You’ve been there…you can’t hold your horse back any more. He’s prancing, he’s pushing like a freight train against the bit, and he’s lunging and plunging. But you hold on with incredible determination because you know if you let go he’s going to take off at a million miles an hour, and go over and through whatever is in his path! What to do?
Remember that it is one rein for control and two reins for communication. If you can bend your horse’s neck around and stop one side of your horse, the other side will not run off! Pulling on two reins is totally ineffective. A horse can brace against this and become more powerful.
While bending his neck is a good thing to do in an emergency, it is important to practise this before you get into that situation. Teach your horse to bend his neck in “lateral flexion” at the halt, equally both right and left. Once this is easy, try it from the walk: slide your hand down the rein and politely ask him to bend to a stop. Hold him there until he can keep his feet still and relax, then let go. Next, do it from the trot, and so on. Keep practising until you can canter around and, at any time, reach down and bend him to a stop. Holding him until he relaxes will make lateral flexion a signal to relax as well regain control.
Important: Don’t be surprised if your horse is pretty resistant at first. This is a very vulnerable position for a horse because survival is based on flight. He knows he can’t run away if his neck is bent, therefore, most horses won’t allow themselves to get into such a position. Be a patient and understanding teacher. Let go if he starts to struggle and just start again. You’ll be much more successful through approach and retreat, repetition, and taking a fresh start, than if you just force it on him.
If you teach your horse as opposed to force him, he will learn to balance himself as he bends his neck because he understands what is happening. If you force him by pulling his head around, you could tip him over and this is not the idea of the exercise!
Use feel and timing in the teaching and preparation, and then when you have to use it in an emergency both you and your horse will know how to balance yourselves.
Why does he run off?
As you know, understanding “why” is one of the most important things you can do. If you can understand where a horse is coming from you are less likely to get mad and blame him, and you are more likely to be a better teacher for him.
A horse runs off for one of two reasons: Fear or disrespect.
1. Fear: 99 per cent of the runaway cases I’ve known involve fear. The horse perceives that his safety is threatened, his adrenaline comes up and he runs off. The fear is then compounded by the rider getting tight and tense and pulling back on his head and the whole thing blows up. If he can’t run off, he’ll rear, leap, fling himself around…you know the rest. All he’s trying to do is escape to safety.
A horse can start feeling unsafe:
• On a trail ride either by himself or in a group. He’s away from home and can feel vulnerable, especially if he does not have complete confidence in you; in a group he could be feeling another horse’s fear;
• Out in the open field, again feeling vulnerable;
• Too much mental pressure from the rider, which is especially true for sport horses who are being asked to perform under pressure and are not mentally and emotionally prepared or confident enough (dressage, cutting, reining, barrel racing, jumping, etc.).
2. Disrespect: This is less of a problem because, in my observation, most runaway horses are pretty high strung, spooky, sensitive, unconfident types reacting out of fear. The disrespectful runaway usually comes in the form of a kid’s pony or riding school horse who has had enough. He just sets his jaw and heads for home. He’s not afraid, he’s just taking over. And usually you can’t blame him! He’s fed up and he’s learned how to deal with the situation in this way. The rider is rendered helpless, usually gives up, gets off and never “goes there” again!
Solutions based on psychology
First, get your horse’s respect. The short answer: play the Seven Games until he is responsive and trusting rather than resistant. The Seven Games teach your horse to use his left brain (thinking mode) more than his right brain (reactionary, not thinking, instinctive, self preservation mode).
Special note: You must think the Seven Games are the only answer I have for every problem! While it’s not the only answer, it is always the first step. This is the way to win a horse’s respect and respect must come before communication and change.
Second, teach your horse to yield from pressure. This is inherent in the Seven Games, specifically Game #2 – the Porcupine Game. Horses naturally push into pressure and have to learn how to yield, especially under emotional duress. When a horse is scared, physical pressure from a bit or head restraint is like pouring fuel on the fire and they will fight against it instead of yield from it. The better he gets at yielding when he is not upset, the more likely he’s going to remember that positive habit when he is upset. Additionally, using one rein to bend him, instead of two to hold him, will give him nothing to brace against.
While fear also contains disrespect (a scared horse cannot respect you, your direction or your decisions), getting him over fear involves building his confidence with lots of tasks and simulations. This takes more savvy from you and in my Home Study Program it’s something that is addressed more fully in Level 2 Harmony.
A scared horse is a dangerous horse and I’m the first person to say “don’t go there” if you and your horse are not prepared. Sometimes that preparation takes a few minutes. For others it means a few months of getting the relationship, trust and respect where it needs to be. Until then, do not go to places where you horse is going to lose control of his emotions as you will lose control of him.
A bigger, harsher bit is not the answer. Neither is a tie down. This is not about physically overpowering a horse, because people can still get scared, hurt or killed this way. It’s about getting a horse right with you…mentally, emotionally, and physically.