Surely you have found yourself in an emergency state while working with your horse. It could be something as simple as a spook or as major as a run-away. Horses have a very sensitive flight or flight instinct. The more we work around horses, the more we realize we can influence their thinking and behavior when faced with a perceived threat or a truly scary situation.
Horse Herd Mentality
Horse herd mentality plays a key role in how our reactions influence our horse’s reactions. If we remain calm, our horse will calm down easier and quicker. Horses naturally follow the leader, whether human or horse. Experienced horse handlers develop the art of thinking like a head mare in an emergency. Staying calm, as the head mare, will translate to your horse’s reaction.
Here’s A Story – Whoa Nellie
Allow me to tell you a little story of a time where thinking like a head mare in an emergency saved a situation. Years ago, I had a truly fun job of driving horse carriages around San Luis Obispo and a few other locations. This job provided adventures and people experiences very unique to the job; so unique I wrote several stories down.
Nellie, a newer carriage horse, was acting a little playful as I took a dad, mom and two teen-aged girls for a basic 20-minute carriage ride. Our route took us down the quiet residential Mill street and continued around the Veteran’s Hall. We were finishing the ride up Monterey Street, heading towards the Apple Farm Inn – our starting place – when we passed beside a tractor-trailer rig parked in front of Standard Motors.
“Yikes!” Nellie decided to jump across busy Monterey Street into the center divider lane, backing up and jack-knifing the carriage. On-coming traffic stopped ahead of us, while the cars behind us backed up to give us room. The rear of the carriage was headed toward a line of cars parked alongside Monterey Street. As the driver, I was clucking like mad and using the whip to urge Nellie forward, yet the carriage continued to jack-knife; Nellie continued going backwards.
“OK,” I said to myself, “it’s time to jump off!”
As I leapt from the carriage, my toe caught the buckled reins, throwing me off balance while in the air. Thud! I landed smack-dab in the middle of Monterey Street. There I was…on my butt, with traffic stopped in both directions, with a freaked-out horse and four guests in my carriage!
Stay Calm, Carry On
My response here was to stay calm, jump to my feet and take control of the horse. Immediately, Nellie settled down and I was able to lead her off Monterey Street and down a side street to regain composure.
Sensing my calm approach is what Nellie needed to get over her own fright of the tractor-trailer rig. Keeping my wits about me, and handling the situation calmly kept Nellie, my guests and myself safe.
The more you interact with horses, who have an ingrained fight-or-flight-for-safety mechanism, the better you will become at staying steady and calm in the midst of an emergency. You’ll find yourself using this learned technique in many situations, with or without horses. Again, it’s one of the benefits of working with horses, they make us better at handling emergency situations.
Excerpt from a soon to be published book: Carriage Capers – Magic Moments Leave Marks on our Hearts. Stories of a Horse Carriage Driver in San Luis Obispo County by Sharon J. Jantzen