Saturday, January 08, 2011

Horses for beginners

It could safely be said that some of us think horses are a near panacea to the ills the world sometimes offers. Just tonight, after working all morning (yes, on a Saturday), I was able to visit my very wound up horse therapist for a taste of dirt and sanity. It was quite soothing, even with the minor (for a Thoroughbred) eruptions--all quite understandable after not getting out enough all week.

Are they good for everyone? Definitely not, but even a small dose of horse can add a richness to your life when approached with an open mind and sturdy boots. It should be noted that hanging around with horses (not to mention horse people) should not be approached lightly. Not too seriously, either, though. Just like riding, it's all a balance.

How should it be approached? What if you, the non-horse person, suddenly find yourself in a situation where you might have to get up close and personal with 1,200 pounds of equine? What if there is the distinct possibility of a horseback riding date? It's not even that you don't like horses, it's just that you don't have a lot of experience around them and don't know what to look for, do, say, etc.

My first comments are to the horse owner who really wants their new friend to like and try horses: please be careful and thoughtful. As an equine evangelist myself, I love to introduce people to horses. I am intimately aware of what wonderful, delightful creatures they are and that to have a relationship with them is amazing and fulfilling. But don't you dare take your new friend out and see how well they can stay on. You know what I mean and, no, it's not funny. If you hurt a new person you a) will turn them off horses for a long time if not forever; b) you're liable and the insurance company will find you and even if I disagree with that, it's the way the world works these days; c) the industry does not need help turning people off horses. Give them time to discover the wonder of horse snot on their own (or not). It's a much more powerful conversion, trust me. Actually, trust Bar on that one.

To the beginner, I'd offer my own experiences. The first time we went to Slide, I wasn't actually going to ride. Nope. That was for braver souls. Horses are big and powerful, often unpredictable, and a little scary.

Obviously, I got over it. Even after this last year (and a half) of horse-related injuries for both Steve and me, I have no regrets because--as Winston Churchill said--"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Or woman in this case.

But here is a list of a few things beginners should know. (And please feel free to add any I miss, folks!)

It would be good to go out with someone you trust the first time, and trust that they know something about horses for that matter. If you have access to other horses, get some basic handling lessons beforehand if you can.

Basic horse riding attire: blue jeans and boots. I usually wear long-sleeved shirts and a hat, too, depending on the weather. Boots should have a slight heel (if you're riding Western), and a smooth sole is good. Hiking boots will work in a pinch, but tend to pick up, um, what comes out of the rear end of the horse. Most people also recommend a helmet and if it makes you feel more secure, then it is mandatory attire.

Check the tack. Even if you don't really know horse gear, look for worn places on the cinch (the thing that goes under the horse's belly) and on any of that part that connects the saddle to the horse. Check tightness when the horse is saddled. Then check it again right before you get on. You shouldn't see pinched skin, but you shouldn't see daylight, either. It should be snug to their body. Your new friend could be the nicest person in the world, but securing your own safety is a a good rule to follow in any new situation.

Stirrups for a trail ride should be set so the end of the stirrup is in your armpit when your hand is where the top of it connects to the saddle. That should put them at a length that allows you to switch between sitting on your butt and balancing on your feet. It's a good way to give both your butt and your knees alternating breaks as you get used to this whole riding thing.

Horse handling
Horses are prey animals. They have spent a lot of evolutionary time and energy becoming attuned to moving when something unexpected happens. Any time you're handling a horse, make sure they can see and/or hear you and move slowly. No mosh pit style bouncing, at least until they know they can expect it from you--and when you've crossed that divide, you may have to buy the horse because you've obviously bonded.

Sneaking up behind them and patting them on the butt, even softly, is generally risky. They do not have binocular vision like we do, and each eye actually acts independently from the other. This allows them to watch things very nearly all the way around them, but there are areas directly in front and in back that they can't see well. Their ears follow their eyes and can also track several things at once. If a horse is paying attention to you, you have an ear pointed in your direction, which means that eye is, too.

However, making sure they can hear you does not mean being loud and strident. I talk to our horses all the time, and they notice when my voice changes. There are even a few people at the barn whose tone, decibel level, and cadence of speech cause a reaction in my horse. And not a good one. Singing is good, too, preferably not heavy metal. Bluegrass and classic rock seem to work well, provided there is a good down beat. Singing (or humming) also helps riders because it means they are breathing. Breathing is good for relaxing, which is good for riding.

