Riding a Runaway

Here are some tips for surviving a scary ride and some exercises to work on later so it dosen't happen again.
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Here are some tips for surviving a scary ride and some exercises to work on later so it dosen't happen again.
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Few riding experiences are as frightening as having your horse take off with you. Losing control of a horse is scary at any time, but when he's fleeing - maybe just a little spooked but possibly terrified - and oblivious to your cues, your fear may well match his. In such a situation, someone needs to keep a cool head, and it's got to be you.

Of course, that's easier said than done when you're sitting on a thousand-pound rocket flying at top speed and headed for heaven knows what: a road, a crowded parking lot, a sheer drop, a field full of holes. Even if you're galloping down a smooth track that leads home, it's hard to stay calm when you can feel your horse's panic with every stride. Or maybe he's not afraid, but merely looking for relief from stress, frustration or confusion.

Either way, you're not in control. And when you're not in control, things can go wrong in a hurry. It's a terrible feeling, and some riders remain fearful long after they've gone through it.

The good news is, if you know how to ride out a runaway situation - or better yet, how to prevent it - you can rebuild your confidence. That will increase your horse's confidence, too.

What should you do to bring a runaway horse under control and get you both through the experience with the least amount of harm? What can you work on once you're safely back home to help prevent anything like this from happening again? Here are some pointers for achieving both goals.

Regaining Control

  • Sit deep and breathe.
  • Keep your eyes open and your brain turned on.
  • Use one rein for control.
  • Resist the impulse to pull back on both reins.
  • Try to put your horse into a big circle.

Riding it Out
Let's talk first about what you should and shouldn't do if your horse takes off with you. As a general rule, the most important thing is to keep riding. Remind yourself, "I can ride as fast as he can run."

The key word here is "ride." Don't shut down and let fear get the better of you. Take a little inventory of how you're riding and concentrate on these basics:

  • Sit deep in the saddle, lean back slightly, and remember to keep breathing. You don't want to curl forward or grip tightly with your calves because those are speed-up cues. Holding your breath will make you tense, and that will frighten your horse even more.
  • If you're wearing spurs, make sure you keep them off your horse.
  • Keep your eyes open. You'd be amazed at how many of us close our eyes when the going gets scary. It's almost as though we're avoiding a frightening movie scene. With your eyes open, you can ride deliberately and try to guide your horse away from danger. You'll also be processing visual information, which keeps your brain busy. Thinking is a good way to keep panic at bay.
  • Check your breathing again. Talk or sing to keep from holding your breath. (But don't holler or scream.)
  • Follow the rhythm of the horse.Along with getting yourself organized - and, if you're lucky, a bit calmer - you can also follow various strategies for getting your horse under control. Much of your success will depend on how well the horse understands certain cues. (More on that in a minute.)

But let's assume this horse has had little training. Maybe he belongs to a friend and it's your first time on him. You haven't had a chance to find out what he knows, other than he's pretty good at tearing lickety-split down the trail without checking with you first.

In this situation, you want to give him a simple request that he has a good chance of understanding. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than blasting along in a straight line.

Ask him for a little bend and get him moving in a big circle. Attempting a big circle at first will still allow him to feel like he's getting away from whatever scared him. You don't want to crank him around and have him think you're trying to make him go back. In fact, it's unlikely that he'd let you. Not only that, but if you try to pull him into a tight turn at speed, you could throw him off balance and actually make him fall.

To cue the horse to start the circle, use a leading or open rein to guide his nose in the direction you want to travel. Concentrate on getting a little bend and look where you want to go. Don't forget to breathe. Use a little pulsing give and take on the rein to prevent him from bracing against it, and release the pressure as soon as he begins to turn.

If all you can do is maintain a little bend and a big circle, just stay with it. He probably won't slow down for a while, but he will eventually start to relax or get tired. The fact that you've given him a job to do - circle - will also help him begin to focus on something besides his panic.

If you can, try to spiral him in and make the circle a little smaller because that way he'll probably slow down sooner. Just remember to do it gradually.

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Know the Bolting Signs

A horse that's a habitual "bolter" may not give you much warning, although you may feel him grab the bit in the instant before he takes off. But a horse who is anxious or frightened may take a minute to work himself up to fleeing. If you see (or feel) these signs, you know what's coming - and you have a chance to head off a full-blown runaway situation.

