“This Can’t Be Happening to ME!”
It had been a while since Leslie had ridden her mare, maybe a month. Between managing her boarding barn and her “real” job in town, it was hard to find enough time to ride both her horses. Since the eight year old mare was more challenging than the old reliable gelding, when she had time to ride, Leslie naturally migrated to the gelding, leaving her mare under worked and over paid.
But today, alone at the barn with a little extra time, Leslie’s guilty conscious pushed her to get the mare out for some long overdue exercise. Preferring to cut to the chase, generally Leslie would just get on and ride, but since it had been awhile since the mare had been ridden, she decided to longe her first. The mare was lazy but more or less did what Leslie asked, although with attitude.
It occurred to Leslie that by letting her mare work half-heartedly, she may be setting herself up for an obedience problem later on in their ride, but instead of taking the time to work through the issue with ground work, she went ahead and mounted and proceeded to the rail.
Leslie immediately sensed that the mare was reluctant to move forward and did not want to obey the simplest commands. Leslie knew it was important to rule out a physical cause for her mare’s reluctance before considering a training issue, so she got off and longed her again, this time watching keenly for possible injury or lameness. But the mare seemed fine the second time around and this time she obeyed with improved (but not perfect) responsesiveness.
Leslie mounted a second time and asked for a walk. Within moments, the mare’s ears went back, she planted her feet, rocked back and reared. Although Leslie had seen all the warning signs leading up to this refusal, she deluded herself into believing everything was fine and nothing would happen—“She’s never acted this way before!” It seemed to all happen in slow motion, but Leslie was too stunned to take the necessary action to get her mare moving. Instead of taking charge of the horse, she froze.
The mare reared high and Leslie came off. She hit the ground off the right side of the horse, landing underneath the mare. A front hoof came down on Leslie’s leg, breaking the ankle in two places. Leslie was alone in the arena, unable to stand up, no cell phone and about an acre from the house.
Somehow Leslie managed to drag herself through the mud, up the hill to the house, where she could call for help. She has had two operations on her leg, which is healing nicely and she is back to riding her other horses. Understandably, she now has a fear of riding this mare.
After the accident, Leslie had a through vet exam done on the mare, getting a clean bill of health. She had a trainer ride the mare a few times and she was very well behaved, indicating this is more of an issue of respect and authority between Leslie and her mare. Leslie has decided to send the mare off for more training while she rides her old reliable gelding to regain her confidence, before tackling the mare again.
There are several obvious mistakes in this story. Riding alone is never a good idea, especially on an unreliable horse, and having some means of emergency communication even when not alone is important, and most everyone has a cell phone these days. Make sure it is carried on your person, not on the horse.
It’s quite common that a rider will freeze up when she has trouble with a horse like this; even though she recognizes the warning signs, she does not take positive action to take control of the horse, either from fear or lack of knowledge. Becoming a thinking and proactive rider is important for everyone’s safety. Horses almost always give warning signs before becoming blatantly disobedient. Each little infraction is a test of the rider’s will and authority and if the rider does not take charge of the horse, it may reach a boiling point where the horse becomes defiant.
Rearing is an interesting behavior in horses and one of the most dangerous when being ridden, because of the chance of the horse falling on the rider, as happened here. Rearing while being ridden has two causes of opposite nature: it can be a refusal to move forward or from inhibiting the forward motion of a horse that really wants to go. In this case, it was the former but regardless of the cause, the solution is the same: move the horse forward.
What makes rearing so dangerous is the unpredictable response of the rider. If a horse rears while being ridden, the rider should immediately reach forward toward the horse’s ears and hug the horse around the neck to throw her weight forward while trying to move the horse forward. If the rider is unprepared or unskilled and her weight goes back when the horse rears or she pulls on the reins (as most riders instinctively do, trying to stop the horse), the horse may easily lose balance and fall over on the rider.
Obedient, well-trained horses should not have to be longed before being ridden, even if they have not been ridden in a while. This was not a case of a horse with too much energy; in fact, she was being balky and lazy. This was a case of a defiant and disobedience horse that had no respect for the authority of the rider. Going to a trainer’s for boot camp might help, but at some point, Leslie will have to tackle this challenge with her mare. Doing ground work with this horse, to put her in an obedient and subordinate frame of mind before riding, would’ve been a good idea.
Finally, another really important lesson here is to listen to that little voice in your head that says, “use caution, things could go wrong here.” So often we do things even when that voice is telling us otherwise. Countless wrecks and injuries could be avoided every year if we’d all get in the habit of listening to that voice.
It’s perfectly understandable that after a scary wreck resulting in serious injury, that Leslie would develop a fear of riding this horse. There is an article on the CHA website called “Coping with a Fear of Horses,” to help instructors deal with this prevalent issue. Please click here to read more.