An interesting and exasperating (to horse trainers and owners everywhere) fact is that horses will react completely differently on one side versus the other. They can pass a log on the left with no problem whatsoever but when they come up to it again on the right side, it is a mountain lion. This is apparently because there is no connection from the left to the right side of the brain, so there is no data transfer happening. Until you convince the terrified side of the brain that it is not a mountain lion, you will dance past the log you walked past going the other direction. They really aren't being bad, you just haven't trained that side of their brain correctly, yet.

Body language
Horses have very distinctive body language and use it to communicate with each other very effectively. They also use it to communicate with humans, we just miss a lot of it until we learn to read it. Aside from making sure the horse can see and hear you, other things to watch for are pinned ears, tail swishing, head snakes, kicking out, and rearing. The first two are okay, the last three might make you reconsider getting on this horse for your debut ride. Ear pinning is often just an expression of irritation, as is tail swishing. It can precede worse behavior, so it's a good thing to watch for as an indicator.

When you are by their butt, stay close to it. Really close. None of our horses are kickers, but I still stay next to them while working on feet, grooming, etc. It's physics, actually. If a horse does kick, being close means you get more of a push versus the major injury when you are at the end of what is fundamentally a whip-with-a-hoof-attached leg.

The spook
Watching them, seeing where their ears and eyes are pointed, can help give you the clues you need to know what is going on in that horsie brain. This is good if there is spook-potential. No, I don't mean the CIA when I say spook. To the horse, the spook is what has kept them alive all these many years. A quick jump sideways meant the predator landed next to them, not on top of them. Sometimes, it's a bolt forward, too, which has the same intent--not being eaten. Very important to the horse, sometimes hard to understand (and stay on through) for the rider.

If you're on the ground when a horse spooks, you may end up in their way. They will often spook towards you because you are "safety." That is small consolation when you're bent over in the driveway because Lena clipped your ankle with her hoof. The best way to keep that from happening is establishing boundaries when leading that give you enough room to be out of their way. That's hard with some horses--Bar included--but especially until you know the horse, it will keep you safer.

There really isn't anything I can tell you that will help at the moment your horse spooks when you're in the saddle. Your instincts will kick in and they will either keep you in the saddle or they won't. I could tell you to sit deep, but you don't know what that means, yet, and if you're busy trying to figure it out, you won't allow your own body to direct you. Do not be ashamed to grab the saddle horn. Not ever. Of course if your first try is on an English saddle, you are out of luck in the horn department.

Every horse book you read tells beginners not to do what their instincts tell them to do when they get scared. And the books and trainers are right. Yanking on the reins at the same time you squeeze with your legs to stay on is very confusing to the horse. You've just told them to go and stop at the same time, you see. But me telling you that is not necessarily going to enter your brain at the same time as your need for that knowledge arises.

I really could write about this forever, try to cover every possible scenario, and probably scare you to death in the process. My best advice is to give it a try in a way that makes you feel as safe as you can feel with 1,200 pounds of opinionated horse. Just like life, there is no guarantee that you won't get hurt, but there is a very real chance you will fall head over heels in love or at very least learn something very valuable about yourself in the process.

Carpe diem and good luck!


Anonymous said...

Truer words have never been spoken!!

Dave (aka Buckskins Rule) said...

Very well written, Jessica!

One of the few pieces of advice I would offer to beginners is this: The people most willing to offer advice to beginners are the ones you should avoid. When I first started riding, I was a sponge for knowledge, and anyone who had been riding longer than me seemed an "expert" to my novice mind. After five years, many riding lessons, hundreds of miles of butt time in the saddle, and a great deal of research and self education, I've discovered that I know more, and ride better than many of those "know it all's". That is not intended as boasting. I just relearned the old adage that "a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument."

Rising Rainbow said...

I don't know why anyone would put a beginner on a naughty horse. I know it happens and I know people it's happened too. The fear that results is bad news and can completely kill a dream.

Nice post.

terrie said...

New favorite post - Thanks, Jess!

There are people who would do that to a newbie? Well, that is good to know, too. I guess the horse's instincts aren't the only one's to watch. :-)