Flight Mode Activated

Well I don’t know about you but my horse is wild at the moment, F R E S H doesn’t cover it!

Many horses I speak to at the moment seem to be practicing for a gymnastics competition with their handstands and cartwheels, rather than a nice even tempo’d (clearly boring in comparison) trot or canter! But is it your flight mode or theirs that’s activated and how aware are you of controlling yours before trying to control your horse?

 

It’s January, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s dark, there’s mud, long nights in the stable (the horse not me! Well, maybe me haha), there’s more hard feed, less / no grass, the exercise routine is out the window and as always there are so many moving parts.

This week as my horse was bunny hopping, refusing to go near one side of the arena, and generally ready to bolt for home at any moment, I saw the lights of the arena cast our shadow on the floor as a couple of rears were thrown in for good measure. I was riding after dark with no one around on the yard, I really had to take a good check in with myself. Here I am sat on a flight animal, who is ready for just that, trying to control my own fight or flight response, drawing on all the tools in my toolkit I normally coach other riders with. How well set up to succeed in that moment truly was I?

Mud glorious mud, oh and broken rugs with velcro on the neck losing its stick! The joys of winter….

 

As riders and trainers of horses what we are doing first and foremost is controlling the flight response of a flight animal. The more practiced you are as a rider, horse handler and horse trainer the more adept you are at controlling and or overriding their flight instinct in order to get the response you want in the training. A relaxed horse is a more rideable and trainable horse that is set up to learn and understand and offer the movements and behaviours that we want in our domesticated equines.

In actual fact, as a coach this is the state that I want to create for my human clients too. A relaxed brain in a calm state is one that is more receptive to learning and a calm human is much more equipped to create a calm state in their horse.

However, that is all much easier said than done! Especially when your flight animal has flight mode activated….. it is only natural that yours is activated too. One of the greatest skills I believe we can learn as riders is recognising when we our in fight, flight or freeze ourselves.

It’s ironic really when you think about it, trying to deactivate or control your horses flight mode whilst not controlling (or even recognising) the activated flight mode in ourselves.

Our horse’s first response when faced with stress is they want to run. When riders are in fight or flight mode our instinct is to overcontrol our horse to make us feel safer, but that sends the opposite signal to the horse. So, it creates tension between the horse and rider, and our tension reinforces the horses belief that there is danger that they need to run from. We lose ‘capacity’ to ride in the way we can when we are relaxed, thinking ahead and providing leadership for our horses. You can see the challenge here, right?

This happens in many different settings, it isn’t just when our horses are fresh. I see it at competitions, people manhandling their horses (I’ve done this myself) , whether from the ground or on board because they are nervous themselves and the pressure of performing has kicked in. We get busy, or loud, or quiet, or override or under ride, over control the horse, shorten the reins, shorten them a bit more, grip tighter with our legs and our hands, all of which creates tension. It achieves the opposite to what we are trying to achieve which is a relaxed, calm partnership ready to pull out our best performance yet.

 

Catching some bright if somewhat blustery hacks when we can

Regardless of the level we ride at, all riders are susceptible to being in flight mode…. well in humans its fight, flight or freeze, and this will affect us in different situations. For some it may only present itself in competition environments whereas for others it may be in training as well, or riding an unfamiliar horse, or braving the wind, or riding in front of a new instructor or out hacking, the list really is endless.

Our job is to always be clear with our horses, to give them leadership and help them feel safe. If your horse is playing up, it’s worth checking in with your internal world as maybe its you that’s ‘fresh and flighty’ rather than the horse and he is giving you a bit of feedback….

So, next time your horse is feeling fresh and flighty, have a check in with yourself, is your flight mode activated?…. Or more to the point de-activated? And if it isn’t how can you more effectively get yourself back under control to ‘lead’ your horse in a positive way, enjoy the ride and reinforce the trust and relationship you have together?

 

As always, if you’d like help with this, pop me a little message and I’ll be happy to schedule a call with you to help you move forward with your riding.

(P.S. I am doing all of the normal checks for my lovely boy to ensure that he isn’t in pain as extreme anxiety in horses and undesirable behaviour is often as a result of discomfort in my experience, when nothing else has changed. Just thought I’d add that as I know many of you will be concerned for darling Rafa with him being so ‘extra’ at the moment)
Rafa, looking well in all other ways for this time of year.
….and extremely handsome
….and loving all the fuss