“There is no bomb-proof; there is no scenario where a horse stops being a prey animal… the art of de-escalating begins with breath awareness.” – Anna Blake, Horse Trainer and Author
Last weekend my horse Tara and I rode with Carly and her horse Mercy. I hadn’t ridden with Carly in months since I go in the mornings and she usually shows up in the afternoons. This particular day, I came out a little later and she was a little earlier, so we saddled up together. As we started on the trail, I shared how comfortable Tara was getting with me after I had been riding her a few months now. I spoke too soon.
The deerflies were out in the woods with a vengeance, so Carly suggested we take a shortcut to get out to the open field sooner than Tara was used to. Without thinking, I made the turn side-by-side with Carly and saw off to my side a stack of piled logs, the ends of which must have looked like giant eyeballs to Tara. She freaked out.
Instead of just executing her normal dig-her-hooves-in balk, she added a 180-degree spin and a few speedy steps like she was getting out of Dodge. For the first time since I've been riding her, she unseated me. In a blur, I felt my right foot come out of the stirrup and I went sideways on my saddle.
I remember thinking, “I’m gonna fall. I’m off balance and can’t right myself.” But instead of taking advantage of her momentum to completely unseat me and high-tail it back to the barn, Tara suddenly stopped. I lurched forward and was able to right myself, thankfully still on her back.
“Wow, are you okay?” Carly asked, as she quickly brought Mercy to a halt. I nodded, got my foot in its stirrup and turned Tara back around. “Take a deep breath, you did good! And Tara did really good!”
I let out a slow breath. Good? I thought. Tara seems like she doesn’t have any confidence in me whatsoever. Doesn’t that make both her and me bad?
“Most importantly,” Carly continued, “this was a crucial bonding moment between you two! She could have left your butt in the dust if she kept going. But instead of taking advantage of your imbalance she looked after you. That means she trusted you to look after her if she stuck around.”
As my heart rate slowed, Tara’s was already back to normal and she happily chewed on some nearby bamboo. I squeezed with my knees, and, after a final nervous glance at the log pile, she moved forward compliantly behind Mercy.
The scare that I thought could break us up instead brought Tara and me closer together. After the ride, rather than Tara taking off as soon as I let her back out into the pasture, she hung around as if there was no rush to return to her friends. I gave her a few treats, but even after she emptied my pockets, she stood quietly beside me, and I scratched her cute little ears as we relaxed together. Carly was right – we had forged a new bond of trust. I now knew she wouldn’t leave me in the dirt and she knew I would get her safely past a monster.