  • Your horse's body will tighten, as he tenses up his muscles for blastoff.
  • He may start to jig or dance sideways.
  • A sudden pressure will come down the reins from the bit as he takes hold of it just before he starts running.

Slowing the Engine
If you're riding a horse with more training under his belt, you have more options. Instead of trying to steer his nose (which really does nothing to slow down his engine), you can move his hips over or move his shoulder over. In both cases, he will be traveling at an angle, which will cause him to slow down.

To move his hips over, take one rein and pull it firmly back to your own hip. Be steady and deliberate (no jerking), and hold the pressure until you feel him step to the side with his hindquarters. If you pull on the left rein, for instance, you want him to step his hindquarters to the right. This should be a radical movement - a really big step sideways.

We sometimes refer to this movement as "disengaging the hip" or "connecting the rein to the hip." With his hips moving to the side, a horse can't push forward with as much impulsion - so he will slow down. As soon as you feel that movement, release the rein pressure. This is his reward for doing what you wanted, even though it's almost certainly not what he wanted to do.

He should drop back to at least a trot, but he may speed up again. If that happens, give him a couple of strides and then repeat the process using the other rein. When you feel him move his hips over, release the rein pressure.

If he speeds up again, let him have a few strides, pick up the first rein, and move the hips over from that side. You can keep up this alternating series of hips-over requests, switching from one side to the other, as long as necessary until he finally slows down for good. Then, once he's under control and walking quietly, go on and give him a loose rein.

When you use this technique, remember that moving the hips is essential. If all you're doing is pulling his nose around, he may not slow down. It's hard to believe (until it happens to you), but your horse may be able to keep running forward even with his nose cranked around to your stirrup. The success of the maneuver depends on connecting the nose to the hips.

Moving his shoulder over can be equally effective, but your horse must be well-practiced in responding to your cue. Controlling his front end by moving a shoulder requires a give to the bit, a change in head elevation, a relaxed neck, and a step to the side with his front leg. While this is not a hard sequence to teach under relaxed circumstances, he may not respond in an emotionally charged situation unless he's very familiar with your request.

One Rein, Not Two

Novice riders - and even some experienced riders who know better - are likely to react to a quick or bolting horse by hauling back on both reins. This is ineffective and can actually make things worse.

For starters, you're just giving your horse something to brace against. His engine (hindquarters) is still driving him forward. He'll stiffen up and you'll lose the opportunity to communicate with him altogether. (If your horse happens to be off the racetrack, you'll encounter another reaction: acceleration. Race horses are taught to speed up when they feel their rider pull back on the reins.)

Another unwanted result of pulling back on both reins is that it's likely to increase the horse's anxiety. Your death grip on the reins conveys your fear, which amplifies his. Holding his head tightly can also make him feel trapped and constrained, leading to even more panic.

To get some sense of what this is like for him, imagine that you're swimming underwater and you start to run out of air. You swim as hard as you can to get to the surface, with growing anxiety. Then someone grabs your legs and tries to hold you back. You were worried before, but odds are, you're now going to go ballistic trying to escape this life-or-death situation.

Instead, use only one rein. This will help lead your horse's nose, turn his front feet, and move his hindquarters. When he moves his hindquarters, the change in direction will slow him down. He is even more likely to respond to one rein if you have already worked on such Lyons' cues as head down and hips over.

Remaining In Control
So you made it back from the runaway experience in one piece, still a little shaky as you watch your horse settle down to graze in your pasture. Now's the time to assess what went wrong and what you can do to prevent things from going so badly in the future.

Your basic plan should include, at a minimum, a lot of practice with these exercises in a safe environment:

  • Spook in place
  • Shoulder over
  • Hips over
  • Calm-down cue
  • Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder
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We've covered these exercises in detail in previous issues of Perfect Horse (see the list, below left), but here's a brief look at what each move entails and where it can come in handy in averting or controlling a run-off situation.

Spook in Place
What's involved:
You can't desensitize your horse to every scary thing he's going to encounter. But you can teach him how to control himself when something frightens him. By gently spooking him (but not enough so that he moves his feet), you can teach him to stay put instead of tearing off in a blind panic when he's startled or frightened.

