We all know that riding horses comes with a level of risk. For this reason, historically and still today, riding horses comes with a high need to control the circumstances to achieve the lowest risk possible. This often comes at the detriment of horses welfare, using harsh bits and gadgets, tying them up and restraining them, and basically ‘breaking’ them as people have so fondly adopted as the term for teaching a horse how to be ridden.
As a survival mechanism, our nervous system wants to avoid risk. When we are oblivious to the risk, we feel somewhat invincible, as is common with young riders in the beginning. However, as time goes on and incidents occur, we may be exposed to residual trauma that instinctually tells us that we are under threat. Whether this has come from horse-related activities or previous experiences, the body will recall the risk and activate our fear.
Much of the time, the horse is as worried about risk as you are (unless they have tuned into a helpless state where they have become unresponsive). In order to commonly address the fear and risk assessement of both parties, working with the horse on the ground before riding will be necessary. The safest scenario is to not mount your horse until their assessment of the situation is either neutral, or in the best case regarded as positive. I would recommend activities such as breathing with the horse, body relaxation and dynamic stretching, interspersed with some gentle and low pressure steps forward backward and then progressing to forward and sideways while you align your body with theirs. These tasks aim to present yourself as non threatening and reliable in your bodily state. Breathing and moving in time will co-regulate with the horses energy. The movement and steps in various directions allow the horse to feel different parts of the body in preparation for riding, triggering proprioception and awareness which gives them a sense of empowerment.
After teaching vaulting for many years, I have seen a great benefit to this activity in training riders. Some of these techniques can be used to regulate our fears in the saddle. First and foremost, vaulters are taught to mount and dismount numerous times during a session of vaulting. This is something that is not generally taught in other equestrian disciplines (mounted games excepted) apart from the one-off get on technique and dismount technique to start the riding session or end it.
In recent years, I have seen a specialised program taught to eventers of how to roll off the horse during a forced dismount. This is similar to the way that a vaulting dismount is taught initially. Think of a karate roll – and you will understand the type of technique. Since adult riders are generally not used to moving in this way, it makes sense that adult riders carry the most fear as riders. Alleviate your fear by learning a roll technique so that your body associates the movement of being head down towards the ground with the ability to right itself. Falling generates fear (and even the thought of falling) due to the high risk of injury and on a subconscious level in our nervous system that we will sucumb to a predator. Not surprisingly, horses are extremely careful not to fall either due to these risks. The ability to right oneself depends on body awareness and proprioception. These skills must be practiced in order for the body to feel confident with an automatic response that is quick enough to avoid or lessen injury and stabilise yourself again to be upright.
Aside from teaching yourself to get on the ground and up again, roll over and get up again, you can also practice getting on and off the horse multiple times. Make sure to use a stand or a person to help you up when mounting to reduce pulling the horse off balance. When confidence is established at a standstill, practice dismounting at a walk. Repeat plenty of times (over a course of days or weeks if necessary) until you feel confident. Continue to reevaluate your confidence now and again with this activity.
Note that a good outcome of practicing dismounting while moving is that the horse will be accustomed to a dismount while not standing still and not react so unexpectedly if it happens by accident.
The next set of exercises derived from vaulting are completed on the horse. Typically as riders we taught to be still on the horse, making very small precise movements to give the aids. However, this limited activity causes us to go into complete distress when anything causes our movements to go out of that range. We develop a greater sense of balance when we are able to make large movements and bring it back to stillness. I liken this to a pendulum that swings wildly until it comes to an ultimate place of balance.
At first your horse may not be used to having riders doing large movements, so proceed with smaller versions until the horse is accustomed to this exercise. A good place to start is to roll the shoulders becoming aware of the feeling of your arms dangling, following the sensations all the way to your fingers. Other ways to move upon the horse are to swing your arms, either in circles overhead or holding them up in an airplane position and twisting at the waist. You can move forward reach for the horses ears and backward to touch the tail/rump.
Next you can move the legs (either remove the stirrups or cross them over the front of the wither). Progressively introduce your horse to these exercises, starting at a standstill with small movements and gradually increasing to doing them at a walk and having a larger range of movement. Note that this could take weeks of training depending on your horses level of resilience. At first it is helpful just to feel the extremeties of your body to bring awareness. Flexing and pointing the foot, wiggling the toes, or rolling the ankles is a good place to start. Once you feel connected to your limbs, you can swing the leg back and forth, one and time or both at a time, or one back one forward. Lift the legs up, again one at a time or both at a time or one up and one down.
Ease yourself into working without stirrups, as this produces a very good seat. I also advocate the use of elastic reins so that the rider does not learn to balance via the reins (for more security this could be done on the lunge with a helper). When you have progressed this far, then try riding a little with your eyes closed and develop a a sense of awareness of your whole body, moving your attention to different parts and feeling how it moves with the horse.
These exercises are all designed to empower the body using proprioception (the awareness of your body in space). Good balance enables confidence to respond to righting your balance when it is disturbed. The work in the first exercise enables you to rely upon your ability to respond during a situation that requires a dismount. Empowerment is the confidence gained by acheiving a successful outcome. Repeating successful outcomes develops that confidence.
My studies on the nervous system have enabled me to understand the bodily and emotional responses in greater depth. This is relevant for both horses and humans. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I offer an online course called ‘Nourishing the nervous system’. Details are on the kahucreeklearning.com website.