Fight or Flight

What makes a good riding school horse or pony?

For me, it`s a reduced flight instinct and their ability to take whatever`s thrown at them; be it wobbly children, screaming babies, or traffic. I`m not saying that a riding school horse should be so switched off they are ignorant to their surroundings. What I mean is that they are confident enough to face their fears. As the kids run towards them they turn their head and take it in. This in turn gives the clients confidence when they are learning to ride.

Some horses seem to have a stronger flight instinct than others, which I guess is due to upbringing and their genetic make up. I recently had an incident, and I remember it happening to myself years ago when I first rode a “private horse”.

This teenager is very competent and experienced, and was riding a privately owned horse, under my supervision. She is used to riding school ponies and is a quiet rider. In walk and trot she got some lovely work; correcting his crookedness and balance on circles, as well as transitions. This horse is very forward thinking and, despite his age, quite green and not the most confident of horses. On the ground he stands quietly, but when riding he`ll spook a bit at unfamiliar objects. He seems to get his confidence from his handler on the ground.
Last time this girl rode this horse I emphasised squeezing into canter, but on this occasion I forgot to remind her. Energetically, she asks for canter and this powerful horse jumps into canter, unbalancing her slightly and causing her to lose her stirrup. He keeps cantering down the long side and she tries to regain her stirrup, but she`s gripping with her leg. Which presses the accelerator. Round the next corner she loses the other stirrup and clamps like a limpet.
In panic, her horse carries on faster and faster until she fell off on the second lap.

I caught her frightened horse before helping her up and then tried to reassure her. She was overly enthusiastic, probably because she`s used to riding the riding school horses, and then he panicked because she lost her balance and control. His instinct was to run, and then when she slid to the side he was scared by the monster on his neck (probably a lion about to bite him neck) so ran faster. Her Dad, who was watching, told her that the horse had only done what was asked of him – to go faster!

I got her to remount and explained to her that the experience was just as frightening for her horse than it was for her, so she should walk him round until he was relaxed, and then walk him past the point he had fallen off and then once ready, up into trot.
She finished the session getting a relaxed, swinging trot, as she had before cantering and hopefully next time we can revisit canter.

This morning I rode the horse to work on the canter transitions, to make sure that he was comfortable with the process and unphased, so that when she tries it`s only her nerves I need to work on!

So how do you reduce the flight instinct? I guess it`s partly desensitisation – you see the natural horsemen tying flags to their horse`s tails and teaching them that it isn`t a monster. I don`t think this horse is ready for that quite yet! We can work on shifting the rider`s balance while riding so that he learns that it isn`t scary, and that people don`t have the perfect, quiet position all the time. Building a relationship between horse and rider will develop his confidence which will hopefully reflect in his work and he will become less spooky. Teaching the horse to think for himself and not rely on his rider would also be a benefit as he will process the situation and learn from it.

It was another learning curve, and highlights how so many people go wrong when moving from riding school horses; they need a stepping stone from the stoic schoolmaster to the flighty big girls blouse.

2 thoughts on “Fight or Flight

  1. firnhyde Jul 7, 2014 / 12:40 pm

    You make a good point here, and I think it is the downfall of many riders that they only ride schoolies. It limits your ability an awful lot. Going too far the other way can also be a problem, though. Although my own early riding education gave me the ability to work with a huge diversity of horses and deal with a lot of their nonsense – only my first pony was broken in well enough not to buck every ride; the other horses I rode could all be relied upon to cause chaos – I do miss the help a schoolmaster gives you with more advanced skills. You seem to learn so much slower when you’re teaching your horse the movements you’re still learning yourself!

    • therubbercurrycomb Jul 7, 2014 / 5:48 pm

      yes like you say, it`s a fine balance. I never think there`s a problem with going “down a step” to the quieter horse, or more experienced, so that you can take the time to focus on yourself for a change.
      The first non-riding school pony I rode galloped off with me and after a couple of laps fell off in the corner. Knocked myself out and sleep walked for a week! The next time I was a much quieter rider 😉

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