Saturday, March 28, 2009

Driving class mishap

This is actually a youtube video also featured on Fugly Horse of the Day, which is how it was brought to my attention. Just a point: I do not agree with FHOTD on many points but I do still maintain an open mind and therefore do still read blogs such as hers. Much can be learned in any situation.

Country Pleasure Driving Class Gone Wrong:

The video info session asks the question: What would you do?

Here's my $0.02 on the matter:

First off, the horse that originally took off in that class was not in a very balanced state of mind; he becomes increasingly right-brained/reactive to the point where he is in full flight mode - no thinking just pure instinctual reaction. That does not just happen at the flip of a switch (usually!) - there is a path that leads to that point. A lot of signs that the handler perhaps could have noticed and in that case, should have pulled their horse from the class. On the other hand, sometimes signs are not that obvious and other times minds can become clouded by the "need" to show in a class; we figure everything will be okay, that we can handle it. Sometimes minds are clouded by winning, by money, by outside factors that don't take properly into account the horse itself. I would see this all the time at the track - horses that I did not feel should be running (for various reasons - weather, physical issues, etc) were run regardless due to an owner's needs without taking into account the horse's needs. Even against the trainer's advice sometimes horses were run; one owner in particular would go behind his trainer's back and enter his horses in races against the wishes of the horse's trainer. The trainer would find out afterwards that hey, one of his horses was running that weekend. Joy. Sometimes it is due to ignorance of the situation, sometimes it is due to outright greed. Everything can be clearer in hindsight and at times we do not make the best decisions. Another factor that likely played a role was the partnership, or lack thereof, that the driver had with this individual horse - at least at that time, in that type of setting. A fully developed horse that has a strong working partnership with its human is going to be following that person's leadership; many individuals do not recognize this though and so can inadvertently neglect this area with a horse.

First off, as mentioned above, that horse could have shown signs of being right-brained before it even stepped foot in the competition in the warm-up ring, or even at home. I hope that I would have had the foresight to have seen a horse in that state of mind, or to know that a horse I was working with was at a level where they could be inclined to be in that right-brained state of mind at a show, and to withdraw from the class (or not enter in it in the first place). I put my horses' well beings above all else. They must come first because they do not even have the choice to be where they are; therefore it is my duty to do my best by them. If they are choosing to enter in a partnership with me, it is my job to act as a reliable and trustworthy partner and protect them from situations like that above. This means scratching a racehorse should the track be too muddy, this means withdrawing from a jumping class should my horse just feel "off" that day, whether it be physically or mentally, this means withdrawing from a driving class (should I drive, I do not) should one of the horses entered in the same class seem perhaps in a potentially dangerous frame of mind. Sure, we kick ourselves a bit afterward if nothing happens, but it's not worth the risk and I think a bigger part of ourselves realizes that and is happy just to ensure the well-being of our partners. That said, sometimes we don't know what we're getting into until we're already in, sometimes the only way to find out what a horse or a team is or is not capable of, is to do it (with what we hope is sufficient preparation, of course!).

Quick note: I was not in that ring that day, I am not even a driver, so I cannot place blame anywhere. I am just pointing out some possible factors that could have played a role that day.

