Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fear...Or Good Sense

                                               by Laura Crum

            I read a blog post the other day about fear of riding after an accident. The author talked about how some people are motivated to overcome this very natural fear and ride again and others are not. Neither choice is wrong. But the thing I noticed, reading the comments, is that the fear seemed to center on loping (or cantering). And this was very interesting to me. People who were comfortable at the trot were afraid to lope for fear the horse might fall. And the thing is, these people are more or less right. Every horse I’ve ever seen fall did so out of the lope or gallop.
            I have loped circles on innumerable horses in my life. It has been as automatic as breathing. But the horse I ride now hates loping circles. I’ve owned him five years, and in the beginning, I made him lope a lot of circles in the arena, cause hey, that’s what I always did with a horse, you know? But neither of us enjoyed it.
            Sunny resisted the loping of circles in various ways, and he is not very smooth at the lope. I am getting older and stiffer and loping circles on him made my back hurt. I still have enough skill left that I can collect this clunky little yellow horse and make him lope a decent circle. But it’s no fun.
 Sunny loves trail riding and will willingly lope up a hill out on the trail. I bought him to use him as a trail horse and he is great to ride outside. Strong, cooperative, sensible. Loping up a gentle hill he was/is much smoother and gradually I began trail riding more and more and mostly loping Sunny out on the trail, always on a gentle uphill slope. It worked for both of us.
            As time passed, I noticed that I kicked Sunny up to the lope in an arena only long enough to lope a couple of circles…and that was enough. Sometimes I didn’t lope at all in the arena, just waited until I was out on the trail again. I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t a premeditated decision—just how I was inclined to behave. The horse and I both seemed to be of one mind about the whole thing.
            Sunny is not a graceful mover in the arena. He feels strong and solid marching down the trail; he feels like riding a small draft horse in the arena. And he stumbles in the arena—almost never trips on the trail. I have seen Sunny fall down loping around in his corral—at least half a dozen times. So when I do lope Sunny in the arena, I am always ready to “catch” him if he stumbles, because I damn sure don’t want him to fall while I’m riding him. Between that and how rough he is, it’s not very relaxing.
            Lately when I ride in the arena, we mostly trot. Works for me. Works for Sunny. And then one of my friends rode up to me yesterday at the roping arena and asked if I ever loped this horse any more.
            I started in to the explanation… “hurts my back, rough gaited, clumsy, likes to lope on the trail, hates loping circles” and noticed I felt very defensive. As if my friend was accusing me of being afraid to lope my horse and I had to defend myself. So I stopped and took a good look at that emotion. And the blog post I read about fear came to mind.
            And I said, “Well, yes, I am afraid that this horse might fall with me loping him in the arena.” As soon as I said it I realized it was absolutely true.
            The thing is, it’s not a “fear issue.” It’s just common sense. The only horse that ever fell with me was a good solid rope horse named Billy, who fell (and somersaulted) while I was loping him on a loose rein in this very same roping arena. And to this day, as I lope circles, I’m careful not to lope on a thrown away rein.
            Most everyone I know who has had a horse fall with them, the horse has fallen out of the lope. And Sunny is the only horse I ever owned that I have seen fall when he was loping around his own pen. So hey, guess what? I believe it makes sense to be thoughtful.
            Anyway, after the conversation with the friend yesterday, I took Sunny out of the arena and rode him up the hill through the forest and let him lope a good long way. We both enjoyed it. I have no fear of him falling there (though of course he could fall—I know this to be true). He feels solid and comfortable to me loping outside like this.

I see no sense in doing something neither of us enjoys and that does worry me a little. We had a black horse last year (belonged to my friend Wally) who was a pretty mover and had a lovely, smooth lope. I rode him half a dozen times and really enjoyed loping circles on him in the arena. Thing was, this horse hated trail riding and was the worst horse to ride downhill I’ve been on in a long time. He stumbled and tossed his head and felt like he was lame—though he wasn’t. He just didn’t like being “outside,” especially walking downhill. But he loped lovely circles in a groomed arena and really seemed to enjoy this activity.
In a perfect world I’d have a horse that was both a delight to ride in an arena and one that was good to ride outside. But in my own world I’ve got a really good trail horse who is not much of an arena horse. And that’s OK with me.
So, I’m curious. Does anybody else have a horse that they don’t entirely trust to stay up at the lope in certain situations? And how do you handle it?


Mindy said...

