Be Cool, Calm and Collected!

Saturday, 2nd April 2011

This morning I worked with Irene and her horse Romeo.

Irene came to me about 9 months ago as she could no longer lead Romeo safely nor ride him without increasingly dangerous explosions like napping, bucking, rearing and running away. Various riding instructors had tried to  help but it was just getting worse. * I’ve been working with them at intervals since then.

Lovely spring sunshine meant we could use the outdoor school for the first time in months. I take a more “holistic” view of a horse and rider’s problems rather than concentrating on ridden work to the exclusion of everything else. To start with, Irene led Romeo around the outdoor school in both directions, building up from smaller circuits to full circuits. I interspaced this work with halts, back-ups, yielding the forehand, yielding the hindquarters and serpentines. Irene led Romeo around in both directions leading him from both his left and his right sides.   She led him in a clockwise direction, leading him from his right side, allowing Romeo to view his surroundings with his left eye, then anti-clockwise (left rein)  allowing Romeo to view his surroundings with his right eye.**

About 10 mins. into the lesson the stable owner told us that she was going to let the other horses out onto their respective fields. This meant that they would be let out of their boxes and gallop past the outdoor school up into their fields. Quite an anxious moment for experienced horses. An almost nerve-shattering task for Irene and Romeo.

As soon as Irene knew that the horses were to be let out onto the field she was filled with thoughts about every possible tragedy scenario that might happen to her and Romeo. She found it increasingly difficult to be the leader of her herd of two.

I asked her to keep walking with Romeo, halting, backing-up, asking him to pay more and more attention to her. It was hugely difficult for her to do this as she was so distracted by   the possible horrible consequences for her and Romeo.  As a result of this the “herd” began falling apart – Romeo became more and more anxious, picking up on Irene’s highly nervous state and quite intent on running to save his life before it was too late!

Just before the first horses were let out, I asked Irene to turn Romeo to face the stables so he could see the horses and wasn’t taken by surprise. This worked well as it also gave Irene something to focus on. The first horses came quietly out of their boxes and started to eat grass. Not too exciting for Romeo. The next horses came out with a bit more speed and noise! This did get Romeo excited and he jumped around and snorted. Irene tried to stop him by holding onto the rope very tightly – Romeo pulled back against this pressure, pulling backwards and bringing his head up high. Irene lost her nerve and wanted to go into the indoor school for safety, before Romeo pulled away from her completely.

I took the lead rope and Romeo. Without using force, whenever Romeo tried to turn and run, I sent his hind quarters away from me, which brought his head towards me. i.e. every time he tried to get away from me to run with the other horses (or just save his life), I directed his attention back to me. Because of various experiences with lunging cavassons, Romeo is extremely sensitive to the rope and the rope halter, so I didn’t use strength, just good feeling and timing. Whenever he brought his attention back to me I stroked whatever part of his body I could reach safely, preferably his face.

Between the relays of horses being let out, I let him stand as quietly as he could facing the stables, stroking him, making being with me the nicest place for him to be at that time. In about 10 min. all the horses were out on the field. Romeo was still with us on the outdoor school and had calmed down considerably. I let him stand quietly for a couple of minutes, still stroking his wither area before leading him around the outdoor school once again, repeating halting, backing-up, serpentining etc. By this time his head was down low, he was “yawning” – a sign that a horse is relaxed, and was very attentive to what I was asking him to do. I gave the lead rope back to Irene and she repeated the exercises.

Three more horses were to be let out onto the field next to the outdoor school and would be coming from a direction where Romeo wouldn’t be able to see them. I decided that as Romeo’s nerves had held up so well during the first “test” he didn’t need to have another major excitement that day and we went into the indoor school.

I explained to Irene that if we’d gone into the indoor school when she lost her nerves, Romeo would take that feeling of panic with him. A horse remembers what happened before what happened happened!  I had proved to be a strong, reliable leader for Romeo. I concentrated 100% on him, never giving a thought to the horses going out on their field, thinking only of me and my “herd” and how to deal with the situation as it happened. This is something that Irene has enormous difficulty with, and indeed is the biggest stumbling block in their partnership.

Two other horses were in the indoor school. Irene led Romeo around the perimeters of the indoor school and then asked if she could practice more “leg-yielding” exercises from the ground.  She did this by increasing and decreasing the size of the circles – if Romeo was going to the left, Irene walked alongside him at about the level of the saddle and when his inside hind leg was just about to come up off the ground she “tapped” his flank with her index finger with a very light pressure, imitating where the leg-aid would be used in a leg yield to the right. With her left hand she had a very light and loose contact on the lead-rope held up and out to the left to encourage the inside flexion i.e. Romeo was looking away from the direction in which he was travelling.

Whenever Romeo did two or three good steps of leg yielding, Irene stopped asking him and stroked him, giving him a break as a reward and chance to “soak” on his learning experience (and hers). This lightness of touch is what we want to take with us into the ridden work.

We finished on a very good note and that was it for today.

Irene knows she that she has to get rid of her emotional baggage regarding Romeo and become a confident leader for him. She is aware that if she doesn’t, she is continuously giving him signals that send his adrenalin levels sky high and distorting any chance of them building up a better relationship with each other. She has to be a good leader for him and deal with things as they happen. She cannot protect him from “life” and has to remember that he is a horse.

It is not easy for her but she is making great progress.

Exercises mentioned in this blog can be found on Kate Farmer’s Thinking Horse DVD available at under videos
* Irene has written more about herself and Romeo at under case studies.
** Note:  The positioning of the horse’s eyes allow him a wide peripheral view, which enables him to graze around without moving his head to the left or right to see what is happening in the surrounding area. If he tips his head or his nose slightly he can take in sudden movements and decide whether to run or stay.
By that I mean that each eye gives the horse a distinct yet simultaneous view of his world! A horse will favour one eye over the other, usually the left eye. It is thought that the horse likes to keep his left eye on potential danger zones while at the same time keeping his right eye on a possible escape route!
Just knowing this might help you understand the cat-like leaps or the head-snaking which enables the horse to get a better look at potential threats to his life. Knowing how your horse reacts when you ask him to switch eyes can be a life-saving piece of information. (For more in-depth information about horses and their eyes and how they use them see Kate Farmer’s site).


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