What makes a safe horse? Is it bombproofing techniques – working to desensitize them to as much as possible?
Is it the horse that is quiet and still, seemingly unflappable in any situation?
Are we assured to stay safe as long as we are going slow, riding in an arena, or with a good instructor?
In this article, I want to talk about accepting risk, what creates safety, and the illusions we can all be fooled by.
If we choose to climb onto the back of a horse, we are taking a risk. There is real physical danger being off the ground by 5 feet or more, and balancing on the back of a moving animal with a mind and emotions of its own.
By deciding we want to ride we need to acknowledge that risk.
Of course some activities will increase risk. Logically, steeplechasing is more dangerous than walking around an arena.
But there is one factor that is the most important in safety, and not only does it matter for our safety, but I believe it is the biggest factor in what makes a horse safe as well.
When we first think of safety in riding, we think of the horse. What type of horse is the most quiet and safe? What kind of training will make them more predictable, less reactive, more trustworthy, etc?
The factors that influence personality are complex – a mix of genetics, life experience, and environment. This is as true for horses as for humans.
Some horses will naturally be more sensitive, more athletic, quicker in their movements, and tend to bigger swings in emotion.
A horse’s tendencies are only one factor, however, as reading their current state is more important. We often look at a horse that is being still, perhaps appearing sleepy and oblivious to the world around him as being quiet and calm. The term “bombproof” is used to describe these horses, alluding that a bomb could go off and the horse would not react.
But a still horse is not always a calm horse. When stress gets too high, and escape is not an option, the horse can retreat inward, checking out from the external environment. If the horse is in this kind of situation repeatedly, this inward retreat becomes habit, and the horse may go there with even minimal stress.
Dozing off is normal and occasionally going into this inward state is also normal, but understanding how checking out can be a reaction to stress helps us recognize that what we see on the outside of the horse is not always what is going on in their inner world.
A safe horse is one who is aware of the world around him and actively engaging in it. A safe horse is one who does not check out from frightening external stimulus, but notices it, and either becomes curious or clearly displays his trepidation. From this point, he can make a choice to investigate, move past, or decide that whatever he noticed was not a threat.
It is the awareness and the processing that we want from the horse. This is part of what makes a horse safe because we can more easily recognize their emotional state and when they are actively engaged in the world around them, sudden startles or big “out of the blue” reactions are much less likely to occur.
A horse who is present will be engaged. Even if sleeping, when prompted they can look at what is around them, fully taking in their surroundings and remaining calm.
To learn more about recognizing the difference between being still and stressed or being calm and connected, read this excellent article from Natural Lifemanship.
Exercises designed to desensitize a horse can encourage this awareness, teaching the horse to be curious about the world around him, showing the horse that he can have control of the world around him, and that his emotional state is recognized and responded to by the person with him.
On the other hand, if desensitizing is done in a way that is overwhelming to the horse, where their only strategy is to tune it all out, then the opposite of awareness and curiosity is taught.
The success of desensitizing varies depending on whether the process teaches the horse to check out from the world around them or whether it teaches them to be aware of their world, curious, interactive, and thinking.
We, as the human, the rider, the handler, also have a responsibility to stay aware. We also need to be considering all the aspects of our environment to know the risk we are choosing.
First, we need to be aware of ourselves. Are we feeling anxious, distracted, calm, tired? We need to notice when our internal state changes and pause to ask why. What did our senses pick up or where did our thoughts go to cause that change?
Giving control of ourselves over to a coach, instructor, or trainer is not responsible. No other individual can know how we feel and how much risk we are willing to take.
Improving skills means pushing against or outside the edges of one’s comfort zone, but some people are willing to take a big jump outside their comfort zone and accept the extra risk in doing so. Others are not, and prefer to just brush up against the edges. The risk you are willing to assume, and how much you want to push yourself is your individual decision.
Next, we need to be aware of our horse, to really see what their state is, to notice when it changes.
This awareness of both ourselves and another creates connection. In connection, there is presence and attunement. The horse is aware of their environment, and of the person, and the person is aware of both as well.
So what does create safety? Safety comes from full awareness, beginning with acknowledging risk and being conscious in how much risk one is willing to assume. Awareness extends to being connected to how one feels and connected to the world and the others surrounding. This is as true for our horses as it is for us as humans.