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 startling.
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 fan.
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 you want.
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.