Trail Tips: Riding Near the Home Front, Part 2
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
I doled out twelve equal portions of rolled grain for my trail horses. They were respectful of my space as they fussed about, settling into their feed. I watched them eat for a moment, then headed back toward the house. As I passed behind a young bay gelding – new into the herd but the friendliest horse in the bunch – I gave him an affectionate pat on the rear. That was the last thing I remembered… until later, when I was alive again and remembered the sensation of flying through the air as if thrown from the blast of a shotgun. I remembered laying on the ground with absolutely no body movement, conscious of not breathing as I slipped into darkness. Later, I recalled there was a slight jolt, a jerk, a small gasp, just before I died.
Not many people have the privilege of being born twice. It was truly a beautiful experience, not an awakening but a sudden wonderment at the gift of a small world containing brilliant blue, green wisps, and a dark pyramid peak. Not knowing what the sky, grass, and the garage roof was, I didn’t even know if I had a body as my face lay on the ground, one eye able to see above. It was a simple and precious birth.
It was the garage peak that encouraged my mind back to memory and in time I was aware that I did have a body. As I tried to move, pain flooded through me and I knew I had been kicked.
I was home alone. After a while I tried to crawl, but managed only to slowly drag myself a meter or two. I heard something, a vehicle, a door slamming. A neighbour was delivering a round bale of hay.
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” he said.
“No,” I said, “I’m not dead yet. Just help me to my bed.” And he did.
A half hour later he was back.
“I’m taking you to the hospital.” His wife had insisted.
The doctor took x-rays and did other tests, but he couldn’t find anything other than two huge horseshoe shaped welts perfectly placed under each breast. For two years I suffered intermittent attacks like angina which may have been caused from inflammation around the heart.
Sixty-four percent of horse related injuries occur when riding, the other 36 percent occur while working around and with horses on the ground. According to a Cambridge University study, just over 100,000 people walked through hospital doors in the USA in one year with horse related injuries. Just over one third of those injuries were to the head and there were 11,500 traumatic brain injuries. In terms of injuries per hour of riding, you are 20 times more likely to get injured riding a horse than riding a motorbike.
Now for the good news! The majority of injuries are related to riding for sport, not trail riding. There is estimated to be one injury for each 2.5 hours of sport riding, including racing and cross country, and only one injury for every 100 hours of trail or pleasure riding. I do not know of any statistics comparing remote trail riding to riding at or around home, but of the five deaths that I am familiar with over the past several years, four were around home and one on a trail ride, which happened while riding at night.
Let’s look at some practices that will help our relationships with our horses at home.
First we must aim for a certain level of comfort when riding or working with a horse. This involves a sense of understanding that life is good, and horse and human want to get along with each other.
Groundwork will help build a comfortable relationship based on trust and respect. Your horse should move or stop without complaint when you ask. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
It’s similar to the comfort level that two people have when they live together.
Two good words to describe this are respect and trust. With horses, trust is built through handling, feeding, touching, as well as consistency and confidence in your mannerisms. Respect comes from your position as leader or as the alpha being in the relationship. The horse is most comfortable when you are the leader, and you are most confident when your cues are followed without question.
A process of handling and groundwork will get you to the point where you are truly pleased and comfortable with your calm trail companion. However, just as with people, some horses may never look at you with the same kind eye with which you perceive them. Still, if the horse enjoys human company, you may be pleasantly surprised by how fast you can earn his trust — simply a matter of a few hours or a few days.
Horses need to be completely desensitized. It’s impossible to know exactly where you will be at each moment, where each horse will be, and what external factors may be present such as noises, other horses, crowded spaces, or a rope unexpectedly touching your horse in a sensitive area.
It’s important to desensitize your horse to traffic and bicycles if you will be riding around the farm, on roads, or on multi-use trails.
If every horse at home was completely desensitized to touch, noises, and objects like vehicles and tarps, just imagine how many fewer injuries there would be. It seems to me that most injuries occur because a horse reacts negatively to some external stimuli: such as from a vehicle, dog, or bicycle suddenly appearing, to a stick or brush touching the horse while riding, to a noise in the saddle bag.
You will get to know your horse by taking it through the desensitizing process. Some horses couldn’t care less when they are touched anywhere, others fuss only when touched in certain areas, while others passionately resent any unwanted touch. Your horse must be completely desensitized to ropes and material over his entire body. Make this a goal to be accomplished immediately. You can decide from the desensitizing activity whether or not your horse is a worthy roommate. Even good horses can be expected to fuss when touched in sensitive areas, but not after they have been desensitized.
