Friday, April 13, 2012

Freaky Friday, or Horses are Prey Animals

It is Friday the 13th, after all.  I'm not superstitious, but things felt a bit out of kilter today.  I arrived at the barn this morning about 8:30 a.m. to discover that the indoor arena was being "stirred" - the footing was being dug up and then replaced, by bobcats, tractors and drags.  So no riding in there for me.  I did groom Pie back in the barn aisle - he led through the machinery-occupied arena without an issue.  As we were leading back out, the machinery was still working and he was intently looking out the door to where the horses in turnout were visible.  Suddenly - giant sideways and backwards spook!  I wasn't wearing gloves at the time, and was very thankful for my long all cotton leads - my hand smarted for a moment but I didn't get any real rope burn.  A hay carrier had abruptly backed into the arena from one of the side aisles - Pie was distracted and didn't see it until it was there, hence the spook.  As soon as he got a good look at it, he was fine.

I believe that horses aren't scared of/startled by specific objects, but rather are sometimes disturbed by novelty - that water tank that's now upside down when it was right side up the day before - or by sudden movement, particularly unfamiliar or unpredictable sudden movement or things appearing out of nowhere.  This is all perfectly natural - they're very large and powerful but are at heart prey animals, and they know it.   So Pie was just startled by the sudden appearance of the hay carrier, particularly since he was distracted - perfectly natural.

Today I was also up in Wisconsin riding Drifter.  He's making good progress on his mental and physical softness - the two very much go hand in hand - and his upwards transitions and also forward were much improved.  But he was very distracted when another horse was heading out on the trail - he did some sideways "fading away" - small sideways spooks to orient on the other horse.   We kept on working and he came right back to me.  But then the horse suddenly appeared from behind a dirt pile, directly behind us.  That provoked a full-fledged bolt at a high rate of speed - he just dropped his butt and left, and he's extremely fast - he made it about 50 yards before I was able to turn him slightly and stop him, and send him right back to work at the trot, which is where we started.  The arena doesn't have a fence, but I was able to use an adjoining fence line to help him turn. The good news is that I kept riding and didn't come close to coming off, and was able to get him back - Heather said I did just what she would have done.  One very good thing we learned was that when he bolts he doesn't add in bucking, which improves my chances of staying with him (unlike certain bay mares we could mention but won't, who usually add bucks to any bolting that occurs). Since mental and physical softness are so related, he immediately started bracing and it took a bit to work through that, but then he was able to work again - this was very good.  There were a couple of spots where he particularly braced - where the bolt started and the point closest to the barn, and we kept working in those areas until he was able to let go of the bracing and soften again.

As Heather pointed out, we should never forget that horses are very large and powerful prey animals, and that their natural (and expected) action when startled or afraid is to flee, and that it is a source of amazement that they trust us enough to let us direct and ride them.  Never forget it - particularly on Friday the 13th!

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