This weekend I judged some speed – barrels and poles on one day and jumpers the next. It was evident some riders had put in hours developing a plan, practicing the lines and turns of their discipline to shave precious seconds. Terrific to watch.
But others had not.
With speed comes excitement and a surge of adrenaline – in both horse and human. Signals from rider to horse get muddled when either is distracted or anxious. It’s common for a rider to get so caught up in the moment or focused on winning that they’re not mindful of the cues they’re relaying to their horse. For a prey animal, adrenaline triggers a flight response. And flight is self-generating -the faster a horse’s legs, go, the more stressed he becomes. When a horse is tense, he can’t think, learn, or even feel. That’s why, when afraid, a horse could run right into a fence!
Flight response or eagerness?
Oh c’mon, you might say, my horse is just keen. “Chomping at the bit” so to speak.
Flight response in a horse ranges from mild to maximum expressions.
“The flight response – it can be fully on or partly on. The flight response shows up in various behavioral ways too. For example, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying, tension, running, hurrying, jogging, rushing,” Dr. Andrew Mclean.
And that’s when things go wrong in the show ring…
Baulking at the gate, or bolting through it. Running through the rider’s hands or running off line. Resisting the rider’s hands by bracing, gapping the mouth or approaching the next obstacle with a high head.
Associating tension with the show ring.
Adding to the stress is the vulnerability of the individual performance characteristic of speed classes. A herd animal, alone, is at risk. His buddies are back at the in gate. Add to the unprotected feeling the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the ring and the horse takes a mental note – the show ring is a scary place.
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.
Thus, while most skills are learned by trial and error, it only takes one or two trials for him to learn something through fear. So if your horse is confused on course AND his legs are going fast, he’ll associate the ring with an unsettling place to be. Ring-wise becomes ring sour.