Let me tell you a story. . .
Once there was a very nice horse named Rillo. It was a stupid name, but that’s beside the point. Rillo was lovely in every way, except one, he went absolutely out of his mind at horse shows. It had all started at a horse trials in the dressage warm-up, where he went leaping through the air doing excellent impressions of Lippizanners, or Cirque du Soleil performers, whichever you prefer to imagine.
Either way, it was terrifying, and Rillo’s Wonderfully Brave And Talented Rider did not enjoy the leaping about, even though the impressions really were spot-on.
Rillo was examined following the first horse trials incident and was found to have severe White Line Disease, and after hoof debridement and the long months of growing back his feet, was sound and fit and happy and rarin’ to go. So off Rillo and his Wonderfully Brave and Talented Rider went to a cross-country schooling day.
Rillo did several interesting and destructive things during this cross-country schooling day, including throwing his head up and cracking the roof of the aluminum trailer, going back on the tie and then lunging forward at the trailer, denting the hubcap, and yet For Reasons Unknown, the Wonderfully Brave, etc., but Less Than Brilliant Rider tacked him up and got on him anyway.
And perhaps it should have surprised no one when Rillo began cavorting and leaping, and doing an interesting number where he froze, head straight up like a giraffe’s, and stared sightlessly at the horizon, before doing a very powerful and very vertical move, which frightened all the Pony Clubbers for miles. And then the trainer stepped in.
She wasn’t foolish enough to get on the horse, but she set about getting the horse’s attention – and this, friends, is the point of the story. When a horse stops focusing on you, and starts focusing only on their fears, and they freeze, you have to do everything you can to get it back, or someone, however brave or talented, is going to get hurt. You might even take out a Pony Clubber or two. How did she get Rillo’s attention?
She backed him.
She backed him and backed him and backed him. What do horses hate to do? Back up. Why do they hate it? They can’t see where they’re going and it’s physically demanding. Why do we do it? Because it’s the equine equivalent of slapping them across the face when they’re going into hysterics.
My trainer backed that horse for fifteen minutes. He hated every second of it. He pushed against her hand, he tried to wheel his hindquarters away, he did everything he could, but she kept him backing. She owned those feet. Own their feet and you have the power – a universal truth.
Rillo jumped every fence on the training course that afternoon. He loaded into the trailer meek as milk. His Wonderfully Brave and Talented and Much Wiser Rider took him to a show and brought home several ribbons the following week. And any time – any time at all – he froze up and started to replay whatever scenario took him away from reality, we backed him up. The incident was never repeated. His Cirque du Soleil days were quite finished.