By Jerry Tardif
Sometimes we ride and find that our otherwise quiet horse is acting very spooky today.
This often happens on windy days, especially in spring and autumn, and people will sometimes speculate that the wind could be the cause.
In matter of fact, the wind will often be the root cause of this problem, and as riders, it's important to take precautions to stay safe by assuring our horses trust us.
To better understand what is happening, consider this from the horse's perspective.
First, there's the noise.
Wind has a high-frequency, white-noise component that has similarities to a hissing sound.
And horses know that snakes hiss.
Horses also instinctively know that snakes can be life threatening.
Through the ages, those horses that didn't make the connection died of snake bites.
The remaining horses made the connection and the instinct to avoid snakes continues to reside in their mind as a danger that causes them fear.
As a result, just the sound of the wind will often raise a horse's anxiety level.
Additional sounds of things rattling from being windblown will only make it worse.
On top of that, the wind will mask other noises the horse DOES want to hear, such as an approaching predator.
So it's only normal for a horse's emotions to be heightened when he realizes that he can't adequately listen for the noises for which evolution has prepared him, and from which he feels he cannot now protect himself.
Movement All Around
Then, there's all that movement.
Normally still items around your horse are all now in motion by the wind.
This includes leaves and branches, bushes, growing hay, flags, clothes hanging on lines, utility wires moving to and fro, debris being blown across the ground, and more.
Viewed in this context, it might seem to a horse that everything around him is running for its life, or worse, he's being attacked from almost everything around him.
When first learning to ride, I occasionally rode a horse in the arena that would get upset when wind made one of the large sliding doors move.
At times, he would just freak and burst into a panic.
Let me tell you, this is not the kind of behavior that makes a new rider feel safe and in control of the powerful, thousand-plus pound beast.
Now, let's add the sound of all those moving items to the mix.
Between the instinctively dangerous sounds made by the wind itself, and the additional sounds of trees and leaves swaying, doors slamming, and debris moving around them, it's no wonder that the wind and its effects will usually elevate a horse's sense of danger and anxiety.
What To Do and Not Do?
So, where does this leave us?
Well, as riders, we have several options:
Let's look at these individually:
- Not ride;
- Ride and Ignore the Behavior;
- Get Angry and Reprimand Our Horse; or
- Reassure and Calm Our Horse.
This approach resolves the problem for us.
If we don't ride, we're not around when the wind comes up and makes our horse feel uncomfortable.
While that may work for some horse owners, I dislike leaving our horses to fend for themselves, so I can't endorse this option.
Though, if they're in a quiet barn when the wind is blowing, this may appeal to some readers.
Ride and Ignore the Behavior
This approach strikes me as not very smart.
To ignore the behavior is to set ourselves up for potential injury and perhaps also, an injury to our horse.
Riding a frightened, out-of-control horse is a truly scary experience and I recommend it only to the thrill seeker also trying to get out of continued life in this world.
I've been on such horses and the results ranged from merely a highly elevated adrenalin level in me to once jumping off a panicked horse, landing badly, and spending five weeks on crutches and not being able to ride — no joy!
And not recommended.
Get Angry and Reprimand Our Horse
This approach presumes the horse is intentionally trying to thwart us when the wind is blowing.
Why would anyone think that the onset of winds makes a horse more independent and ornery?
If you agree that riding and ignoring frightened behavior caused by winds is not very smart, then punishing a frightened animal for an external fear is downright stupid!
Yet, I've seen a few people do this, generally males.
I can't even give this approach the dignity of continued comment — next option;
Reassure and Calm Our Horse
Obviously, this is the approach I advocate, but it needs to go further.
Horses usually take their queue from the herd's leader.
If the leader decides there's danger around, he/she will often bolt to safety and the herd quickly; nay (neigh?), very quickly follows.
So, the first thing is that we need to have already established that we're the alpha with our horse.
For my own horse, I like to spend some quality time in a round pen for this horse lesson.
And we'll be adding an article in the future explaining some ways to establish your position as alpha.
If we're riding a friend's horse, a rented horse, or one new to us for some other reason, we should establish who's in charge before mounting.
I do this in several ways.
While on foot, I'll walk the horse and circle him several times, first in one direction, and then in the other.
I'll also back him up a few times interspersed with circling.
(When backing up the horse, do so using a lead line — NOT the reins — that can hurt his mouth with every pull.)
After just a few minutes, the horse generally has accepted that I'm in charge and that carries with us throughout the ride.
I'd rather use a round pen, but this is better than doing nothing on a horse we've never met before.
Plus, most people supplying a horse to a person they don't know well are unlikely to want to let us start training their horse.
But I've never had anyone get offended when I've circled the horse and backed him up a few times.
And I'll usually tell them I want to do this before starting.
(Some don't understand and think I'm worried for nothing and wasting time, but they don't object because they feel it's harmless.
Regardless, it gets the job done.)
Second, if the wind or any other event spooks the horse, such as a dog jumping out of the bushes with no warning, our horse will still act surprised — HECK!
I can also be surprised!
But some soothing words of reassurance from me have gone far to make the horse I'm on feel that things are actually ok.
Of course, I need to truly feel ok myself because the horse is sensing my every movement, whether or not I'm tensely squeezing him with my legs, my aroma, and the tone of my voice (calm or panicked in falsetto).
If I'm truly calm, the horse knows it and will respond with less anxiety for that reason alone.
Finally, with our own horses, why not just spend some time desensitizing them to the kinds of little, spooky things that wind will cause, such as flapping sheets, papers, tarps, or similar items, and moving balls, paper, and other items that will be blown across the ground.
This way, your horse won't even get more than mildly alarmed in the first place because he'll already know these items and their movement are not a danger to him.
An article on how to desensitize a horse has been written by our resident horse trainer, Jen Goddard, as part of her multi-step training program.
It's entitled: Step 9: Despooking.
Avoiding True Dangers
One more thing to consider is to avoid wind-created situations that truly do present a danger to you and your horse.
If you're a trail rider as I am, look for broken trees leaning over the trail or broken branches suspended precariously on lower branches that could fall due to wind-induced movement.
I'm always actively looking above us when in wooded areas for the possibility of such dangers so I can make a decision to go around that location rather than under it, just so we're not taking any unnecessary chances.
Even a small branch or bundle of leaves that presents no injury risk if it fell upon us, might still surprise our horse if it fell on or near us.
Avoiding that possibility is just another precaution in favor of our safety.
I've come to dislike an unexpected bolting at any time, even more so when in a densely packed forest.
We have a related article you may want to read that discusses Wind and Trailering.
Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com.
He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.
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