Along with spook in place, you'll want to work on sacking him out, so that he becomes accustomed to certain common "threats," such as flapping paper and objects around his feet.

How it can help: By teaching your horse to stand still for even a moment before he takes off, you'll be able to get yourself better positioned to stay on and then ask for specific movements (such as hips over) that will deflect his impulse to flee.

Shoulder Over
What's involved:
You can control your horse's front end by teaching him to move his shoulder and step over with his front leg. He'll need to learn this exercise in stages: first a give to the bit, then a drop in head elevation, and then a relaxation of the long muscle in his neck - followed by the step to the side.

How it can help: Asking your horse to perform this maneuver when you sense he's about to take off with you is a good way to occupy him with a specific task. Having a runaway horse move his shoulder over results in a change of direction and causes him to travel at an angle - which will slow him down.

Hips Over
What's involved:
The hips-over exercise offers an excellent way to achieve control over your horse's hindquarters. To teach him, pull back on one rein and hold pressure until he disengages his hips by stepping sideways with his hind feet. As with all of your requests, be sure to immediately release rein pressure so that he understands he did the right thing. That release is a powerful reward.

How it can help: Like the shoulder-over maneuver, the hips-over technique allows you to give your horse a job to do if he's getting worked up about something. It also can enable you to reposition him so that he's turned to face whatever has frightened him.

If you do find yourself on a runaway horse, getting him to move his hips over will take some of the forward drive out of his engine and he'll slow down. Make sure you've taught him to move his hips using either rein because to bring him under control may require a series of hip disengagements using one rein and then the other.

Calm-Down Cue
What's involved:
The calm-down (head-down) cue is useful in many situations. It's simply a request for your horse to lower his head, which has the effect of making him calmer (in contrast to the high, ready-to-flee head position).

Teaching this cue is a matter of holding pressure on one rein and concentrating on the tip of your horse's ear. The instant you see it drop - even a fraction of an inch - release rein pressure. After you've repeated the process for a while, the drop will become greater and the response will come quicker.

How it can help: You can use the calm-down cue to keep an excited horse from getting out of control - or, in some cases, to keep him from getting excited in the first place. A lowered head is not conducive to a flight response, so it's a great technique for preempting a runaway situation. It's sort of makes him think, "Well, my head's nice and low, so I must not be planning to leave anytime soon."

Should You Bail?

When a horse runs off, some riders decide their best bet is to bail. Maybe they make a conscious choice, or maybe they act out of sheer panic. But in most cases, jumping off a runaway horse is a bad idea.

Landing clear of the horse with minimum impact is difficult. You're almost guaranteeing yourself some nasty bruises at best - and you could get kicked, stepped on, or bounced off a wall at worst.

On the other hand, if you stay on the horse's back, even if you never get control of him, you're likely to be intact when he finally runs out of gas, reaches the barn or trailhead, or decides he's put enough distance between himself and whatever set him off.

Of course, in some situations jumping off is the smart thing to do, but these are extreme cases. For example, if you truly can't turn or slow the horse and he's approaching a busy highway or a dangerous drop-off, bailing is probably the best option. Similarly, if your tack has failed - for instance, your cinch has broken loose and the saddle is headed south - your best bet may be to jump off.

Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder
What's involved:
The hip, shoulder, shoulder exercise is an effective combination of moving your horse's hips to the side and then having him step backward. It's one of your best tools for gaining control of your horse, even when things are pretty dicey. The basic process involves a hip disengagement followed by stepping back with his right foot and then his left.

How it can help: Hip, shoulder, shoulder provides a good way to capture your horse's attention when he's showing signs of agitation or simply wants to go faster than you want. You can stop after the hips-over part if that seems to do the trick. But performing the whole exercise (especially if you've practiced it enough so that he's comforted by understanding the routine) will help you keep his focus and remind him to downshift if he gets too quick on the way back to the barn.

Your horse is wired to run first and ask questions later. But you can take steps to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable ride despite that flight instinct.

The process is really twofold: Learn what techniques you can use to bring things under control if he does take off with you and practice the maneuvers that will help you maintain or regain control so that he has a better chance of responding to your cues, even when the pressure's on.