Stuff Happens in the Saddle: Are Your Riding Lesson Students Prepared for an Emergency?

No matter how careful and safety-conscious you are, stuff happens. You'll want these 6 riding survival skills to become part of your students’ muscle memory.

It’s a beautiful summer day and your beginner group is on top of things, horses spaced out neatly and trotting steadily along the rail.

Then a car door opens in the parking lot next to the arena. A younger sibling falls out, clutching a helium balloon — a balloon that lasts all of two seconds before slipping through the child’s grasp.

The horse in the back of the line is the first to spot it. When he spooks, it’s like watching dominoes topple.

Suddenly there are horses bolting in every direction. Two nearly collide, a young student starts screaming, and the horse in the front — normally your most quiet of schoolmasters — lets loose with a startled buck.

This is the stuff a riding instructor’s nightmares are made of!

So how does the story end? That depends on whether or not your students have survival skills at the ready.

student kneels on ground after falling off horse

No matter how careful and safety-conscious you are, stuff happens. And as soon as you put away the leadline, the responsibility for handling a crisis is squarely on the student’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, most beginners have no idea what a spooking, bucking or runaway horse feels like… and when they do experience it, their instinctive reaction is not likely to be helpful!

As a beginner, I rode with a couple of excellent instructors, and I had USPC standards to keep me from becoming overfaced.

But most of my education in riding through scary situations occurred “on the job.”

I was lucky to be a fairly athletic kid and eventually developed a sticky seat — but looking back, I wish I’d learned to ride with a strong, defensive position before my first runaway. I was taught an emergency dismount, but had to work out on my own when this skill was actually useful. A well-timed pulley rein might have kept me from ending up face first in the mud with a pony lying on my leg… turns out the old adage about turning a runaway horse isn’t always the best plan!

Now, on the other side of the arena, I want my students to know what to do from the moment they pick up the reins. Even more importantly, I want these survival skills to become part of their muscle memory.

Because in a real crisis, they may freak out. Their bodies will tense, and their brains may go blank. There’s a lot of instinctive reaction they’ll need to override to stay safe and regain control.

This requires practice, practice, practice until the right response becomes second nature.

So what emergency riding skills do we practice?

#1 - Safety seat: the ultimate power position, the king of survival skills

When a horse bucks, bolts, shies, stumbles, unexpectedly changes speed or turns for home?

The strong, defensive safety seat gets students through these scary moments, giving their brains a chance to catch up while keeping them securely in the saddle. There are only a few instances where a survival seat is not going to help, and we make sure to discuss these scenarios as well!

Safety seat can be practiced anywhere, at any time. You don’t even really need a horse —  the technique works the same on the ground. Practicing body control and safety skills on the ground makes a great rainy day lesson… one your horses will be delighted to sit out!

#2 - The one-rein stop: circling to stop or disengaging the hindquarters

Please teach this carefully, because used incorrectly, this technique can make a bad situation worse.

A true one-rein stop requires tact, timing and a big release to execute well, which is asking a lot of a frightened beginner!

Our preference is that students use this technique to regain control before things get chaotic. This can be useful with horses pulling toward the gate or herd, or horses that run through stop signs but aren’t actually afraid.

student practices one-rein stop survival skills while riding pony

We’ll practice spiraling down as a technique for stopping a runaway, but with a golden rule: this can only be done in a clear space, on level, dry footing. No pulling horses into other riders or jumps, turning downhill, or turning sharply in the mud, please and thank you.

An important counterbalance to the one-rein stop is “Drop reins and GO,” essential for horses that get bottled up or light on their front feet. We try to avoid putting beginners on these horses, for obvious reasons, but believe that our students should still learn the correct response before they find themselves on a “sticky” horse that is threatening to rear.

Even experienced riders can struggle with this, especially because riding FORWARD through an intense situation feels counterintuitive!

#3 - The pulley rein: it’s effective, but not kind

A pulley rein, like a one-rein stop, is not for every horse and every situation. For example, it can be a very Bad Idea for a horse wearing a leveraged bit or hackamore.

However, we have seen situations where it can absolutely save the day. The pulley rein is not for students to whip out when their stopping distance gets too long in the arena. It’s for situations like a runaway on a narrow trail, or a bolting horse careening through the middle of a group lesson. (Or for the horse charging directly toward oncoming traffic – been there, done that, earned the gray hairs!)

To pass their Levels objectives, we like to have students practice a modified pulley rein with “baby tugs,” using a loose rein in the saddle. Students can also rehearse the real thing on the ground by partnering with the instructor or another student.

Setting up a successful pulley rein requires good eye-hand coordination and focused intent, both of which can also be practiced on the ground and assigned as homework exercises.

instructor teaches mounted student pulley rein survival skills with tug test

When you’re teaching students how to recognize a pulley rein situation, you’ll probably have to emphasize that yes, the pulley rein works because it is NOT NICE – but letting a frightened horse run out of control is even less nice, as it puts BOTH horse and rider in danger.

#4 - Dropping and retrieving stirrups at all gaits

This is a surprisingly difficult skill for riders with inflexible hips or ankles, and it can take extensive practice before students can do it smoothly without clobbering the horse’s barrel in the process.

In addition, we want our students to spend a lot of time riding without stirrups, so they know that if they can’t get them back, it’ll be okay.

No-stirrup work has its pros and cons, to be sure — but your students’ safety shouldn’t be reliant on those irons.

#5 - Emergency dismount at the halt, walk and trot

 Students need to practice this on both the near and off sides of the horse, because you don’t always get to choose the best spot to bail.

The most important part of teaching emergency dismounts is not the how, but the why and when.

You don’t want kids attempting to leap off a runaway horse because they think they’ve lost control. You do want them to leap off immediately if their horses put their heads down to scratch and stick a hoof through their reins!

student practices emergency dismount survivial skills on standing horse

Mostly, we want our students to know that if their spidey senses start tingling with danger, and they find themselves in a situation without guidance, it’s okay to dismount.

There are a lot of training philosophies that would disagree with that statement, but our students are not seasoned cowboys who can help a horse master his emotions. They’re going to have a big enough challenge mastering their own.

That’s why the most important skill our students can learn is…

#6 - How to recognize the signs of a horse approaching threshold

This can be hard to teach, but it’s oh, so important.

meme - horses: dangerous at both end and crafty in the middle

A horse that is tense and fearful is not learning anything productive, and is not going to look after the rider.

We’d prefer our students learn to “take five” with a horse that is overly reactive, retreating to a place of calm and safety and waiting until the horse gives them permission to proceed.

It’s best if students learn these warning signs on the ground and from a safe distance first. You might toss a cardboard box or tarp into your pasture — any new object that will cause prey animal pandemonium — and invite your students to watch the herd’s behavior. Watching green horses perform in a clinic and show can be equally educational. (Just avoid loud, public critiques!)

In the saddle, teach students to recognize tight backs and necks, pointy ears, and the spooky side-eye.

Of course, like any other skill, we need to teach survival skills in a fun and memorable way

survivor skills obstacle course map for Red Level Horsemanship

Techniques can be combined into survivor stations, mounted games and obstacle courses. Try to include these exercises and drills in lessons at all levels; even advanced riders benefit from the occasional refresher course.

Start with our Survivor Courses in Red through Orange Level Obstacle Courses.

Hopefully, your students will go a long time without using any of these tools — but will be ready when the moment comes!

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We’ve been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood in sweltering/ freezing arenas, capturing lifelong memories of lessons, camps and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

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