For some reason I have been reluctant to write about what happened at a riding lesson a few weeks before Christmas. I’m not sure why. Maybe I don’t want to think about this too much.
After that lesson where Ben bucked and hoisted when two horses ran loose into the yard, he arrived for following lessons calm and curious. He seemed keen to go into the yard, interested in the other horses but attentive to my daughter. He still did not like to ride with the other horses in the lesson so my daughter rode him on a separate track. He was very neat over jumps and as my daughter said “this is fun”.
Then, one Saturday, as I watched the lesson, across the road from the arena I could see a lone horse galloping wildly in a field. Then, as my daughter said, she and Ben spotted that horse at the same time. She turned Ben away but he bucked and bucked and she shot off and he ran loose around the arena. There were about five other girls on ponies in the class. I ran into the arena. Thankfully my daughter was on her feet and seemed a bit shocked but unhurt so I could turn my attention to Ben.
He was running blindly, it seemed. He careered into some ponies who started to kick. I called to him and reached towards him and he veered away. Another pony’s back legs shot up in a kick. I had a vision of children flying off ponies in every direction. Then I called “stand”. This was the command I had taught Ben two winters ago during a hard freeze. With not much else to do I taught him to stand at liberty in the yard while I walked to a treat in a bucket that was behind the fence. I have reinforced that command at different times since.
Anyway I said “stand” and – he stood; rigid, head up, rooted to the spot by the fence. I walked slowly towards him, repeating the word. He still stood. I came up to him, took each rein and asked him to lower his head using very light downward pressure. I did not want to provoke a resistance to pressure, but we have been doing some basic in-hand work which I am sure paid off here. Ben lowered his head immediately and as he did so he relaxed. Much of the tension left his body and his face lost that wild look.
Leading him I went up to my daughter. When we reached her, Ben stretched out his head and touched her lightly on the arm. “He’s saying sorry”, I said. (I have been reading a (very good) book which gives stern warnings about anthropomorphism, but really, what else were we both to think? He was certainly making some connection with her. And it helped her, she reached out to him and has not held the bucking against him since.)
The instructor, who was reduced to being a helpless spectator for all of this, remarked that Ben was very stressed during this episode – he did not look like a horse who was just overexcited and wanting to be with his mates. I said that he had hunted a lot in the past and that I thought he did not like hunting. As I said this, Ben turned his head towards me and touched me on the arm. The instructor commented that if he was hunted he had not been hunted well, possibly by a beginner who could not give him any leadership but let him career around without control. And, of course, he was first bought for a nine year old girl to start hunting.
It was then suggested that I ride Ben. So I did, cramming my head into daughter’s helmet. We did the exercise: trot, canter and trot over poles, and then some jumps. (To daughter’s delight, the instructor’s comment was that “Mum can do dressage and you can jump.” My jumping position was not the best!) But, while he did what I asked, he still felt tense. I focused on my breath and my core, centering myself as I rode, which always used to help Mali when she was tense. But it did not help Ben. If time had permitted I would have taken him out the road to relax and then back into the arena. But we had to go.
Back home, the state of the horsebox testified to Ben’s stress. As I led him up to the paddock, his head went down to eat grass. And while he is a great eater of grass, there was something in the quality of how he ate – somehow I could nearly taste the sweetness of the grass coming up through the leadrope – and I could feel the tension oozing out of his body and I recognised this as trauma. In my day job I work with traumatised children and the quality of Ben’s reaction here was no different to theirs. It all made sense – the trigger of the galloping horse, the blind action that was not a discharge of tension, and the final relaxation from eating the grass afterwards.
I thought of all I knew about trauma, of what researchers have learnt about animals and trauma; normally they can run and discharge the trauma but if they are restrained they don’t – they run blindly with no discharge. What a responsibility we have when we ride horses – we put them under restraint and if we cannot provide good direction, what do we do to their minds?
At home, Ben stayed with me, sniffing my hair and being unusually anxious for contact. I thought of the times I have labelled him “stroppy”, of behaviour I would have called dominant (for he is a dominant horse) which was no such thing.
Ben has two, what you might call “right-brained” states, when I am with him. One is what I call his “stallion mode” and that excitement is now relatively straightforward for me to deal with. The other is a different state and while, thankfully, I have rarely encountered it when riding, when I have it is as if he has forgotten I exist. He certainly looked as if he had forgotten my daughter existed – she was just a hindrance that he needed to be rid of.
Since then, with a busy run-up to Christmas, lessons could not happen and I have decided to put them off until Ben and Rosie are back at home with us in March. Ben will need to get fit again and I also need to think of what will be the best approach for him regarding these group lessons.