KEEPING YOUR HORSE’S ‘COOL’ by Gincy Self Bucklin
One can watch a horse entering the ring for any sort of competition, and be able to say, “That horse is going to go well (or badly),” based on his degree of calmness and self-control. The horse who has the ability to ‘keep his cool’ in almost any conditions is the most likely to produce a good performance. Furthermore, a rider on a calm horse will be able to stay more relaxed—and thus perform better—herself.
Unfortunately, we often get so involved in teaching the horse the performance skills that we don’t hear what he is telling us about his attitude toward the work. And so, in our efforts to get results we overface the horse in some way, undermining his confidence. Nervousness—lack of calmness—is the horse’s way of telling us that he is afraid of failure, and of being hurt as a result. There are horses who enjoy jumping, or polo, or cutting so much that they will put up with anything, just as there are children who want to ride so badly that they continue even after severe falls. But nobody will argue that performing in a state of fear-based tension is going to produce better results than a state of controlled alertness.
We are taught to think of horses as naturally nervous animals, and in some ways they are. But if you don’t put the horse in a threatening situation, he is as placid as a cat. If you walk into a well-run stable when nothing is going on, the horses will all be standing calmly in their stalls, just looking around or sleeping. Any horse who stands quietly in his stall or field when nothing is happening is capable of being calm in any familiar situation.
In order to help the horse maintain calmness all the time, we must recognize the first small signs of tension. Once the horse has lost control—to the point of bolting, for example—it’s too late to do anything.
One of the first things you notice in a tense horse is his inability to stay still. If he is on the cross ties he may be throwing his head or gnawing on the ties. This could be an indication that he doesn’t like the way he is being handled, but it could also be his awareness that tacking up means work that he is afraid of.
(There are horses who seem to be naturally hyper, which is another matter. If the horse seems over-active in the stall, check the obvious things like grain ration, amount of turnout, and need for extra blankets in cold weather. All of the above vary immensely from horse to horse, and are easy to experiment with to find the best regime for a particular animal. And of course, very young horses, like very young children, tend to be always on the go.)
Another form of tension, not so easily recognized, is the ‘sticky’ horse, the horse who reacts to his fear by freezing instead of running. In a way this is almost harder to deal with, because the more you try to help him to go forward with stick and leg the tenser he gets, often bucking or rearing. You have to be very patient, objective and creative to deal with a horse of this type. People will tell you that their horse is ‘just lazy’ and ‘doesn’t like to work.’ I have yet to meet a healthy horse—or human—who was lazy about an activity that he enjoyed!
Some other early signs of tension are: carrying the head and neck high and tense instead of low and relaxed; ears constantly at alert; or aggressive behavior, either to humans or other horses. With a little attention, you can learn to recognize the first signs that your horse is losing his cool.
When you see that the horse is starting to become tense, the next step is figuring out what caused the tension, then working out the problem. To give a simple example, you have been jumping your horse successfully over three foot vertical fences, so you try a three-six oxer. The horse, instead of jumping quietly, stops the first time, then races at the fence and tries to run out. It is immediately apparent that the demands of the bigger fence make him nervous, so you make a correction like trying a lower oxer, or putting in an X a stride away. If the experience really scared him, you may have to go back and jump a couple of two-six fences to get his confidence back. But you don’t ask him to jump four feet until you find a way for him to jump three-six with confidence and calmness.
So, to keep your horse calm, two things must happen. First, you must observe that the horse is uncomfortable before he gets really scared, and second, be willing to back up the necessary number of steps to get past the fear.
Going back can be a very tough thing to make yourself do. Training a horse is a little like finding your way through a maze. If you start going the wrong way, you get just so far and then you run into a wall (such as unwillingness to pick up the canter.) So you turn back and try a different direction, (for example, working in a larger space until his balance improves) and go forward again. If you are smart enough to recognize the wall as soon as you meet it, you don’t have to go back very far.
Sometimes if you try hard enough you can get over the wall, and sometimes if you use enough force you can knock it down and keep going, (force the horse to canter until he figures it out) but if you really are going in the wrong direction, (horse is just not well enough balanced yet) you will just keep meeting more and bigger walls, (violent behavior or serious unsoundness) until eventually you reach one that you can’t get over or through. Then you have to turn back.