For myself, the fear of the horse falling or me falling off has only come about as I've gotten older. Lily has an awesome lope/canter and is not especially clumsy, but every once in awhile it crosses my mind as we're loping along. Cricket was a gaited horse and her canter was horrible, so I didn't ask her to do it unless we were in a group that was cantering. It felt like she just didn't know where to put her feet, so as a result she was all over the place when cantering and this resulted in a lot of tripping over her own feet. Excellent blog, Laura - thanks!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the comment, Mindy. Good points!

FD said...

Well, these days, if I don't trust it to stand up, I don't ride it. Kidding aside, obviously there's always a risk.

It's always intrigued me that, the fear of canter, because from a biomechanical perspective, canter is actually an easier gait to sit to and from the instructor's viewpoint, this is confirmed by many, many people sitting quieter and more independently at the canter than they do in trot.

I'm not sure why it is, mix of factors maybe? Certainly, accidents at speed are harder to recover from, also possibly people feel less in control at canter? People are often 'accustomed' to their horses not truly moving forward with impulsion, so when they do, as is more likely for a lot of horses at canter, it can 'feel scary'. Otherwise biomechanically, it's true that the moment of suspension is naturally larger in canter and if things go wrong, it can be harder for a horse to get a leg down in time to fix it. And there is the fact that unless specifically trained, a lot of horses with rider will canter 'downhill' because that is the natural tendency and I suppose it does feel like gravity is aaginst you in that situation, which would reasonably exacerbate exisiting anxiety. And honestly, in a trail horse, why would you want to put in the work to change an entire way of going when you're generally happy with it?

As to horses that don't get ridden in canter - I know a lesson horse who only does trot work. Not because of any failing in him, but because he has a proper wall of death canter, largely caused by him being a 14H pony on 11H legs. He really looks like he's been sawn off at the knee. They are sturdy, strong boned, mechanically sound legs I hasten to add, but unless you are a strong enough rider to rock him back over his hocks and keep the canter at a pace that his short stride can cope with the chunky body and big head and neck, you will go round corners leaning at a 45% angle to the ground, and that is hard on everyone's nerves! I take him out for a blast cross country every now and then, and he is fine in straight lines, but it would be very easy for a novice rider to accidently tip him over in canter in the school.

Laura Crum said...

FD --Sunny is a little like your lesson pony, only not as extreme. To lope decent circles on him I must work really hard at collecting him, otherwise he feels very downhill and vulnerable to a stumble. As I said in the post, I can do it, but its no fun, and he still isn't smooth--hurts my back. Give him a slight uphill slope and without the circle dynamic, however, and he feels strong and solid.

The other thing about Sunny is he hates loping circles. He finds the arena boring and going around in circles pointless. I can lope maybe three or four nice (for him) circles on him if I collect him up, and then he starts actively looking for a way out of this so-boring activity. This will include trying to go faster and getting downhill, trying to go slower and drop back to the trot, pushing toward the gate, trying to arc the wrong way, the occasional mild crowhop and just general resistance. And yes, I can ride him through all this, and I have, many times, but nothing on earth is going to make this horse LIKE loping circles. His previous owner tried to use him for dressage (this did not work out, as you might imagine) and when she sold him to me she commented, "He really likes the trail and he really hates the arena." I have found this to be quite true.

Horses do fall at the canter far more often than they fall from the trot--at least in my experience. I have actually never seen a horse fall from the trot. I have seen a good many fall from the canter and gallop.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I had a fall with Mocha at the trot. In the arena. It was early in our time together, and she was coming back into condition, arguing with me about trotting speed and collection--and she slipped. Went down on her knees, kept going for two strides, got back up. I kept my balance and helped her (thank god I'd had experience with a much bigger and clumsier horse doing the same thing at a trot, because I kept my weight back, locked hands on her withers, and provided a connection for her to brace against and get back up on her feet without breaking stride). Needless to say, she had a LOT more respect for me and the use of collection after that.

However, some horses just need a lot more support and maintenance to keep up a good canter, especially in the arena. Sounds like Sunny is one of those, and he's old enough and opinionated enough that he'll resist the type of work he needs to do a good arena canter.

I rode a horse who went down with me at the canter as a kid, and it really marked me for a long time. Add to the fact that she'd buck by lowering her head first, and it took a long time to learn to relax on cantering with a long rein.

I think many people fear canter because it does take more coordination and balance, especially on horses like Sunny, especially if said horses tend to fall in on their inside shoulder (which has been my experience with horses with difficult canters). Plus canter requires more impulsion, and if the horse is not conditioned and balanced, then circles are a nightmare, especially for a rider lacking the experience and skill and conditioning to maintain canter on a circle. An unbalanced horse tends to speed up and rush to compensate for the lack of balance.

