If you’ve ever been around a horse that seems to react BIG out of nowhere, that horse might be known as a sleeping dragon. Lindsey Partridge of Harmony Horsemanship addresses how to approach and tame these dragons.
Have you ever experienced a horse that seems like it is calm, but then seemingly out of nowhere – zazoom!? The horse goes from standing still or not moving too quickly, doing what you ask and, if anything, is a bit unresponsive, lazy or pokey — then it explodes in a flurry of bucks, running, scooching, skidding, broncing or any form of animation.
Yesterday I was working with my favourite dressage trainer, Canadian Olympian Belinda Trussel, and we got chatting about these types of horses. Belinda and I like to get together to collaborate. She helps me with adding advanced dressage movements to my skill set, and I help her with adding groundwork skills, relaxation, and building confidence techniques to her grand prix and Canadian team hopeful prospects.
We were working with one of her up-and-coming superstar horses, a gorgeous Danish warmblood that is on track to being a mount for the Canadian team. He is very talented and an amazing ride, but when they are leading him in and out of the arena or in some other types of situations, he can be unpredictable and might scooch or jump forward but then settles down again.
It was Belinda that coined the term “sleeping dragon” as we chatted about the type of horse that can give the illusion of being calm and relaxed but then suddenly jumps forward or seems triggered into a spook or startle. Essentially, they can appear to be sleeping but then can become wild like a dragon.
Reading the behaviour of these types of horses can be a bit trickier, but the good news is that there are some signs to look for. Once you do connect with one of these sleeping dragons, the perk is that you have a horse so focused on you that they will try their heart out for you and can make some of the best performance and show horses.
My retired movie horse and EXCA champion, Dreamer, was a former sleeping dragon. Before I was given him, he had a history of bucking people off. He was easily worried, and if you got too firm with your voice or cues, he would coil like a spring and you could feel him get worried and tense.
After we developed a calm connection and he learnt to be a “yes horse” through positive reinforcement, he became the most loyal, loved, willing, honest, smart and best horse anyone could ask for. He even did a couple movies with Heartland’s Kevin McGarry and was ridden by different actors and actresses, as well numerous kids handled him including our toddler program.
Signs of the sleeping dragon:
- Taking shallow breaths or holding their breath
- Tight nostrils
- Not blinking
- Stiff in their body, won’t bend side to side easily
- Tight lipped and not licking/chewing
- Reluctant to eat
- Bracing in their body (will lean into pressure)
When you notice any of the signs above, it is important to help the horse find relaxation. If its tension level escalates, it can be easily triggered into an explosive state.
Sometimes it helps to think like a horse and relate. Have you ever been super stressed out or anxious? Maybe just before a horse competition, or before making a big decision, when taking an exam at school, or if you were walking down a dark alley and were scared. In that situation, something small could happen that normally wouldn’t bother you, but because you are already tense you are easily triggered into fight or flight and might jump or react. For example, your cell phone starts to ring and you jump, something falls and you startle, or someone asks you where the bathroom is and you snap back at them. These reactions are all because you are stressed and on adrenaline — you are in survival mode.
Our bodies have two states — sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest, digest, play, learn, heal). For some horses and people, it is easy to see which state they are in. If a horse is in survival mode they are usually running around, head high in the air, snorting, calling, quick movements, can’t stand still, etc. Not every horse has the same symptoms.
Sleeping dragons are the types that when they go into a sympathetic state, they don’t show those bigger, louder, more obvious signs. They hold onto their emotions on the inside and hide the fact they are scared, nervous, anxious or on edge. Then something triggers them and they can’t hide it anymore so they explode or have a big reaction.
What can we do to help?
The biggest thing is to start to notice when a horse is starting to feel tense, tight, not breathing deeply and the other signs listed above. Then instead of ignoring them and hoping the horse relaxes, do something to cause relaxation.
There are many ways to help a horse relax. These are some of my favourites:
- Calm connection exercises from Harmony Horsemanship (Square, S Pattern, 360 with a Twist, Move with me and Yield, Spiral, and Boomerang)
- Endo Tapping — Charlotte Cannon teaches this technique and is pioneering this research
- Cranial Sacral holds — I teach an upper lip hold, body scan, and breathing exercise
- Lower your horses head so it’s below the horse’s withers
- Have your horse cross their back legs
- Bemer mat
- Let your horse graze (lower their head and eat)