Saturday, July 11, 2020

why running backwards is so dangerous

There are literally countless behavioral issues common in horses, ranging from annoying but benign to.... really fucking dangerous.

Running backwards is.... one of these things. Horses just don't really "run" backwards in nature. Like, obviously they can physically back up (otherwise how else would they get off most trailers?!). And sure -- you'll see them kick it into reverse if they need to get away from a threatening herd mate or whatever in turnout.

charlie lives in a bank barn - a structure built into a hillside. this means the ground slopes away from the building such that one end of the barn is nearly subterranean and the opposite end is above ground
But running backwards? That's frequently a conditioned response. Probably not conditioned on purpose, but ya know... Horses don't always learn the exact lessons we think we're teaching. Racehorses in particular often end up with a backwards type response to pressure -- maybe from how they're trained or made to go into the starting gates? Some natural horsemanship methods deploy the backwards run too.

The issue, tho, is that a horse who has learned to relieve pressure by going backwards might also revert to that response when he becomes worried under saddle. And according to Horse Talk NZ, "this is the most dangerous thing that any horse can do."
"When a horse panics and runs backwards, he stops thinking altogether and you have absolutely no control. A horse running backwards like this can easily roll over backwards and it’s usually on top of the rider."
Which.... fucking happened to a friend and her horse at my farm this week. For really no apparent reason whatsoever.

charlie likes grazing on the embankment at the above ground side
The friend simply got on the horse from the mounting block, like any other day, but the mare was kinda in a little bit of a fuss and started going backwards. But.... she ended up backing up onto a grassy embankment and then flipped the fuck over off the edge of said embankment.

Thank god the rider was thrown clear tho bc..... it honestly wasn't exactly obvious at first where she had landed. From where I stood in the doorway, I didn't see the fall but did see the initial backing and then the horse struggling in a seizure on the ground -- belly and legs facing me, with rider nowhere to be seen. I can't even imagine what would have happened if the rider was trapped under that horse...

Because guys. Horses are just straight up not physically designed to flip over backwards. Their heads are like giant heavy weights at the end of the long tether of their neck. And when the mass of the falling body slams that weight into the ground.... the results are catastrophic.

horse backed suddenly away from mounting block onto that grassy embankment behind charlie, before falling backwards off the slope onto the driveway
This poor mare.... It all happened so fast.

She was immediately in a seizure. Eyes jerking and unseeing, jaw clenched, legs striking out, and the entire body wracked with spasms, the horse's head striking the ground again and again. Some blood from the nose, but no visible hemorrhage.

She'd be able to lay quietly for a little while, during which periods we could get the tack off and cover her poor eyes with a towel.... But when she'd spasm again she was essentially a giant 1,100lb wrecking ball. She had no control of her body and absolutely zero awareness of any people or objects around her -- at one point going through a fence like it was matchsticks.

Basically all anyone could do while waiting for the vet was keep the people safe, and administer a sedative to the horse (after checking with the vet on which specific drugs were approved for seizures).

such such fragile creatures
And ya know, that was it. The wait for the vet was interminable. And this poor rider, who had only just started leasing this horse, was entirely helpless. Like.... what on earth could she have done differently?

Obviously that's the hardest question to face after any tragic or freak accident. What could I have done differently? There's just no satisfying answer to that question, unfortunately. In the case of the above accident, I don't think there even IS an answer. In that moment, the rider was absolutely powerless, and nearly herself a casualty.

Could something have been done earlier? Honestly, I don't know. I didn't know the mare, and it was a new partnership for the rider (who, it should be noted, is extremely capable). I have no idea of any of the history.

But I *have* known a couple horses over the years who had a penchant for running backwards... And honestly, thinking through some specific events makes me realize just how lucky I've been to not see this outcome previously.

So idk. Not entirely sure why I'm sharing this story here, tbh. It's not even really my story to tell. Except... Ya know, horses are really fucking dangerous. And it turns out that even 'normal' behavioral issues can spiral out of control really really quickly. So my hope is that.... knowledge is our best protection against complacency.

Especially if you have a horse that reverts to running backwards when worried or under stress, it's worth googling around and searching the forums to learn how others address the behavior. Or better yet, talk about it with the trusted people in your circle -- trainers, vets, friends, etc.

Mostly tho, just paying attention and being aware is so critical. If you can figure out what triggers that type of backward response -- you can either try to stop it before it starts, redirect it, or at the very least avoid getting swept up in an uncontrollably dangerous situation.