Even with Mocha's fall, she's the horse I trust the most at speed. She's balanced, prefers to move in balance, and if she's out of balance, she won't do it.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Left one thing get a good arena canter on horses like Sunny requires a LOT of maintenance. I've seen my trainer focus exclusively on walk and trot with horses he's retrained based on owner skill, simply because the owner lacked the ability to properly maintain that horse at a canter. I've ridden those horses and when you have one that leans in, does a death spiral, etc...not good. And I was the working student checking out the likelihood of what it would take to get this horse to canter. As it were, it took four months to get her solid enough at walk and trot to go home.

But I've also ridden a probable HYPP horse that was scary and unbalanced at a walk (like he was drunk, an Impressive-bred). Trainer has ridden Impressives before HYPP was known--and his account of those horses was scary.

horsegenes said...

We have a towel dispenser in the restroom that says "Danger - do not stick your head in the towel loop." So if I don't stick my head in there am I afraid or just using common sense?

You need to tell the guy at the arena to take his head out of the towel loop. You shouldn't have to prove anything to anyone. Maybe you could explain the concept of common sense to him.

I don't believe that you are fearful - like the rider who has experienced a severve fall or gotten tossed. That type of fear can be physical and life altering. Your concern is more based out of knowledge and respect (good sense) than actual fear. A little fear is a good thing though.
You are assessing the risk and making a edcuated decision. A horse is not going to suffer any ills from not loping circles. I bet if you asked Sunny to lope from one end of the arena to the other to move a cow he would do it fairly willingly and you would not even think twice about it.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--Yeah, if I loped circles every day, which I did when I first got him, Sunny's lope would and did improve somewhat. It still was not a particularly comfortable gait--at least to one who has ridden a lot of horses and knows what a nice lope feels like. I'm not sure if a better rider could have improved his lope further--the woman I got him from had obviously had a lot of trouble with him in the arena--and her trainer wasn't able to change the horse much. To be quite frank, I am WAY too lazy to do the work it would take to improve this horse as an arena horse, and I haven't any interest in doing something neither he nor I would enjoy. But you make good points, as always.

kel--Yes, you are right as usual. Sunny will lope down the arena to put a cow away and he feels fine. It is circles that he hates. I'm not sure this is even possible, but I swear that tripping when he lopes circles is one of his many resistances to that hated activity. He virtually never trips on the trail or in a straight line--at any gait.

lytha said...

I have not cantered my horse in an arena yet. Out on the trail, but not anywhere else. I'm not ready for that challenge yet. And yah, I'm looking for a trainer to come help me in the arena so we get some basics hammered down. It's just a really hard process here in Germany where I don't know many people, and the barns I've been to have used cruel methods. I fell off a cantering horse who fell with me a few years ago and I was so shook up I won't soon forget it. Cantering and racing can be fun in controlled scenarios, for me, but I'm much more of a long trot person. Right now I'm not able to even do that with my freaky horse.

Laura Crum said...

lytha--I think long trot is the gait of choice for most endurance riders--based on what I've read on blogs. I've been struck by the fact that many of them don't/can't get their horses to take a lead and lope a circle in an arena. I don't think this is either good or bad--endurance is a sport where loping a nice collected circle in the arena is just not a useful skill.

I come from a background--cowhorse, cutting and roping--where all horses need to lope circles in an arena to warm up. Certainly not all of them knew how to collect up and lope a "nice" circle, though.

I've been reading about your adventures with Mara. I think you are very brave and persistent. She clearly is a challenge. But its my belief that the sort of persistence you are showing will do the trick eventually. I have known other good horses to be made this way.

Anonymous said...

I've had horses fall with me, and almost fall with me, and its always been at the canter. With trot, two feet are on the ground at the same time, making things a bit more secure. And since having horses with EPM, I'm a lot more sensitive to horses tripping. A horse with any sort of hind end strength or soundness issue is particularly vulnerable at the canter. I do canter a fair amount, but I generally don't do it alone - I do it when riding with others or when others are at least around if a horse falls with me, and I try to ride my horses in such a way that they carry themselves from behind and aren't on the forehand - this improves their chances of staying up in the event of a trip or stumble.

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Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Laura--Mocha's first year with me had a lot of scary arena canters! Literally. I didn't feel safe cantering her around other horses, but because I hoped to show her someday, I wanted to get that solid. It took a lot of work and practice.

