Is your horse in a rush? Part 1

As a young rider my horse rushed his jumps. I reasoned it was a good thing – he was “keen” to jump and so was I!
He never refused. In fact, on approach to every fence, his ears would perk up, his head would lift up and his legs would speed up.

While I may have joked about my eager jumper to my barn friends, rushing was no laughing matter in the horse show ring. My horse would rush past the distances, oblivious my attempts to regulate his stride. The more I pulled, the more he sped up…and then the more I pulled. Advice was given to stop and back him up at on the approach to the fence – as soon as the rush began. Or brake and back on  other side of the fence.

Years later, I came to understand the reason for the rush. And I discovered more effective ways of preventing and dealing with the problem than braking and backing up.

What is rushing? Any type of rushing, jigging, hurrying is an expression of the flight response.  A horse’s instinct as a prey animal, is to flee from perceived danger.

A prey animal doesn’t get a 2nd chance in nature to make a judgment error – when a threat is perceived he flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there. “Wow, that was close!”  Thus, while most skills are learned by trial and error, it only takes one trial for him to learn something through fear.

No wonder when a horse catches his blanket on the stall door latch, he starts to rush through doors. Horses hurry  through canter transitions, scurry across trail bridges, and back off trailers in a flurry! Not out of eagerness, but actually to get the experience over with!

A scary experience is confirmed when any running away behaviour results in escaping the object of fear. So by increasing the amount of distance between the horse and the scary object, the horse reasons that fleeing the scene works!  He escaped the clutch of the stall door latch, left the trailer ramp behind and scooted across that bridge before it grabbed his legs.

What’s the solution for a rushing horse?

  1. Avoid creating fear in training. Had my first horse been started over fences by an experienced rider with a good eye for a take-off distance, and an elastic hand that would never catch his mouth, even if he popped the jump, he’d likely have never learned to rush.  As a green rider, to make matters worse, my automatic response was to hang on, yank, or back up.  Correcting a fear response with more fear or punishment is adding kindling wood to a fire.
      “Fearful stimuli receive special recognition by the brain in terms of remembering – unlike other information, once learned, fearful responses are not forgotten. You can layer new responses on top, so they become less easily retrieved, but forever after, fearful responses need careful training to keep the lid on them.” Dr Andrew Mclean

  2. “Slow the legs, slow the thinking” is one of my favourite lines in coaching.  Fright in flight is self-generating -the faster a horse’s legs, go, the more nervous he becomes. That’s why, when afraid, a horse can run right into a fence!  Every time you let him rush, you’re teaching him to rush.  If practice makes perfect, we must make sure not to practice undesired behaviours. Every dash through a show in- gate, or hastily executed trail gate,  your horse will associate with fear.  

Next post, 4 more tips to slow your horse, minimize his tension and maximize his trainability. And tips for humans -to slow the pace of life for those of us who suffer from “hurry sickness”!