In Part 1 of my musings on how to stay aboard sharp horses when the wind gets under their tails, I covered one way I manage to stay more relaxed in the saddle thanks to the perfect piece of tack – a long enough neck strap.
Next: how to control my breathing, slow my heart rate, and convince the horse that everything is absolutely fine and dandy, boring in fact, and that I am so relaxed that I am practically horizontal. Thus creating a circle of positivity, of “I’m alright so you’re alright”, instead of a downward spiral of tension, reaction, and unwanted drama.
I have had to rehab quite a few horses in my time, both mine and other people’s. Tendon injuries are a particular nightmare. The vet might blithely say “strictly walking only, 10 minutes a day, gradually building up to 40 minutes, then come back for rescans” or whatever, and then some poor fool (i.e. me) has to attempt to stay on the flipping thing (in the saddle is usually safer than in hand, but not necessarily by much) and do my best to keep the horse walking calmly along, and not let it destroy months and months of careful care, of treatments and healing, in 10 seconds of “Whoopeeee I’m SO excited to be out at last, Wooooooooo I’m a rodeo star, LOOOK I can do handstands!!!”
Having heard the heels of one particular rehab horse (mine, not an owner’s, fortunately) click together directly above my head on one horribly memorable occasion, whilst looking down between my desperately-shoved-forward feet at its ears (it was nearly vertical, honestly, I truly have NO clue how I stayed on that extreme rodeo show, utter desperation gave me a superhuman Klingon grip I think), I never ever want to be in that particular position again.
So, here it is… start singing. But ideally not just any old song… you need a song with a slow tempo, with long, low, steady notes, monotonous even, that really control your breathing. Long exhalations slow the heart rate down – it’s a direct, involuntary, effect, and is of course exactly what we want.
Here are my top picks, after literally decades of experimentation.
- The Star Spangled Banner. Unless you are a bona fide American, it is very unlikely that you will know the words, so learning them and remembering them well enough to sing it flawlessly will be enough to take your mind completely off the horse you’re riding. (Based on personal experience, because it took me AGES. And I still haven’t nailed the second verse.) The beat itself is absolutely perfect, the notes long and low. If that’s a bit Too Much, then try…
- Yellow Submarine. Even if you only know the first few lines and the chorus, and maybe the alternative versions such as “Didn’t like the colour so we painted it green”. It’s a good one, with a relentless, monotonous sort of beat, and just ridiculous enough to make you smile and relax.
- Ten Green Bottles. See also Ten Little Speckled Frogs. Start at a hundred if necessary. Bore your mount into submission, basically.
- Singing in the Rain, especially in inclement weather when you might be seriously considering the life choices which got you to this point. It’s a tad boppy, so you might need to slow it down a bit, but it will make you regulate your breathing, which is the main point. Steady slow breaths slow the heartbeat and make the whole body relax, and a would-be crazy horse is far more likely to chill out if you already have.
- I Should Have Known Better (the Jim Diamond version is the one I try to emulate) is another good pick. Wry smiles all round. Nice to have a good wail along to. Alternative lyrics come fairly easily for this one.
- A bit more modern… Mad World, ideally the Gary Jules version. Existential angst is very fitting for solitary hacks, and if you’d ever heard me sing, you’d realise why they’re pretty much always solitary. I’m sure if they could, my horses would beg me to stop singing, but maybe they realise that the only way to stop the caterwauling is to be really really well behaved.
- Apart from 1, which is always my first go-to in extremis, my particular favourite is “Oh Bury Me Not…” which I have just realised is actually a Johnny Cash song, also known as The Dying Cowboy. How very very apt. Definitely the right song to sing when you are trying to stay in one piece aboard a would-be lunatic. Maybe the horse might even understand the lyrics and cut you some slack, it’s worth a go. My father used to sing this song when I was a child, and he must have made up alternative lyrics (which, of course, I remember) because they are absolutely nothing like the ones online! Funnily enough, neither is the tune or the tempo. So I sing his slowed down version, a plaintive cowboy lament, adding his extra rhyming couplets, improvising my own on the fly, amusing myself with the absurdity of them. Eminem, eat your heart out.
Anyway, it works. It’s distracting, it makes the rider’s brain control the body and overcome instinctive tension and deliberately slow the heart rate, and it can easily become a mindless good habit. Singing quietly, even just humming, does the same… it’s all about the breathing. It’s definitely worth a go. If this all sounds rather amateurish, years ago a top French showjumper had a very ‘hot’ mare who he used to sing to all the way around a course to keep her relaxed (or maybe to keep himself relaxed?), I remember watching him and being very impressed that he could sing as well as remember where he was going AND see a perfect stride to every fence!
If you have any songs to suggest for me to add to my personal playlist, I’d love to hear them. Can’t have enough of a good thing.