Horses Need Polite Spines, Too

by admin on June 20, 2012

I used to be involved in the horse world. While I never had the money to go to shows or compete, I did take lessons at a local barn for several years. My story took place when I was about 14 or 15, and on the day of my lesson my instructor was just finishing up a day camp group consisting of about 5 children between the ages of 8 and 12. I was warming up my horse in the ring as two of them took seats in the bleachers by the ring, waiting for their parents to pick them up. A word about the horse I rode : Henry was an elderly, rather spooky Thoroughbred. Because of his age I was always told to warm him up very slowly and thoroughly before getting down to the real work of my lesson. I rarely went above a brisk trot during warm-ups for this reason.

Anyways, as I was passing the stands I heard two little voice shouting at me to gallop my horse. Every time I went past those stands I would hear, “Gallop him, gallop him!” This went on for the duration of my warm-up, about a good 10 to 15 minutes. I wasn’t about to accommodate their request, of course. As I said, Henry was really in no shape to be ridden like a racehorse, and the arena was only a little more than regulation sized so it wouldn’t be safe to attempt that speed anyways. I was also more than a little worried that the kids’ voices and flapping arms would spook him. I was pretty annoyed that my instructor wasn’t supervising these kids, and that they apparently hadn’t learned about the dangers of shouting and waving your arms around while surrounded by horses. Thankfully, their parents soon collected them and I was able to have my lesson in peace.   0614-12
I’ve owned horses for the past 17 years and currently have two driving ponies.   Many, many years ago I was  the  part-time office manager of a riding stable that offered day camps during the summer to children so I’ve BTDT.    That said, I think you overreacting to the situation.    When riding, one gets into the “zone” where it doesn’t matter what is being said around you as you focus on communicating with your horse.   I’m sure I’ve had little kids wanting me to make my horse go faster, too, but I never gave it much thought.
Arena exercises do not have to be merely going around and around the perimeter of the arena.  There are so many different arena patterns one can use to exercise the horse that there are flip books that can be bought to remind the rider of all the choices.  If your arena was like ours, the bleachers were in the middle section so doing a figure 8 pattern would have taken Henry dozens of feet away from the distractions.  Or smaller circles at each end of the arena.   You were not at the mercy of these two children but had the means to move your horse farther from them.
As for waving arms and shrieks, yes, children (and some adults) should be taught that doing so is alarming to horses but one cannot control the actions of others so the responsibility falls on the horse owner or rider to train their horse to be desensitized to those rude behaviors.   Particularly when they happen many feet away from the horse in a bleacher.   Essentially it means training the horse to have a “polite spine” to ignore the stupid things people do around them.
One of my ponies was “hot” and somewhat nervous so she went away for training in “natural horsemanship”.   With more grandchildren in my future, I needed a pony that was grandkid proof.   She is so desensitized to scarey things now that a bull whip can be cracked over and around her and she does nothing but yawn.   Scarey trash bags in her face barely elicits a reaction.   Running up to her waving a loud bag won’t move her feet.   Educating her to use her brain instead of reacting instinctively means she is a quieter, calmer, trusting pony who is much safer around children.
I am right there with you though on pre-teen children needing to be supervised at a riding stable.   Horses, even the best of them, are still big, powerful animals who have minds and personalities of their own.   I always found it astonishing when parents left young children to wander the barns. Years ago, our family hosted educational farm tours for local school groups and afterwards offered pony rides.  I had parents who brought their kids in flip flops after being told not to, parents who fought me about their kid wearing a riding helmet and one time, my son discovered a diapered, barefoot toddler crawling through the fence to reach the other horses in the farthest barn with the parent completely unaware of where his son was .  We stopped the tours after that episode since we could not control these behaviors effectively.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Spuck June 19, 2012 at 7:32 am

I am going to disagree with the Admin about the rider training this particular horse to have a polite spine. Since the horse was a rental it was not the OP’s jobs to train the horse so that it was desensitized to outside distractions. It was on the other hand the trainer’s job to make sure the OP had a pleasant ride, the children’s trainer’s job to make sure they weren’t causing trouble, and finally the parents job to watch their kids if they were at the barn at the time.

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PhDeath June 19, 2012 at 8:49 am

I, too, am a “horse person.” :) To me, the polite spine in this situation is for the rider to approach the noise-makers and arm-wavers and say, politely but firmly, “Will you please be a bit quieter? You might scare one of the horses.” If they persist, ask barn management to intervene. In this way, the children (or adults) learn a lesson about barn etiquette and the rider isn’t forced to alter her/his ride-plan to accommodate rude and unsafe behavior from spectators.

