Riding to Relaxation
By Jonathan Field
I am excited to share an experience I had recently with a very herd bound horse. I observed this horse, Archie, becoming very reactive as he was taken from the herd. I saw this as a great opportunity to explain some strategies to help riders when they find themselves in similar situations and their horses become herd bound, spooky, or reactive. Whether they spook at an umbrella, a bicycle, cattle, or llamas, these lessons will apply. Of course, you will also get a lot out of it if you have a herd bound horse, as it pertains directly to that issue.
There are some important concepts to understand when actively helping your horse to become calm and relaxed under your leadership. To actively change behaviour in your horse is to be a part of the process and requires all of your attention with an attitude of empathy towards what your horse is going through.
Firstly, we need to be sure to stay in control of our own emotions so we don’t contribute to the horse’s reaction. By becoming frustrated with our horse’s behaviour and taking his reaction personally, we only add fuel to the fire.
Next, we need to get really good at reading the horse’s behaviour. The body of the horse shows us where the horse is at mentally and emotionally. By observing the posture of the horse — the eyes, the ears, the muscles, the neck, and the head — we can begin to be aware of the horse’s level of relaxation or tension.
When your horse does react, spook, or become herd bound, he is desperately looking for leadership. He feels like he needs to make a prey animal decision. When the prey animal mode takes control and the horse feels lost and insecure, he becomes overly perceptive and overly sensitive. This over perception triggers flight and he runs. It is important to know that when horses run, they do not just run anywhere; they run home or to the herd, where they instinctually feel they will find safety and comfort.
- I consider there to be five different levels, or degrees, of reaction between completely relaxed and dangerously reactive:
- Level One: The horse is completely calm, relaxed, and confident. The muscles are relaxed, the eyes are soft, the head is low, and the horse is standing with his hind legs narrow, crossed, or hipshot.
- Level Two: As a rider you would be able to notice a bit of disconnection and you would sense the beginnings of the flight mode in your horse. The head and neck rise and the muscles become tight. The horse becomes more perceptive of the surroundings. This may not yet be obvious to those watching.
- Level Three: It is obvious to you and those around you that the horse is in flight mode. This level of reaction requires your full attention as it can become very dangerous. The head is high, the muscles are tight, and the eyes are wide. The horse is now ready for anything.
- Level Four: The horse is in a dangerous flight mode, where an inexperienced rider will not be able to remain safe and be effective. At this point, GET OFF and deal with the reaction on the ground. This is time for professional help!
- Level Five: The horse has escalated to a catastrophic level and is completely operating on flight. This level will likely end in injury to horse or rider, or both.
If you are not a professional rider or trainer, do not attempt to ride your horse if he is past a level three reaction!
1. In this photo are Archie and Brandy, the mule, and they are in love. Archie loves Brandy, and Brandy may love Archie even more. As long as they are together they are happy. Archie and Brandy both become reactive when they are separated. Archie is like Jekyll and Hyde.
As soon as you even begin to think of taking Brandy away, you can feel him become tense and make a complete change in behaviour.
When I witnessed the level of reaction these two had when separated, I saw it as an opportunity to take you through the process I use to bring a horse from a reactive and herd bound state to a relaxed and calm state under my leadership. I chose to demonstrate these strategies with Archie and the entire process took under 30 minutes.
Here we can see that life is good for Archie and Brandy when they are together. It is clear in their body posture that they are calm, relaxed, and confident.
2. I began my ride on Archie in a small clearing with Brandy close by. The area of trouble for Archie is when he’s away from his herd mates but can still see or hear them. He becomes unable to remain calm and connected with his rider, and he begins prancing, calling, and pulling towards the herd.
I rode Archie, with Brandy nearby, to a place between two trees. I chose this place as a consistent, identifiable area to come back to for a rest when Archie relaxed. It is important to be aware that if you are setting up a situation like I was here, where you are addressing a specific behaviour in a particular environment, that you have a preplanned way to reward the horse for relaxing and connecting to you. We always need to think of what the end goal is and be able to reward the horse many times along the way to that goal. This way, these challenges don’t become too big a deal or go on too long. My goal in the time I had with Archie was to be able to rest him on a slack rein, with him relaxed and his head low, between the two trees with Brandy just a hundred yards away.
Once we had established relaxation between the trees with Brandy there, I left the trees to ride out in the open. At this point, Brandy was led away, back towards the barn. As Brandy got even further away, Archie began to react. His head went up, he called, his eyes were wide and frightened, every muscle in his body became rock hard, and his skin got tight and sensitive. Archie immediately decided that comfort was with Brandy and he felt the need to run.
