by Diana Kimpton
Have you noticed how a windy day always puts horses on their toes? That's because, in the wild, the wind blows away the scent and sounds of approaching predators so extra alertness can stop a horse ending up as dinner. Our domesticated horses don't have to worry about being attacked but they still find the world a scarier place when the wind whistles round the telephone wires and sends plastic bags whirling across the road.
A few years ago, I learned that horses are right to be worried about wind. It was blowing hard one day when I was due to have a group lesson at a riding school. I looked at the weather anxiously, but the instructor was sure everything would be fine so the lesson went ahead. At first, everything went well. Although the horses were all more skittish than usual, this was an advanced class so their riders could easily cope with their bouncy behaviour.
There were no problems until we were taking it in turns to work on extended trot while the rest of the calls waited in line round the edge of the arena. Suddenly a loud crack rang out and all the horses raised their heads in alarm, their muscles tense and ready for danger.
That crack was the sound of a tree breaking in half and it was followed almost immediately by the crash of it falling to the ground. Instantly, every horse in the lesson bolted. None of us riders could stop them - the combination of herd instinct and fear was stronger than any restraining hand and all the horses cared about was getting away from the source of their terror.
It was one of the most frightening experiences I've ever had while riding. As my horse pounded across the arena, completely out of control, I feared he would try to jump the fence at the other end. But he didn't. Once he was a safe distance from the fallen tree and the sound had stopped, he calmed down enough for me to stop him, as did all the other horses in the lesson.
That's when we realised our riding instructor had been knocked over during the panic. She'd been standing in the middle of the arena when the tree fell and had jumped out of the way of one bolting horse, only to collide with another. Fortunately her injuries weren't too serious but it was an object lesson in the need to be careful around horses on windy days. You can never tell what's going to happen.