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LILLEY June 20, 2012 at 5:41 am

your pony sounds just like my little hafliger cross. you can stand on his back and crack a whip in his face and he doesn’t flinch.

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Jules June 20, 2012 at 7:30 am

When I was 13 I owned a very temperemental Thoroughbred. When I first got him he was terrified of anyone and anything and it took me a lot of training to desensitize him, but after a while he was fine with just about anything – plastic bags, umbrellas, flags, running children, flashing lights – you name it. However, one faithful day something did spook him (I still don’t know what it was). He slipped, fell on top of me and trampled me while trying to get up. I almost died. In my case, there was really no one to blame. Horses are dangerous and even the most reliable horse can panic and turn deadly in an instant. There’s no excuse for anyone to make loud noices and rapid movements in such an enviroment and since these children probably didn’t know any better, they should have been supervised at all times. The parents are certainly to blame, but it’s possible that they didn’t know much better than their children, so the instructor is the most negligent person in this scenario.

At first, I wanted to tell OP that she could just have addressed the children and explained to them why their behaviour was inappropriate and dangerous. I believe that may have solved the problem very quickly, assuming the children really didn’t know any better and weren’t purposely trying to spook the horse. But then I read that she was 14/15 and the children in question weren’t that much younger.

I personally think it’s irresponsible that the intructor would let OP ride a horse all by herself that she was obviously not quite comfortable with. She was nervous, which in turn would make the horse nervous and that’s just inviting disaster, with or without the children. If OP had felt in control of the horse she was riding, the children would not have been such a big issue. I believe this is why she was not “in the zone” as you put it, admin. It’s irresponsible of the instructor to leave a child (Yes, to me a 14 year old is still a child) alone with an unreliable horse she apparantly cannot control.

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LovleAnjel June 20, 2012 at 8:59 am

I have a question related to horse etiquette. A few years ago some friends & I spent the summer on an island in the Puget sound with a tourism-based economy. Few people had cars, so most everyone biked or walked, and some owned horses. The last day we were waiting to catch the ferry, and had breakfast in a little place across from the dock. We had all our luggage – rolling suitcases of a decent size (we had, after all, been there for a couple of months). We finished breakfast and started to cross the street to the launch. There was a man with horses on the street, and he asked us to pick up our suitcases so the sound wouldn’t spook the horses. Not wanting to stop in the middle of the road to pick up 50 lb suitcases we kept walking and apologized. He looked very mad and said something I couldn’t make out.

I thought this was weird. 1) This is a tourist town full of travelers, wouldn’t you train your horse to not be afraid of rolling luggage? 2) We were in the middle of the street! The ferry was due in 10 minutes! There was traffic! He wanted us to stop and pick up our heavy suitcases! That seemed to be asking us to put ourselves in danger because his horse was fidgety.

What were we supposed to do?

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admin June 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

If the sound of rolling suitcase was enough to spook his horse, he had no business having them out in public like that where there is the potential for much louder, odder noises like engine backfires, sirens, barking dogs, tire squeals, car horns, etc.

Some people treat their horses like pampered little snowflakes that must be shielded from scarey, annoying, spooky things with an expectation that the world must give them a wide berth. All that does is actually make the horse worse. And I have seen people use their allegedly spooky horse as an excuse to take a commanding presence over people. It’s an ego and drama thing. If I had been you, I would have probably stared at the horse owner like he was an alien, informed him that a lack of training on his part does not constitute an emergency on my part nor a deviance from the public pathways and then kept right on walking away from him to the ferry.

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Ashley June 20, 2012 at 11:30 am

I don’t have much experience with horses but I am always amazed at what people do around them. I completely agree that horses should be trained to handle noises and things, but how anyone could think it’s a good idea to do anything that might startle a large animal is beyond me.

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Calli Arcale June 20, 2012 at 11:46 am

I think it’s quite true that the owner/handler of the horse has the responsibility for keeping the horse under control. If the horse might reasonably be expected to spook in a particular environment, then the horse is not ready for that environment and should not be put into it. Indeed, back when everyone had a horse, laws made it quite clear that if your horse trampled someone, you would be held liable.

I’m not a horse owner or rider myself, but am not totally ignorant. I remember once I was backpacking in a federal wilderness area in Montana. We were coming down from a hike up to some lovely mountain scenery, where we’d spent the night. We encountered a party coming up on the same trail. We were on foot; this party was a man and his two children on horseback, with a pack mule carrying their gear. Fortunately, the horses seemed to be getting along all right with the mule. (This is not always the case, I understand.) But . . . .