It's funny that you say you think Sunny may trip on purpose when cantering in circles. I agree. I rode an old schoolie on a hillside once where she stumbled a little, I caught my breath and tightened up because it felt like my old mare who was a stumbler. Well, dang old Porsche then proceeded to repeat it, not just on the trail but on the flat. When I slapped her shoulder and told her I'd figured it out, she stopped. But her expression when she'd half-turn her head to check me out after doing it clued me in that it was her private joke. By then it was the only way she could get me (darn old Appaloosa mare)! So yeah, I can believe Sunny would do it.

Mocha doesn't trip, but she does target cones. She dislikes cone work, and after a while, her head goes down, she locks onto them, and will twist a little bit out of her way to send them flying. Her swagger afterward is pretty telling, too. She's *proud* of killing those cones!

CG said...

The first time I ever rode Cartman at the canter I felt like he was going to run off with me, he was so strung out and unbalanced as a baby- it was like loping a giraffe.

We've worked on canter quite a bit in the arena and he's improved exponentially!

When I want to the Jack Brainard clinic in June he helped me with our trot canter transitions and preparing for lead changes. All this canter work has really improved the way C carries himself so that I am finally starting to do some canter out on the trail.

I plan on starting to let him lope on our endurance rides (only in very controlled situations- I don't need a race!)

I've never felt concerned about the gate, except when I had that feeling going into canter was going to result in some bucking.

CG said...

ooops, meant the "gait" not gate!

juliette said...

Great post - spot on!

I have zero fear cantering on a straightaway out on the trail. All three of my boys are wonderfully sure-footed on the trail and easily avoid roots and rocks.

I haven't cantered them in the ring -ever. Two of them would be fine, I am sure because they are horrible movers with very high action and probably safe at the canter in a circle. Pie, though, is a lovely mover and with him my past fearful cantering experiences emerge. My childhood mare, who moved very much like Pie, fell on me twice at the canter in the ring and now I am just not comfortable cantering in there. It is me, I know, but I convey that hesitation to the horse. Out on the trail I feel very confident at the canter. There is something about the ring that makes me ride too far forward (years of jumping?) and I inadvertently push the horse heavy on the forehand.

So in the ring, it is trotting for us - on the trail, we canter happily!

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Yes, when I canter Sunny in the arena, I make sure to collect him so that he is not on the forehand--otherwise he WOULD be a wreck waiting to happen. And he will lope a few "nice" circles. But then his distaste for this (to him) pointless activity kicks in and after that its always a bit of a struggle. Loping out in the open up a gentle slope, he remains in a nice frame with no work from me.

Joyce--I do reprimand Sunny when he trips more than once in a loping session. And it does help. But nothing will ever overcome the fact that he finds arena work boring and would rather go for a trail ride--or at least I don't believe so. To be honest, I agree with him.

CG--Sounds like you are making a lot of progress with Cartman. I find cantering/loping on the trail to be very relaxing--as long as it is on at least the slightest of uphill slopes. makes a big difference.

With Sunny, I could from the beginning, get him to do a one stride departure from walk to canter, taking either lead I chose. (This is my preferred way to ask for the lope.) But again, it just didn't help with the fact that he is rough gaited and dislikes arena work.

juliette--Cantering circles is a very different dynamic from cantering a straight line, on the trail or otherwise. As I said, I have done so much loping of circles in my life that I find it interesting that now, on the horse that I am currently riding, I don't enjoy it. But as someone else said, there is nothing wrong with trotting in situations where you don't feel comfortable loping. And we all have different horses with different strengths and weaknesses. We need to do what fits each of us!

Val said...

You are describing good sense, not fear. I fell with a four-year-old horse when I was in 8th grade. I tried to turn him onto a circle out of a bolt. I was following my instructors directions, but it did not work out. To this day, I am very careful about how I turn a fast horse or handle a bolt. I am not scared. I am aware that horses can and do fall, like you are aware of Sunny's preferences and abilities.

Harley picks up speed on straight lines. He used to run his front end in to the ground on the trail. It took a lot of arena work for him to offer a balanced canter on the trail. Thankfully he likes riding in the ring, because so do I. :)

Laura Crum said...

Val--Yes, some people and horses really do like the arena work. The horse I described in the post as loping lovely circles infinitely preferred arena work to the trail. We're all different, and that's a good thing. And I agree that it is absolutely a good thing to be aware. Both of potential risks and a horse's preferences and abilities. Well put.