3. What we do at the moment a horse begins to escalate is key. Here Archie was ready to do anything. Brandy had just been taken away and Archie was about to rear or bolt, or both.
At this point, it was time to become really focused and get him going forward. I turned Archie towards Brandy and re-established forward movement, then quickly directed him back to where I wanted him. I chose to go towards Brandy at first, because I needed to relieve some of the tension. If I had been direct about leaving away from Brandy, the tension would have been too high and Archie would have escalated even more.
At this point, I would consider Archie to be at about a level three reaction as described earlier. As the reaction escalates, as riders we need to decide whether to deal with it on the back, to get off and get control on the ground, or to abandon the mission because the situation is too much for the horse and rider. This decision is up to you as a rider based on your level of experience. (Please note: a goal, such as having Archie relaxed without Brandy, is not more important than the safety of either you or your horse. You need to be aware of where the edge of trouble is and adjust your plan accordingly).
Although Archie did escalate, he did not rear, buck, or bolt and I chose to redirect him while riding. Whether on the ground or on the back, you must remain calm and focused. This doesn’t mean you should meditate during a large reaction, but you cannot allow your emotions to feed into the reaction. If you feel this happening, you need to abandon the mission, go back to the herd, get off, and take the pressure off. If you do not, things will not end well.
4. Often, when a horse becomes impulsive and reactive, a rider will tend to get behind the movement as the horse runs out from under him. When a rider gets behind the movement, he pops his legs off and pulls on the reins.
This would be akin to a downhill skier shifting his weight onto the back of his boots, getting behind the movement, and falling victim to the speed and direction of the skis. You are trying to play catch-up. To the horse, this lack of harmony causes him to feel insecure, lost, and even more disconnected. To be with the movement of the horse is better, but it does not give enough focus to redirect the horse’s mind.
Being ahead of the movement means that you are feeling forward, going forward, and directing the horse. Think of when you are leading a horse — you have focus and intention. With Archie, I kept riding forward, turning small circles, disengaging the hindquarters, and staying on a small pattern. Every time Archie made an improvement, I softened and let him relax. If he escalated more, I became more focused and ahead of him.
5. As Archie’s level of reaction lessened and he began to relax under my leadership, I was able to give him some rest by heading back to the two trees for an opportunity to relax.
I didn’t expect the relaxation to stay for more than a moment or two.
This brief reward and relief of the stimuli can show the horse that there is potential for comfort without his buddy there.
6. After a short rest, Archie remembered about Brandy and wanted to leave the trees.
I began to repeat the process as described earlier.
7. I kept focused forward and actively riding. Archie was nowhere near relaxed yet, but in a shorter time connected with me and started following my focus instead of worrying about Brandy.
8. In this photo you can see the beginning of relaxation while riding, as Archie’s ears are with me, his head is lower, and he’s beginning to show some bend and flexion.
9. Archie let down even more, lowering his head below the withers, and walking softly, leaving thoughts of Brandy behind. Notice I have softened to him, lowering the intensity of my focus to reward his relaxation and connection to me with comfort.
This was about 22 minutes in and I’d already had two rests at the trees. At this point I headed back to the trees to further reward this change and to wrap up this session.
10. Notice that Archie looks very relaxed. He’s got a little emotional sweat on the neck and he’s resting comfortably between the trees. Although it may seem silly to rest between two trees, I chose this identifiable spot in order to give Archie the consistency of a place to find rest, and as a place that would be easy to see in the photos.
You may not choose trees, but whatever spot you choose, make sure it’s consistent throughout the session. (Besides that, the trees can get your knees rubbed if you don’t have control of the line of travel.)
Many people are not willing to be persistent enough and quite often allow themselves to become frustrated, in which case there is no opportunity for the horse to learn how to be flexible of mind and go from reactive to calm. This flexibility of mind is a coping mechanism that every horse needs to have and one that requires a high level of leadership on our part.
The strategies discussed in this session can be used when there is an out-of-the-blue reaction, but more importantly, you can plan a session, as I did here, where you are in control of the situation and can most effectively help your horse have success.
Go out, have fun, and next time you are faced with a challenge like this, look at it like an opportunity to become closer partners. Then in future sessions, plan “opportunities!”
Related: More Fun! And Why It's Important
Main photo: Liz Duncan - Your horse should be calm and relaxed under your leadership.
Photos: Angie Field