  1. Oh my god, tha5 is so scary. Was the horse euthanized? I will say that Carmen used to do the backwards run. It’s pretty fucking scary. I have two responses: one is to give the rein and kick forward, using my stick if needed. And I’m not gentle about it either. The other is to take control of the backing and back her all around the ring until it’s no fun anymore and then back some more and then go forward. It rarely comes up anymore. She did try it yesterday and got a lot of kicks and sparkling to get her ass forward because I don’t put up with that shit anymore. I think she learned it before as an evasion, probably from being pushed too fast.

  2. Backwards was Bobby's m.o. and I do believe there's even helmet cam of him backing right off a fucking cliff--as I emergency dismount/fling myself off his side. It was also one of the reasons I just had no tolerance for people that commented about how getting into it with him was "not humane". Like, no. I am not going to pet his soft mane and offer him tea and crumpets while he's running backwards with no care as to what's behind him.

    Ugh. Anyway. That poor fucking rider. I hope she's ok! That's horrible about the horse. :(

  3. Oh, that's absolutely horrific, I'm so sorry for the rider and for everyone who had to see that.

    I think every horse has it in the somewhere. Tristan has done it - only once or twice under saddle - more consistently in hand early on. I always got on him about it IMMEDIATELY. I know it's dangerous but it's also frankly a terrifying thing to ride - it feels unnatural and out of control on a really instinctual level.

  4. Running backwards is definitely a fear. If it ever happens on the ground, my first response is to de-escalate. It's never worth a horse flipping over. And it's even more mortifying undersaddle when you feel their but go under and can't get them to move forward.

    Most of the time, horses do give a signal before something happens. Sometimes we miss those signals or can only see them in hindsight. Sometimes the signal is so subtle that we miss it entirely, and I think that's what happened in this case. There are points where you could not have done anything differently, and I hope this rider understand that.

  5. Holy shit. What an awful thing. I'm so sorry to the horse (who I'm assuming didn't make it), the rider (who will undoubtedly feel a ton of guilt), and for everyone who witnessed it. Traumatic. I once saw a loose horse fall sideways down an embankment and roll down it. I was shocked when he stood up like no big deal - was sure there was going to be a broken leg. They're so damn fragile.

  6. So scary, glad your barnmate was thrown clear!

  7. I'm so sorry for that horse and rider, and everyone at the barn that day who had to witness such a horrific event. Horses running backwards or rearing and flipping is one of the behaviors that scares me the most, and I get especially nervous when there is a trailer or an enclosed area like a concrete grooming stall involved because I've seen some really horrible accidents happen.

  8. So scary and horrible to watch, let alone be the person on the horse. I wonder if the horse had something medically go wrong in it's brain at that moment. I once was around a horse who became suddenly neurological. Terrifying for all involved.

  9. That's so scary! It's horrifying how quickly things can go bad with horses.

  10. Oh man - that must've been so horrible to see. I'm so glad the rider wasn't hurt. Horses are so dangerous when things go sideways... :-(

  11. What a terrifying incident! I'm so sorry for all of you that had to be a part of it. Grateful for the educational story afterward, but yikes. I cannot imagine how scary it was in the moment.

  12. Oh my God what a horrible accident!! Is everyone okay? Are you okay?? Backwards running is the scariest thing, but even on Pig I've never experienced anything that dramatic. WOW 😱

  13. Holy shit :(
    What a terrifying ordeal. I really hope the rider is ok - what a traumatic incident for everyone :(

  14. Oh that's so scary and sad!
    I wonder though if that horse didn't have something happen, like an aneurism or some kind of stroke that caused her to run backwards. I've seen horses fall backwards before but never in a way to cause a seizure like that. Not that it really matters in the end. I hope the rider is okay, that is really traumatic.

  15. OMG what a terrible thing to happen and to witness. I'm glad the rider wasn't killed, but the trauma is very real, I'm sure. Running backwards is terrifying for this and so many other reasons. I'm working with one now that has learned to do it with a previous owner and it's so scary and dangerous. He has no sense of self preservation and I've reverted to long lining him because it's just not worth the risk. I think you're right that it's a learned behavior and not something horses do naturally as a normal response to anything scary. Do you think the horse hit the ground and then seized or had a seizure that led to her running backwards and falling over? If it was out of character for her, I wonder if she had some kind of medical episode at the mounting block. I guess it doesn't really matter either way, but it does make you think there's literally nothing that could have been done. That's a scary thing about our sport. One freak thing and everything can be over in the blink of an eye...


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