Second point: what would I do if I found myself in that ring with loose, very reactive, very right-brained horses?? The announcer did a great job of trying to coordinate the individuals in the ring. She was calm and assertive and she called out some great decisions from her vantage point. Unfortunately though those in the ring were not quite so co-operative (they were a little frazzled and "right-brained" themselves!) and even accidentally channeled that horse into some dangerous situations a few times! The man who was run over - NEVER EVER stand in a horse's way when they are in that state of mind. You need to know when to stand your ground, make yourself as big as possible, and wave your arms, and you need to know when to just duck out. That was a time to duck out. It was also a time for everyone to withdraw into the center, horses on the inside, people on the outside. Allow the loose horse to run himself out and to enter a more "thinking" mind frame - left-brained. In flight mode he is not going to be thinking, and human predators chasing after him in attempts to catch him are just going to send him further and further into that negative state of mind. When I am working with horses one of the things I am trying to do is earn their trust in my leadership abilities, I am trying to earn the position of herd leader with a horse. The horse is a herd animal that relies on a leader and herd dynamics, they will take over leadership if they do not feel they can trust you to lead them safely and ensure their survival (which is first and foremost in their minds), but they naturally want to follow, some more readily than others. My Quarab Silver, for example, wants to follow much more readily than my Warmblood cross Koolaid - Koolaid requires extremely strong (earned) leadership before he'll follow you. This leadership role then transfers over to ensuring the safety of your horse such as in situations in the above video. Same as I do with my dogs, I protect my horses as herd leader. I don't allow another horse to be rude to my horses (or vice versa as well), I keep the peace in the herd. Confidence also plays a role; the confident horse will have a lesser tendency to react, and will return to a thinking state of mind quicker after a reaction, than a less confident horse. Thus, developing a horse's confidence is especially crucial. With horses on the inside, the individuals in that ring could have surrounded the horses and protected them. The loose horse could have been allowed the entire ring to run and calm down, with a ring of people standing "big" and waving their arms periodically to ensure that horse stayed on the outside of that ring. Prey animals have tunnel vision when in flight mode. When that loose horse entered the center, there was a strong likelihood he was going to crash into other horses just because he's stopped thinking in favour of reacting. He's not going to be in the right state of mind to navigate safely through a crowd of horses. If he is "forced" into that crowd of horses when in such a highly reactive state, his level of excitement is going to increase tenfold: first he feels trapped in the crowd, and second, his brain is trying to think through the situation but cannot and so becomes even more excited and reactive. So by keeping him on the outside he would have been in a situation where he could have calmed down easier. What, specifically, would I have done? I'd have gotten out of my driving cart or off my horse if necessary (in an under-saddle class), removed my horse from the crowd (while still keeping her in the center of the ring with the others, just off to the side a bit to allow for maneuverability and for an escape route for the loose horse should he come through the center), and stood between my horse and the loose horse. Should the horse have approached us, the first thing I would have done is move out of the loose horse's way (get my horse moved) and then make myself as big as possible, waving my arms, all the while allowing that loose horse a clear path to escape. That horse ran about the arena for quite some time...another thing that could possibly have been considered was removing the driving carts from the contained horses and placing the driving carts up against say that piece of fencing in the middle of the arena. That way the contained horses could have been easier to keep safe, could have been grouped in a closer group the loose horse could not penetrate, and should one have gotten loose, she would have been much better off than if she had been pulling a driving cart, such as the fallen horse at the end of the movie. Just a thought, I do not drive so I do not know how long it takes to disengage a horse from a cart.

Remember, this is not meant as criticism of the incident in question; everything is clearer in hindsight! This is just my two cents, looking back on the incident. Reflection on such incidents enables us to perhaps be able to even better handle future such incidents, or even prevent them, due to anticipation and even better preparation.

On the topic of loose horses, whether to dismount or not if there is a loose horse in the ring: the rule in Pony Club when I was younger that, should a horse become loose in the arena, you were to dismount immediately and stand next to your horse. I recently experienced a loose horse in the arena a few weeks ago when I was on a green horse - I dismounted. It completely depends on the horse I am on and the partnership I have earned with said horse. If I am on a higher level horse such as Silver or Koolaid, I would likely stay on. Both horses are very balanced mentally and emotionally and I have very high levels of partnership with either horse. Should the loose horse approach, I know I could position the horse beneath me in an advantageous position and drive the loose horse off from my perch on my own horse. On a green horse however, I cannot trust the horse beneath me to remain calm and fully follow my leadership - we are likely not at a high enough level of partnership at that point for that horse to trust me and therefore for me to trust it. You automatically have a higher level of partnership on the ground than in the saddle (plus you're safer on the ground), so I'd rather be on the ground #1 safe and #2 where my green horse can physically see me and therefore perhaps follow my calm leadership. Regardless of the situation though, should a horse become loose in the arena I strongly believe that everyone in the arena should halt immediately, then decide to dismount (where you could be safer) or not.

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