The man had a rifle holstered on his saddle. While this might seem reasonable in grizzly country, this particular area was posted at the trailhead that no firearms were permitted except those carried by rangers or law enforcement. His childrens’ feet were not in their stirrups (the stirrups had not been adjusted properly), and the children were not wearing helmets. He asked us about the conditions ahead, and we in turn asked where they were going; he told us he was going up to a specific lake. That lake is posted “no horses” and also “no fishing”. (Many of the high alpine lakes are off-limits to horses, because of the damage their hooves do to the permafrost, and because it helps limit the quantity of human visitors in a particular area.) Not wanting to risk a confrontation with an armed man, we didn’t challenge him, but did mention that we thought it was off-limits to horses. He agreed; he was going there because the other lakes have been “ruined” by horses. As horses are bigger than humans, we allowed them to pass us rather than the other way around. One of the horses looked agitated as it passed me and some of the gear strapped to my pack rattled; I got the impression these horses were not comfortable around backpackers. This was a fairly well-used route, so we would surely not be the last backpackers they’d encounter.

All I can say at this point is that I hope he and his children made it back down okay.

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PhDeath June 20, 2012 at 11:54 am

I would like to second Jules’ “You just never know…” assertion. The most bomb-proof lesson horse I’ve ever known gave us the scare of a lifetime at a “fun” show many years ago.

I had witnessed this horse react with cheerful equanimity to bee swarms, sonic booms from training exercises staged by a regional U.S. Air Force base, and being smacked in the flank by a flying umbrella that was pulled from the hand of a ringside spectator in a sudden storm-gust.

He was in his classic stance: ears at half-mast, eyelids drooping, one rear foot tipped up as we prepared for a kids’ costume class. A tiny pony in a witch hat was led to the arena…our rock-steady, never blink, old man snorted, whirled, yanked the leadrope from his handler’s hand and galloped the half-mile back to the barn (thank goodness we were hosting the show at his home-base!) with his tiny, terrified rider hanging on for all she was worth.

All was well in the end, but yes: you can’t ever really know with these creatures!

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Kovitlac June 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm

While I agree that horses should be trained in order to handle certain instances, I’d say that the larger blame falls on those young girls, and on whoever should have been keeping an eye on them. I don’t care if those horses were trained to handle airplanes taking off in the next field – no one being around horses has any business carrying on that way, save for public events where horses are especially trained to handle these types of thing (say, a parade, or something similar).

These girls might otherwise go on believing their actions are completely okay, and the next time they do that someone could get badly hurt.

To me, it’s comparable to pestering a stranger’s dog. Sure, the animal should be trained not to bite. But do you really think it’s safe to tug on the dog’s ears, regardless?

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Cat June 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I shall never forget the first, and last, time I ever got on a horse. I was 18 and the man in charge of the stable thought it was funny to hit my horse on the hind legs with a whip. He was standing behind me and I didn’t know what he was doing until the horse bolted. Having a stable doesn’t mean you have a higher IQ than the earth beneath your feet.

I don’t quite understand why a 14/15 year old riding student would be held accountable for training someone else’s horse or why her annoyance and fear was an over-reaction to what could have been a dangerous situation.
All children should be supervised by an adult. Children who shout commands and flap their arms around a horse should be corrected by an adult, not by a peer. The OP should have spoken to her parents instead; and they should have removed her from the program after telling the instructor that she was allowing an unsafe environment for children at her establishment.
I would have sent her a certified letter and kept a copy so that, if a tragedy did occur, there would be proof that she had allowed this behavior previously and had been notified of it.

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Michelle P June 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I respectfully disagree with admin as well that the rider was under any obligation to train the horse, but I agree that she was right in telling the rider to keep away from the children, if possible. It was the owner’s responsibility to keep the other children controlled and then inform the parents.

My father owns a barn with anywhere from 5 to 15 horses at a time, and you wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve seen and he’s told. We have relatives who live nearby who let their kids ride four wheelers around while he has riders on horses, let their dogs run loose around the barn, once resulting in one of his riders being thrown off and having an arm broken. His customers bring their children and let them run loose as well.

They don’t call them wild animals for nothing!

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Enna June 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm

It is important that horses are trained properly but it is also equally important that people knoe how to behave around hourses too. Even the best trained horse can get spooked if a noise happened at the wrong time.

