Some clients recently asked the question “how do you stop a runaway horse?” The fear of losing control of a horse is a very real issue for many riders. If we were to honestly think about all the possibilities of things that could go wrong, we would never place a foot in the stirrup. The best answer to this question I have seen to date is by Warwick Schiller where he was asked the question of what he would do on a really “out of control” horse. His response is outlined in the following video: Warwick Schiller on Out of Control Horses.
As he clearly states, the point is to not allow your horse to reach a point where they feel like they need to explode. I cannot emphasize this enough. The biggest problem we find in our sport today is that riders believe that our sport is “different” because we have a “partner with a mind of its own and no way to communicate with us”. If we were truly different to other sports, there would be fewer competitors out there. It only takes a brief 10 minute walk on any show ground to see that the horses, although their physical needs are taken care of, are not seen as equal partners in the conversation of competition. The tougher the competition gets, the more it becomes about what the rider wants, causing the horse’s emotional needs to take a back seat. This is a rabbit hole I will not delve into for now. To be clear, I am not against competition at all. What I am opposed to is competition above all, to the detriment of the horse and an attitude which casts a blind eye to the overall well-being of a horse who is actually not ready, suited or enjoying competition.
Back to the question at hand – say you have tried your best to stay calm, or perhaps you’ve missed a few whispers from your horse and suddenly you find yourself blasting away from some unseen object, balance nearly lost and your horse is completely oblivious to the fact that there is still a rag doll on its back. What do you do?
Regardless of the method employed to stop your horse, STAY CALM. Our instinctual reaction when we lose control of a horse is to cling on and to assume a fetal position (leaning forwards, legs curling up as our inner thighs tighten). To the horse, this feels like a predator has just pounced on their back and it fuels their need to run for safety. Some horses may even see this as a signal to get rid of said predator! Try to sit up, sink weight into your heels (you can even assume a bracing/”emergency brake” position), breathe deeply, lower your heart rate if you can and talk to your horse in a soothing tone. Do not raise your hands above your head and do not hold the horse with your legs. Ranked in order of kindness to harshness towards the horse (physically or mentally), you could do the following, depending on how dire the situation is:
1. If space allows, gently circle your horse and keep spiraling in until the horse slows down or stops. If you feel like you can calm your horse down under saddle, stay on and do so. Wait for their heart rate to settle before you continue on your journey, but don’t force them to stand still. Rather allow them to walk in spirals, serpentines or a figure of 8, gently changing direction and keeping yourself interesting until you gain their attention. If you feel safer on the ground and know that you can reassure your horse from the ground without being pulled around or trampled over, dismount and walk your horse, preferably placing yourself between them and the object which scared them.
2. Bridge your reins and ride it out. If space allows, it is possible to stay relaxed and stay on the horse until they come to a stop. If I feel like it is not safe to circle, or if I know that a safe space is coming up, I will sometimes rather assume a secure riding position and allow the horse to run to safety than to haul on their mouth or aggravate their sense of panic by trying to “hold” them. Unless they are completely traumatized and have shut down emotionally, they will usually come to a stop at some point. Once they do slow down, it is best to dismount and keep hand walking them immediately. Tying up is a real possibility in instances where horses experience a sudden surge of adrenaline (to the point of running until they can no longer do so), so if they are not tied up (read up on PSSM), keep walking them to reduce the chance of muscular stiffness. Remember that as scary as this situation may be for you, it is probably much worse in the horse’s mind. They will need to know that you are calmly able to guide them through the situation.
3. Bail. If you feel like you are for any reason, overfaced by the situation and if you feel like you or your horse are in serious danger, it may be best to remove your feet from the stirrups and jump off. The obvious reason that this may be traumatic for the horse is that they will now be running around with reins and stirrups dangerously dangling around them. They could hook on something or swing around and injure the horse. That being said, you are of no good to anyone if you’re dead. If you do decide to do a planned dismount, there are two ways to do so. One is to roll clear of the horse’s feet by rolling into a ball and attempting to roll from your shoulders. Horse and Hound did a segment on how to fall and they show quite nicely how to roll into a fall: H&H How to Fall. If you are doing this at will, it is important to try not to roll in front of your horse and to roll well clear of any flailing legs as soon as possible. Excitable horses may kick out as you fall, in a further effort to escape danger, so keep clear of legs! The second is to remove your feet from the stirrups and dismount as you would when dismounting at a standstill. CRK Training explains this nicely: CRK Emergency Dismount. This can be practiced safely in advance, as long as you have a soft surface and an enclosed space, as well as some helpers to ensure that your horse doesn’t run off when you first attempt the dismount.
4. Use a one-rein stop. Before you decide to use the one-rein stop, please ask yourself if there is anything you can do to calm the horse before attempting this. Are you not perhaps the reason your horse is running off? Perhaps you are using a driving seat without realizing it. Maybe your calves are tense. Perhaps your whip is touching the horse’s flanks by accident. Be aware of yourself before you blame the horse! The one-rein stop tends to be a go-to for many trainers, as it can, if used correctly, supply the rider with the most amount of control, fastest. So why is it at the bottom of my list? When done incorrectly, the one-rein stop can cause a horse to rear, stumble, or even fall over backwards. Besides the physical dangers of an incorrectly executed one-rein stop, the movement in itself has the action of shutting the horse down. The position encouraged by the one-rein stop (head pulled around to the rider’s foot, feet immobile), leaves the horse completely vulnerable to attack. In this position, they have essentially relinquished control and although a low head in this position facilitates the dissipation of built-up adrenaline in their bodies, it also forces them to quite literally entrust their life in their rider’s hands. There are instances where this is called for, but in my personal opinion, the movement is resorted to prematurely by many trainers and riders as a go-to when other, kinder options could have been employed. Particularly shy horses, lacking in confidence in themselves for example, may be completely stressed out by the one-rein stop, especially if it has not been introduced to them slowly and is then suddenly used in an emergency. Here is an example of how to teach the one-rein stop to your horse: Teaching the Emergency Stop and here are some tips on what to do before you employ the one-rein stop: CRK One Rein Stop. Of course there are thousands of videos available online regarding the one-rein stop and lots of trainers will teach it to their riders as a method to gain control from the get-go. I prefer to ask: What is the kindest way in which I can help my horse feel safe with me and what can I do so that my horse best understands what I’m asking?
Have you ever been in a runaway situation? Did you figure out in retrospect, what had happened? How would you handle the situation differently next time, given a choice?