find that you are willing to be the leader in your horse/human herd. He will often relax and become more confident when he knows that despite the monsters that are lurking in every corner, he can boldly go forward and strong because you will guide his way. You will tell him what to do. You will keep him safe, not (only) because you love him and have the best at heart for him.
But because you can physically stay with him, and then correct or help him in his time of need.
Over time, you will realize that your actions will help your horse in his reactions. Your emotions will be more easily controlled and your confidence will allow you to stay purposeful, rational and active during the unplanned moments of your ride. Although there is always the potential for the unexpected, you can take steps to minimize the risks.
Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!
Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions.
This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.
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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also enjoy:
Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: If you can free up your hands and legs from creating and maintaining movement, you’ll uncover a source of freedom and harmony difficult to describe in words.
Three Ways to Use Your Seat in Horseback Riding: The seat is the prime factor in our ability to stay on the horse during the “bobbles” that invariably happen from time to time.
Muscle Memory Matters in Horse Riding: Why regular practice is essential in developing effective riding skills.
A Question of Imbalance: Can You Tell? Before we can problem-solve and correct, we need to know that the horse did, in fact, lose balance in the first place.