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Mabel June 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I’m not a horse person, but a figure skater. This behavior is annoying no matter where you are. We’ve had kids climbing around in the bleachers alone at the rink and heckling the skaters, even screaming at us. It’s distracting and rude when you’re practicing or in a lesson. The only thing to do is report it to rink personnel, who are then able to find the parents/caretakers and ask them to stop.

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Roslyn June 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I used to be a Riding Instructor, and if those kids had just finished their lesson they sure weren’t taught proper arena etiquette!! Their instructor should have went over the rules of being a good observer LONG before they even set a foot on a horse.

In my day if you didn’t behave properly off a horse, you never had the chance to get on the horse.

Sorry, this isn’t about whether or not the horse was bomb-proof, but the proper training of the guest observers!!

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Collegial Equestrian June 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I am also a horse person and I disagree with the Admin as well. Yes, there are many exercises this person could have done to occupy her nervous TB…but it is also totally within her right to expect that people at the farm will do their best to minimize the appearance of spooky, horse-eating monsters, whether they be screaming kids or trash bags blowing in the wind. Also, it sounds like she does not have her own horse so (as with many adult riders I know) nerves could be an issue.

I think she should have just dismounted (for safety, just in case), marched over to the kids, told them to be quiet because 1) it is a general barn rule and 2) they were making it difficult for her horse to do his job. Then she could have re-mounted and continued with the warmup.

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admin June 25, 2012 at 10:05 am

If a horse owner or rider cannot trust the horse to not spook in the presence of two children being a distraction in the bleachers, please do us all a favor and do not take your horse to any horse shows, public trails, race tracks or parades where there are distractions galore. Your horse is dangerous and cannot be trusted to behave unless the circumstances are serene and quiet which, unfortunately, is not the real world.

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Cat Whisperer June 21, 2012 at 12:09 am

More than 30 years ago, when I was taking a Horsemanship class at Cal Poly Pomona taught by Norman Dunn, who was head of the Arabian Horse program there at that time, he made a statement that has stayed with me through all those years:

“Always use your superior judgement to avoid having to use your superior horsemanship!”

He said this in the context of calling attention to someone who was in the process of doing something with a horse that put them at high risk of losing control of the situation, when there was a way to do the same thing that greatly reduced the risk of losing control.

I cannot adequately describe how much I detest the mentality of people who are responsible for handling an animal– ANY animal– who want other people to assume responsibility for safety issues with the animal. I don’t care whether you’re the owner of a dog that runs the fenceline when he hears someone on the other side, or of a horse that’s being ridden near a busy street, or what the situation is. If you are the person who is responsible for that animal, you cannot cop out and fault someone else if that animal gets out of your control. It’s YOUR responsibility if you’re the one in charge of the animal.

If you’re riding a horse and there are little kids waving their arms and shrieking at people who are riding by, then by golly if you don’t think you can control your horse near those kids, you don’t ride your horse near them! And if your horse is getting spooked at them from a distance, by golly you use your superior judgement to decide that you’re going to dismount and lead your horse away from this distraction so you don’t have to use your superior horsemanship to keep him from bolting and causing a wreck.

Yes, it would be nice if people who don’t know anything about animals would avoid causing problems. And yes, when I see someone do something exceptionally ignorant and stupid, I do repeat some unrepeatable things, not always silently to myself, either. But I recognize that when I’m in charge of an animal, it’s my responsibility to know my limits and the animal’s limits, and not let my ego write checks that my ability to handle the animal can’t cover.

The OP who wrote this story recognized that the kids were doing something that could cause her horse to spook. Excellent! She has the judgement to realize here is a source of trouble.

So does she use her superior judgement to avoid having to use her superior horsemanship? No she doesn’t! She blithely continues to court disaster by riding up close to the little shrieking hooligans.

She had a whole range of options available to her, including dismounting from her horse and approaching the kids, finding out who was in charge of them, and requesting (politely) that that person remove the ignorant and dangerous little trolls before they cause an accident. Or leaving the riding ring and finding someone in the stable management chain and asking that person to deal with the kids. Or she could have just stayed on the side of the ring where the kids weren’t and gotten on with her warm-up.

I’ve worked with some pretty wild and woolly horses in my time, from horses that were barely green-broke to horses just off the racetrack, to horses that have been abused. And I’ve seen my share of disasters that involved horses. And through it all, Norm Dunn’s words have stuck with me: it is never wrong to decide that things are getting hazardous and beyond my ability to handle, and to withdraw from the situation with my horse while I’m still in control. And you know what? In 100% of the situations, I’ve found that if I just take the time to think about what I want to do and the ways it can be done, there’s a less risky way to get it done. As long as I take that first step of recognizing a situation isn’t safe, I can use my superior judgement to avoid it and not have to use my superior horsemanship to try to ride through it.

