Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Facing fears – humans and horses working together

I was out on a trail ride the other week with Copper (It isn’t often that I go down to the horse yards without Isabelle and when I do it’s time to hit the trail!); and we met a ‘monster’ in the form of a mini dirt bike.

At first I was surprised at Copper’s reaction – I thought he’d be ok with them as he is ok with traffic, but maybe he didn’t expect to see it.  Anyway, it wasn’t going – thank goodness for that! – as it had broken down. There were four young men fussing over it on the side of the track.  When it came into view, Copper stopped and grew very, very tall.  I could feel his hunches dip and I knew instinctively that if anything got much more scary he would spin and bolt for home. So I twisted my fingers into a chunk of his mane, and called out to the blokes “Please don’t turn that bike on until we are well away from you!”.

Then I sat quietly. Copper started to walk forwards all tremble-y and snort-y. I felt him hesitate and encouraged him just a little by swinging my right seat bone forwards.  Only a little nudge with my seat, nothing more!  He gave the bike a wide berth and then walked away, still ready to run, but much happier now that it was behind him.

When we were 20-30 meters down the track he finally let out his breath and felt quite proud of himself!  It was rather cute. 

Copper is funny though, he’s at the bottom of herd hierarchy, but he doesn’t look to humans for leadership hardly at all.  Whereas Joey, although he was high up in the herd (second or third I think), would turn to me for guidance.

One time Joey’s trust in me was really pressed home.  I had turned him out in the small paddock that our dressage arena was in to get some grazing while I worked Copper.  He was jumpy – it was a windy day, Copper and I were in the pens a couple of meters away and he hadn’t been turned out in that area before, although we had ridden in it plenty of times.

To top it all off, a ute appeared out of “nowhere” and I could see that it had caught Joey by surprise and freaked him out.  He stood by the fence, high-headed and wide eyed, ready to run.  I called out to him – the usual soothing noises “Steady Joey, easy boy”, wondering if I needed to go over there and reassure him. 

Then he looked at me, and I could read his mind.  “Is it ok?”  he asked – clear as day.

I said, “It’s ok boy, steady”  and he just stood there, holding my gaze with wide eyes, the whites showing, while the ute bumped and bounced past him and down the bottom of the jump paddock to disappear out on to the dirt driveway we drive in on.

Then the spell was broken and he went back to grazing whilst I saddled Copper.  I had goosebumps on my arms.  That was the second time Joey and I had ‘clicked’, when we had been on the exact same wave length. 

(I so wish I hadn’t had to sell him! *sniff*)

He’s the only horse I ever remember doing that with.  I’ve been able to understand what my other horses have been saying to me, but he’s the only one where it’s been like we can read each other’s minds.

Did he trust me more than Copper does?  Or was he more willing to try and communicate more clearly?

I’m thinking about this, because comparing the two stories, well, it’s two very different experiences.  Copper, in that scary situation on the trail, did the job himself.  Yes, I did encourage him, but he basically took the situation in his own hooves, as it were, and did it himself.  I didn’t feel like we were a team at all, he was not looking for guidance from me. 

Joey would do the same thing sometimes, but in situations that were really crucial – ones he felt like he couldn’t manage or didn’t understand, he would refer to me.

Was it because he ultimately trusted me more, or because of his personality – being a different kind of horse, with a different background?

Copper is a willing partner, but he doesn’t give any kind of input.  He’s just there to work, in a way.  Is it asking too much to want more?

I don’t know, but I do know what can be achieved now, and maybe one day I’ll find another Joey, and hopefully it will be the right time for us this time!

See ya,



  1. Interesting questions. My Arabs have always looked to me for security. When I stop at the gas station with the trailer in tow, they nicker at me until I tell them it's okay. My OTTB doesn't have the same level of trust or dependence on me as they do. I don't know if it's a breed thing, or a time thing.

    BTW I nominated you for the Sunshine Award (if you choose to play).

    1. Huh, that is interesting. I'm wondering if it's an ex-race horse thing. After all, they are started a lot differently from your average riding horse. They live a completely different life through their most "formative" years, and I'm wondering if that's part of it? I don't know, but I'd be interested to look into it further.

      And thank you for the award! It sounds like fun, I should love to play along. (^_^)


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