Have you ever faced the challenge of a horse that is either sluggish, dull, shut down, over trained, or perhaps one that is flighty, jiggy, overly reactive and never settles down? I have, and I go straight to the round pen to fix the issue. The key is to normalize the animal, either by getting him out of his depressed state or by calming him down.
I call these two states “broken flight distances;” they are mental states that cause a horse to react to their world either far more or far less than what is natural for a normal horse. The horse who never settles down is mentally trying to flee (but he can never get away, due to bridles, saddles, halters and more, so he’s stuck in a repetitive state of hyperactivity); the shut-down horse seems to have just given up and tolerates whatever goes on around him in a depressed sort of manner.
Harkening back to the song from the old TV series Mr. Ed—“…a horse is a horse, of course of course…”—we have to remember, no matter how broke or how trained they become, a horse is still a horse, and he’s a prey animal. All prey animals have a “flight zone” and “flight initiation distance,” also called escape or alert distance. All of these terms have to do with the horse’s willingness to take risks from an approaching threat (which can be a human) and how close they allow the threat to get before attempting to escape. If a human is crowding this space or gets deep into it (such as by handling, grooming or riding) the animal usually desensitizes this space. In some instances, though, the animal becomes overly dull and needs help freeing up, or he becomes overly sensitive and needs help settling down.
Free Work for the Free Spirit
To help reset a horse with either type of broken flight distance, I’ll turn him loose in a round pen and work him through a series of control-and-release moves. For both dull, overstimulated horses and flighty, overly sensitive horses, I find that removing a halter and line from the equation can be a game changer.
The overly dull horse is finally free of the sometimes-restrictive physical equipment—this can really “brighten” him up. Meanwhile, the overly reactive horse doesn’t have a physical restraints on which blame his troubles, so he learns to be controlled with what is most natural to horses in the first place: his flight zone. This free work is also very good for humans. When the horse is loose, and we cannot micromanage him. Instead, we have to think more like a horse and this, by virtue of simple repetition, helps us become better horsemen and -women.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2020 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join