Our horses accept rope between their legs, under their tails, and all over their bodies including groin, ear, and face areas.
Desensitizing is a subject for an article all on its own, but be sure to take small, gentle steps. Use treats as a reward if you wish, and use small, gentle pieces of material and rope to start the rubbing process rather than a big noisy tarp. Keep it friendly. When running rope between a horse’s legs, be sure it is long enough so that you cannot be kicked; do not thread it through but lay it on the ground and have the horse step one back leg over it.
Your horse should be desensitized to ropes and touching all over his body, including sensitive areas such as between the hind legs and the ears. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
We drive vehicles and other machinery close to our horses all of the time so that the sudden appearance of equipment is not an issue. Desensitizing should be a life-long event, so remind your horse of this, just for the fun of it, whenever you wish.
Owning the Feet
A horse that does not move forward easily and willingly can create all sorts of difficulty when you lead him and work around him at home. When you kiss or cluck to move your horse forward, he must step forward immediately with no second requests.
If you own the horse’s feet, you own his mind. Do lots of practice starting and stopping. If the horse does not respond with an immediate step forward at the verbal or physical cue, then an immediate reminder with a tap on the rear is necessary. This should be established on a lungeline or in the round pen before in the saddle. When you have ownership of your horse’s feet, you will find him a pleasure to work with.
Learn the aspects of proper training to ask a horse to move laterally, to back, and to lift his feet. For the little time it takes, you will have an equine friend that is soft and moveable.
Horses can be frustrating by their very nature. You can spend hours and days with them with nothing but good intentions, do one thing wrong, and then the horse reacts negatively and seems to hold it against you.
Condition your horse to know your voice is a good thing by speaking to him in a soft voice before giving a treat or at feedingtime. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Hazing horses, pushing them or scaring them away, or chasing them with a rope trying to lasso them, are things to avoid if you want trust in your horse. Overreaction by the horse is a sincere reflection of the nature of the horse as a prey animal, whose sense of fear is basic to survival. However, the amount of fear, the level of reaction, and the length of time the memory manifests itself are unique to each individual and will give you a sense of your horse’s worth as a trail companion.
I have true sympathy for horses that live with someone who is heavy handed. Time and again I see people subject their horses to the same sensitivity that they would use to pull the cord on a lawnmower. It is difficult to know what to do with people like these, except try to explain that horses are living creatures with sensitive mouths and perceptive minds. If you want a trusting, comfortable relationship with a horse at home, and expect him to respond when you ask him to turn, and move when in a tight and frightening situation, then nearly all of your cues should be pulses rather than pulls. Pulses allow you to get softer and softer as the horse understands and is comfortable with the requests, whereas constant pull pressure sets up a battle.
Even when you need to be aggressive, bumps give you the option of getting softer as the horse begins to understand and respond.
Habituate your horse to your voice as a soothing, comforting thing that indicates good things to come. This may involve talking just before you give treats, at feeding time, or when you are about to give a gentle rub. When you see yourself in a tight spot, use this soft voice as calming ammunition. And remember my story: when you approach horses from behind, use your voice as a warning well in advance.
Why did he kick me? He was a friendly horse that never kicked again, but because he was new in the herd and fighting for his status, he simply thought that my friendly pat was a bite or kick and reacted instantly.
If we take another look at the statistics, it is obvious that the relatively high number of serious injuries and deaths are attributed to head injuries. There is no arguing the importance of wearing a riding helmet, particularly when riding along roadsides or down trails where one may expect to encounter an ATV or bicycle.
If your horse does not respond softly to cues for stop, start, turn left, and turn right, he has no business being on the road. When riding along our road, if we hear or see a vehicle approaching in the distance, we move off the road, turn and face the vehicle, allow the horse to watch it pass, and then continue. When we hear an ATV approaching on a trail, we stop and hold up a hand to the ATV rider to signal him to stop. Normally these riders are very good about stopping while we pass, or at least slowing down and providing space. If we have time and space, we will simply ride off the trail before the ATV arrives.
Horses that do not ride well “between the reins” (in a straight line) are a hazard along a roadside. You can improve this at home by laying a long rope on the ground and riding along it, or riding straight toward objects like plastic pails while keeping even pressure on each rein and along the neck.
I hope these articles (see "Trail Tips: Riding Near the Home Front, Part 1") will help make your life with horses safer and more enjoyable. Happy Trails!
Main article photo: Troxel - A riding helmet is an important piece of safety equipment. Over one third of all horse-related injuries are to the head.