Take a quick poll anywhere you find a bunch of horse people, and
you’ll find that the two things riders fear most are coming off
their horses and getting run away with. There’s a common solution
to both of those problems--don’t hold your breath.
When horses or people are startled or nervous or concerned in some
way, they hold their breath. When they do that, any rhythm or relaxation
they had go right out the window. Rhythm and relaxation are the
first rungs in our training tree because they’re so important to
anything else that you do with your horse. Rhythm is the one way
you can control a horse. So that’s where everything starts.
When you practice your heeding groundwork with your horse in an
arena or a round pen or even when you first go to get him out of
his stall and groom him, you need to breathe in a steady, relaxed
rhythm. Your posture follows your breathing and, as you do your
groundwork, your horse is following your posture. So if your horse
gets nervous and holds his breath, you have to make sure to watch
your own breathing. Don’t hold your own breath. You just keep breathing
in rhythm and relaxation. If the horse breaks his rhythm, you don’t
interrupt your own rhythm by holding your breath or doing anything
So in your groundwork, you want to make sure your breathing is
always rhythmic and relaxed so your posture says rhythmic and relaxed.
Then you keep showing this rhythm to the horse until he develops
the habit of following it. You make your rhythm a safe place he
can always go back to if he gets nervous or startled.
You’re also developing the habit of staying rhythmic and relaxed
yourself no matter what the horse does. That’s important because
people come off horses when they hold their breath. When you hold
your breath, you tighten your stomach, brace your back, and clamp
your legs. That tension in your body intensifies the horse’s motion
and bingo. You’re bounced off on the ground.
The hard part about preventing this from happening is training
yourself to breathe when things are falling apart. So as you’re
heeding your horse from the ground, you start building the automatic
responses to the horse’s nervous reflexes that are going to help
you when he startles while you’re on his back. You’re just going
to breathe right through it and not “notice” it with any change
in your own rhythm.
Whether you’re working your horse from the ground or the saddle,
you can also use a little mantra like “Breath-Ride-Every Stride”
to help yourself develop the habit of rhythmic breathing in the
cadence you want. You can’t hold your breath while you’re talking
or singing. So a little mantra like this or a little refrain you
can sing is a place you can go back to in a crisis to help yourself
recreate and stay with the rhythm you want.
In our riding classes, we sometimes play music or use a drumbeat
to help everyone keep the rhythm as they ride down the sides of
the arena and turn through the corners. If a student gets in trouble,
the instructors may repeat a phrase like “sit up and ride” over
and over in the correct cadence to help the student regain the rhythm
she needs to take back control of her horse. Figure out what works
for you and develop it as a habit to help you focus on your rhythm.
A lot of people don’t understand that you have to ride a runaway
horse before you can stop him. They grab hold of the reins and start
pulling. This doesn’t work because pulling just traps the head of
an already frightened horse and scares him even more. It also gives
him something to pull against, just like a racehorse. When you pull
against a runaway horse, you make it possible for him to run as
long as he wants to. See-sawing the reins doesn’t do much better
because it’s not something the horse understands. The pressure doesn’t
create a feeling in him of any shape he recognizes.
To stop a runaway, you have to go where the horse is and match
his rhythm. Then you start riding him forward rhythmically to let
him know you’re still leading the dance. Then you use your breathing
and your aids to slow the rhythm and bring him back to where you
want him. You have to breathe so you can keep your body relaxed
enough to stay in the saddle. You have to breathe so you can control
the horse through rhythm.
Now I realize this isn’t as easy to do on a horse as it sounds
on paper. To make it as easy as possible, you have to set things
up in stages well in advance of any crisis so the sequence you need
to regain control is perfectly horse logical to your horse. So first
you use your heeding groundwork to teach the horse to follow the
rhythm of your breathing and your posture. When you get on his back,
you teach him to follow the rhythm of your seat, which is set by
the rhythm of your breathing. You want to be able to use that rhythm
to speed him up or slow him down at any gait. You want to develop
the habit of the horse feeling and following that rhythm. And you
develop that little mantra or song or whistle as a habit you can
use to help you keep breathing rhythmically when things hit the
If you want a performance horse that can go to the top of his game,
you don’t want to inhibit his athletic potential in any way. If
you’re training a grand prix jumper or an advanced event horse,
his unspent energy drive after a stretch without exercise can set
things up for some bucking or a runaway. You don’t want to do anything
that makes him feel like he should put a damper on his drive and
enthusiasm. That means you’ve got to be able to rhythmically ride
whatever he offers in order to control it and shape it into what
The same principle of achieving control through rhythm applies
even if you’re just riding for pleasure. If you’re out on a trail
taking in the scenery or talking with your buddy, you’re going to
be in trouble if your horse startles at something. You’ll probably
be startled by the horse’s startle, hold your breath, tense your
body, and get dumped. If the horse takes off and you manage to stay
with him, you’ve got to get your own rhythm back before you can
get with the horse’s rhythm and reshape it so the horse is going
the speed you want.
Either way the results would have been a lot less dramatic if you
hadn’t taken your attention off your horse and the rhythm you wanted
in the first place. If you develop the habit in yourself of giving
the horse a rhythmic reference point stride by stride and if the
horse develops the habit of following that rhythm, that rhythm is
going to be the safe, familiar place he looks for when something
startling comes along.
Just remember to “Breath-Ride-Every Stride” until it’s automatic
and things will go better the next time.
About the Author
© 1997-2004 Meredith Manor
International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
Instructor and trainer
Ron Meredith has refined his "horse logical" methods for communicating
with equines for over 30 years as president of
Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited
equestrian educational institution.