As a good rider and partner for your horse, you want to work with your horse in ways to ensure an emergency stop or dismount is never required – because a runaway situation is never triggered in the first place. Instead, your training and partnership with your horse means you help your horse stay calm, and you recognize when he’s getting stressed before he becomes overwhelmed.
Bolting, spooking, and bucking are defensive behaviours designed for escaping and fleeing from danger. The horse will stop when he feels he is at a safe distance between himself and that perceived threat.
On a trail ride, your horse might startle and bolt when a wild turkey runs out in front of or behind you, for example. If your response is to become tense and pull back hard on the reins, that adds more fuel to the fire. Your horse’s stress increase, and he keeps running from that pressure.
However, if you remain calm and ride out the spook while staying balanced, the situation generally does not become a serious runaway.
Relaxation is the key to riding safety. Recognizing your horse’s subtle signs of tension early, understanding the source of his anxiety, and keeping him at or under his fear threshold helps him to feel safe and calm with you in many situations.
There are three stages of the fear threshold:
1. Under threshold – showing no fear or anxiety;
2. At threshold – showing some awareness of situation/object, but no signs of tension, stress or fear (attention without tension)
3. Over threshold – showing clear signs of fear, stress or anxiety such as not being able to stand still, worried/tented eyes, flared nostrils, high head, etc.
Developing awareness of your horse’s most subtle signs of tension helps you to avoid putting him in situations where he goes over threshold and exhibits dangerous, instinctive behaviours.
Before every ride, take the time to assess your horse’s emotional, mental and physical state and determine if he’s ready for what you had planned. Be flexible and adjust your plans for where he is at that moment day. The responsibility for his and your safety lies with you, not your horse.
Regardless of where you are riding, always practice good basic fundamentals in the saddle. Sit deep in the saddle with your seat bones “plugged in”, keeping the vertical alignment of your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles. Keep your feet reaching towards the ground as if a bungey cord is attached from the ground to just behind the ball of your foot.
Maintain light, consistent contact on the reins. Stay present, aware of your surroundings, and how your horse is feeling.
Being prepared to handle emergencies is not only for your own safety, but for the safety of your horse as well. Practicing these three techniques at home when you and your horse are calm can prepare you to respond appropriately and safely in challenging situations.
If your horse does get out of control, the safest option is to turn him into a balanced circle which will help to slow him down and eventually stop him. If that’s not possible because of the terrain, the next safest option is the pulley rein.
- Sit deep in the saddle
- Engage your core, and slightly lean back
- Anchor one hand into your horse’s neck
- Firmly and quickly pull upward on the other rein.
- Immediately release the pressure when your horse responds.
Dismounting quickly and safely may be the safest option when you feel your horse is getting close to being out of control. This is best to practice with an experienced helper or coach.
- Find an area free of obstacles with room to the side of your horse.
- Grab hold of the mane
- Kick your feet out of the stirrups.
- Lean forward over your horse’s neck at the same time you smoothly swing one leg up and over your saddle.
- Release the mane as you land with bent knees. (If your horse is moving as you dismount, release the reins and tuck and roll away from your horse on the landing.)
Mounting Without A Mounting Block
It can be a challenge to mount without a block or step. This is something you can (and should) easily practice at home.
- Find a safe, clear spot that is relatively flat and level.
- Ensure your horse is standing square and balanced
- Lengthen your stirrup (remember to adjust it once back in the saddle)
- Use what’s available to give you more height (be sure it’s stable and can hold your weight) e.g. a slight slope, a large rock, a log or tree stump, etc.
Wishing you safe, happy hacking!