Of course, that involves recognizing my capabilities have limits and not caring if someone who thinks they’re a better horseman thinks I’m taking the easy or “chicken” way out. And sometimes it’s also a wake-up call that maybe I need to work on my horsemanship or my horse’s training, that I’ve put myself and my horse in a situation we shouldn’t be in, at least not until we’ve done some work on our issues, whatever those may be.

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David June 21, 2012 at 2:39 am

like Cat, my first and only time on a horse was marred by someone who thought it would be funny to send the horse off in a panic. The horse finally calmed down and I didn’t fall, but I ended the friendship immediately – I don’t want to hang around people who mistreat animals like that.

It is definitely the owner of the stables responsibility to make sure that any leased or lent animals are ‘bulletproof’ and that anyone who is officially around them is trained in how to behave correctly.

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Cat Whisperer June 21, 2012 at 7:04 pm

PhDeath, regarding your bombproof old horse that spooked and bolted at the costumed pony, I quote Norm Dunn again:

“The horse that’s going to hurt you worst isn’t the one you know is dangerous, it’s the one you’re sure is safe. Because that’s the one you let your guard down on.”

I love horses and I can’t imagine life without them. But there is no such thing as a safe horse. No amount of traing you put into a horse or affection that horse may have for you as a handler can overcome the instincts a horse has to react as a prey animal. And the moment you choose to forget that or not believe it, you’re standing on the threshhold of a visit to the emergency room.

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HorseGirl June 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Hi there, I’m the OP. I’d like to address a few comments made on my story.

First of all, Henry was a seasoned horse, and one that very much listened to my body under the saddle. My riding school was right next to a firing range, and as such everyone got very used to loud outbursts of sound at random intervals (rather annoying, though, when you have to stop talking for 20-30 seconds because you simply cant be heard over the gunfire). If I had been scared of the kids, I knew he would have spooked at them. For me, it was simply an exercise in ignoring them and knowing that my horse would do the same.

My main problem was not with the overall safety of my ride, it was with the kids who decided to tell me what to do with it. Being told by someone who is not a respected instructor, horse owner or other person who knows what they’re talking about to do something to my horse that would be dangerous, against my instructor’s wishes, bad for my horse and serve only to entertain the aforementioned young children…. Well, that struck me as just a teeny bit rude.

Anyways, thank you all for your insightful opinions and comments.

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Alice June 25, 2012 at 8:13 pm

This reminds me of something that happened years ago when I took riding lessons. Students and owners with saddles and bridles of their own kept them separate but in the same barn where the rest of the equipment everyone had to share.

One day, as I’m saddling my horse I realize that something’s odd about the saddle intself and sure enough, the stirrups had been tampered with. I chose to forget about it for the moment, thinking that maybe someone just made a mistake and thought they could grab any saddle. However, it turned out that one girl in particular had been using my and another girl’s saddles because they were ‘nicer’ than the shared saddles :/ She had to be banned in the end when she was caught stealing horse care products from other owners and using them on her own horse.

At another time a woman who was relatively new to riding once sat her small son on the horse at the end of the lesson and slipped the reins over the horses head to presumably guide him around. I tried warning her not to do that since the reins weren’t split and could be potentionally dangerous, she glared at me and told me to mind my own business since she knew how to handle a horse, unfortunately for her the instructor was within ear-shot and ripped her a new one regarding horse handling and dangers.

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Shea July 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Echoing PPs, there’s no such thing as a “safe” horse. I’ve been riding for more than half my life (I’m 25) and I’ve seen horses do some truly crazy things. The horse I had as a teenager was a rather hot Arabian, quite spooky, and I needed to keep my wits about me when I rode her, because sometimes she spooked at the oddest things. I remember on one trail ride, a ground squirrel suddenly popped out of its hole and ran right under my horse’s hooves. She barely batted an eye. A few minutes later, a brisk wind kicked up and blew through the grass, and she jumped about five feet sideways and tried to run off. Of course I worked with her regularly, and being very familiar with her I was good at handling her and knew what she could and couldn’t deal with. The point is, no matter how well-behaved your horse is, you can’t just assume that more training will make him “safe”. It might make him *safer*, but with horses, there’s no “safe”.

I do think, however, that the children should have been told to hush, either by the instructor or by some other adult in the vicinity. Hollering at a rider is just bad horse etiquette, in addition to being potentially dangerous.

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