Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Does the Horse Feel When You Fall Off?

I think, a lot of times when we fall off, we think a lot about how we feel, and our friends/relatives think about how we feel - scared, hurt, mad, betrayed - all the reactions that we can feel when we (unexpectedly - we think) end up on the ground.  And sometimes, we can dust ourselves off and get on with (horse) life, and sometimes we're injured and take time to recover and have fear issues to work through.

But - here's a different question - what does the horse feel about our falling off?  If we're working to build a partnership with our horse, and suddenly we're on the ground, where does that leave the horse?  As Mark Rashid says, a horse expresses how it is feeling with its body - there's no intent there to cause us to fall off -  the horse did something - bolted, reared, bucked, spun - and we came off (I strongly believe that only an abused horse ever "intends" to do harm to its rider - I've met horses like this but they're rare and man-made).  Both Mark Rashid and Harry Whitney (the subject of Tom Moates's books referred to in my prior post) ask how does the horse feel about what we are doing, and what can we do to make the horse feel better inside?

The first time I became aware of the effects of a rider falling on a horse was in 2009 at the Mark Rashid clinic, about horse #8.  I would suggest that you read this post now - it's pretty interesting and relevant to what I'm talking about in this post.  The horse in that post was a young horse, and its inexperienced rider came off on a trail ride - the horse was very disturbed by the experience, and lost a lot of its trust in people and its training.  Now Pie is a very steady and basically calm horse, but I think he was also pretty disturbed by my fall, and although he's more confident in his prior training than horse #8 was, he's had his issues since I fell off.  Here's a set of comments by Laura Crum and me to a prior post:

Kate--Being nervous after a fall is normal--for both you and Pie. Did anyone see your fall? From what I've understood you don't remember what happened. If you had some info on what actually occurred, it might be helpful to sorting out what Pie is feeling. I agree with you that more miles is the answer and that following a solid older horse is absolutely the best way to get those miles. You are a very thoughtful, astute, and positive horseperson, and I know you'll find the right path. But that nervous feeling is no fun, as I know from my own experience. Good wishes to you and Pie.
Laura - we're not really sure what happened when I fell - it could be that I had an arrhythmia and passed out and fell - or Pie could have spooked - when he's startled he can do a big, fast, spin and I've come close to coming off a few times before. Suddenly moving/appearing objects seem to be his biggest issue - he had a lot of trouble when I got him with bicycles and running children, neither of which I think he'd ever seen before. From when I fell, I have a vague (and perhaps unreliable) memory of some bicycles coming along the adjacent road with those tall flags on the back, and turning Pie to face them . . .
Kate--If, for the sake of a theory, Pie spooked at the bicycles and you came off--and were not immediately up and talking to him, making things "normal", which I assume you were not able to do, then it makes sense that he would retain the notion that there was something truly bad/scary about those moving things, and be worried about them. Pie has always struck me as a very well-intentioned horse, but spooking is part of the package with virtually every young horse, as I know you know. I think that following a solid horse on lots of rides and seeing that nothing bad happens and the horse is not afraid, even when bikes..etc are around, will help him a lot. . . 
I think that, for a young horse like Pie - he's only just turned 5 - who's probably never had a person fall off - I'm pretty sure his prior owner, an older, very experienced horseman who started him and was pretty much the only person to ever ride him before I got him, never fell off him - having a person land at his feet, after he was scared, and then not reassure him, must have been pretty upsetting.

Pie's behavior since I fell is consistent with this - he's been more "looky" and more likely to not just march on with confidence, and I don't think this is all due to my own nervousness in riding on the trail - he's just more uncertain than he has been since perhaps he thinks something bad may happen again.  I strongly believe that it's my job to reassure him and make sure he understands he'll be OK, even if something scary (in horse terms - people terms don't really matter) happens.  I had a good example of this the other day.  We were getting a delivery of hay bales at the barn, and in preparation, some old hay bales had been stacked in the barn aisle.  When I brought Pie in from pasture to groom and ride him, he was spooked by the hay in the barn aisle - this sort of behavior would have been very odd for him before my fall.  He snorted and wanted to spook.  I kept gently asking him to step forwards, and he would look at me, snort at the hay bales and then take a step forwards.  Gradually, he made his way into the barn and once he was in there, he was fine.  He was clearly looking to me for guidance and reassurance.

I think we're making progress - today we went on our longest trail ride yet, about 45 minutes, with Charisma and her very considerate owner.  We experienced a bicycle rushing up at high speed from behind on the adjacent road - Pie did a small spook and then relaxed, as well as walking by a large childrens' playset and a very scary blue tarp out in the middle of nowhere - Pie snorted and walked by when I reassured him.  I see my job as making sure he gets reassurance whenever he needs it - I think the idea that we "train" our horses to be spooky by "rewarding" them with reassurance when they need it is just plain hogwash.  If the horse needs to be reassured, then reassure the horse - my job is to make the horse feel better about things so that the horse and I can do more together.

But then there's the whole question about holes in training - holes in the horse being able to stay "with you" - that show up when things cause the horse to spook/bolt/buck - I've been thinking a lot about these things since my fall off Pie, and then Dawn's buck-and-bolt and Drift's bolt - and Tom Moates's book has brought some new dimensions to my thoughts . . .

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