In my life BH (Before Horses), I attended driving schools, getting out on tracks in some neat race cars. Fun stuff! Before hitting the track, all discussion was about safety, with practice on what to do in an emergency. You had to wear the right equipment. You were taught driving techniques — at low speeds in safe areas — that might help you when you started going faster. Better to learn how to control a spin at 30 mph in a big open area than at 100-plus on a track.
I was fascinated by how different this experience was compared to my introduction to horses. Early riding lessons were mostly about how to sit, keeping your heels down, using the reins, etc. You had to wear a helmet, but it was really more about liability protection rather than safety. Most riders put the helmets away after leaving the lesson arena and hitting the trail.
Like most riders, I wasn't taught defensive riding skills — as if what to do should be obvious when the need arises. Guess what? It isn't. The more I rode, the more I realized most people, myself included, had no idea what to do when the wheels come off.
As I advanced, it became harder to understand why people would pay a lot of attention to safety — in terms of equipment and training — with most risky recreational activities, but seemed willing to ignore these things when doing something just as dangerous, riding a horse. People participate in activities where everything that happens depends only on what you do, where you can control things by simply stopping, going slower, turning off the motor or hitting the brakes — and yet, they still take steps to wear protective gear and learn the basics before attempting these activities. It's like treating a machine or piece of equipment as a living thing that might turn on you, so you need to be prepared to protect yourself.
Then you get on a horse — a highly unpredictable flight animal that can accelerate faster than a motorcycle, with extraordinary strength and survival instincts — and you treat it like there is no risk because the horse "likes you, will take care of you, is bombproof, or is highly trained to behave." So, here you are on a living, breathing, thinking animal that you feel is so predictable and controllable that you don't need to spend time on safety issues. Yet, when you strap on your skis to head down a steep slope, you have your helmet, goggles, boots, breakaway bindings and some training, just in case your skis decide to turn on you. Interesting.
I try to give safety for horse and rider equal time in my teaching, and I think this message is starting to get through to a wider audience. It seems like every horse-related magazine I pick up these days has some article about safety. Even the catalogs are featuring more products aimed at protecting the rider. In the last few months I've read articles extolling the virtues of helmets, protective vests, "bomb-proofing" and trail training. Falling off hurts; it can cost a lot of money and can change your life forever.
I try to set lofty goals for my students regarding safety training, hoping they will see that it's all part of the horse/human partnership and pays dividends even if they never face a serious emergency.
So, before leaving the relative security of the arena, I think you should be able to check off these items if you want to be safe on the trail:
- Can you walk, trot and canter on a completely loose and dropped rein?
- Can you stop from these three gaits without using your reins?
- Can you separate the front from the back — meaning, can you move just the shoulders or the hindquarters and not the whole horse?
- Can you back without your reins?
- Can you use only one rein to direct your horse?
- Have you practiced techniques for slowing or stopping your horse, and do you know which one works best in different circumstances and for the tendencies of your horse — a good "whoa"; a one-rein stop; a cavalry stop; a disengagement circle; a squeeze game; a one-rein pressure/release technique to safely slow the horse?
- Have you practiced these techniques enough under pressure to gain the muscle memory and instinctive reactions to choose the right technique in an emergency?
- Can you keep your horse faced up to a really scary object while remaining calm?
- Have you put enough pressure on your horse to know his tendencies — does he bolt, rear, spin, plant, shy — in scary situations?
- Do you wear the right equipment for the riding situation and your skill level?
After solid foundation work to build softness, partnership and trust, we spend as much time on these defensive riding techniques and emergency skills as we do on good riding technique and refinement. First, we work on things at slow speeds to build muscle memory and good technique. I'll call out a specific technique for the rider to use from a neutral riding position, to get used to making quick but calm decisions. Then we add speed to help the rider gain confidence. Finally, with a variety of sensory work, we learn more about how the horse reacts, and develop techniques that will work best for that particular horse.
Next, real-world pressure with the big red ball and the car wash. I'll also get up on the fence and shake bags or flap a tarp as a rider goes by. I'll hide behind a tree or in the wash by my arena, and pop out. I'll have a rider go by me and then I'll start up a leaf blower or create some major noise or energy behind the horse. We do this as safely as possible, starting with advanced warning for any surprise that might be coming. The goal is for the rider to go from a calm ride to a scary event, and to quickly and calmly get things back under control using the best technique for the specific situation. This may mean NOT grabbing the reins and trying to stop the horse, our natural fear-driven instinct. Unfortunately, this is all most riders are ever taught, and it can be a really bad choice.
In most cases, the more people practice these techniques, the better their riding becomes. Without working on it specifically, they suddenly have a better seat, a more relaxed body and quieter hands. Their horses become calmer, softer and more responsive. There is a simple explanation for this: The horse is looking for calm and confident leadership, and it is through controlled scary situations and sensory training that you prove to yourself and your horse that you can fulfill that role. Both of you do your jobs better after that.
These days you have to consider your aging body, cost of healthcare, cost of horse ownership and the sometimes strange people and things that might be out where we ride. If you are just starting out or maybe starting over, regardless of age, and you're working with a trainer, demand that the trainer give equal weight to teaching you defensive riding skills. If your trainer won't, doesn't know how to do it safely or thinks it isn't necessary, get a new trainer. Even if it is your child getting riding lessons, these skills can lead to a lifetime of safer riding.
If you're an experienced rider who hasn't had some "thrilling moments" on the trail in a long time, figure out a way to refresh your skills, using a competent friend or trainer to blow things up a bit for you and your horse. Think of yourself like a pilot who needs to get checked out on a regular basis to maintain his license.
And one more thing: If the Olympic dressage gold medalist can wear a helmet rather than a top hat, and serious eventers and rodeo riders — the best riders in the world — are now wearing helmets and vests, maybe those of us just doing this for fun should do the same. After all, aren't we sitting on the same animals they are? These small steps could add years to your riding life.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.