These past few weeks I have been out to meet a handful of new students and their horses. I have been giving each of them a lesson and a theme that showed up more than once was a horse in stress. Most times the stress occurred as a result of the horse being left alone in the arena by other horses which made them feel insecure and alone. One of the horses with whom I experienced this was quite a big fellow who measured way above my head. He was a very kind horse, but also lacking a bit of confidence in himself as well as his surroundings. Therefore the person who handled him felt rather small when he started pawing and kicking with his front legs due to stress, frustration and anxiety from being left alone in the riding arena. So what would be a good way to react in this situation? You have a horse around 1.75m at the end of the lead rope who starts acting wild and throwing his front legs around in frustration?
The first response that comes up in your body when you stand in front of him is to become insecure and a bit scared. The feeling of the adrenalin kicking in to warn your body that this is not a very safe situation to be in. The most obvious solutions to your body will either be to fight or flight. It is not really a productive solution to let go of the rope and run away and therefore most people chose to fight instead. They yell at their horse, pulls the lead rope and tries to make him stand still and behave properly. There are actually several problems related to handling the problem with a fight. Let me mention some of them…
- The horse is not given an alternative on how to handle the stressful situation, but only told what NOT to do. That means that instead of behaving the way you wish he might come up with an even worse or dangerous idea because he still doesn’t know a better response to the way he is feeling.
- The horse is not shown that you can help him in a situation that is terrifying or unpleasant to him, but only that he know has two things to be afraid of. Both the fact that he feels stressed for being left by another horse and the fact that a little human is now desperately yelling into his face and pulling on the lead rope out of fear.
- The horse is not given an opportunity to make peace with his stressful state of mind, but only allowed to suppress his feelings, hide them inside and pretend they doesn’t exist by acting as we please. His feelings are not acknowledged and he is not receiving any support that might make him feel more safe, but instead he is only provoked to either become even more dangerous or shut down in fear from the angry and scared human.
Okay… so now we know how NOT to respond! Same way as with the horse in stress it is not helpful to only be told what not to do, but instead we, as well as the horse, should be shown another and better way of handling things. I know it can be terrifying to stand face to face with a horse who is becoming wild and uncontrollable to due fear or anxiety and of course this is written from the assumption that the situation is still not life endangering. If we assume that is the case then the best way to handle a horse in stress is to acknowledge how he feels and support him in his current state of mind. That is done in more ways than one…
- Breathe. The best way to get your body to settle and relax is by breathing. It will make you think more clear and respond from a reasonable state of mind instead of instincts. Not only will it be a help for you, but also a way for you to affect your horse in a natural way and show him a good example of what you wish for him to do.
- Be his safety zone. It can be difficult to catch the attention of a horse who is stressed, but any sign of relaxation, presence or connection to you should always be rewarded. It can be a great help to have some treats in this situation as it underlines the thankfulness you show your horse for his attempt to calm himself down. The way I often do it is by standing face to face with the horse, walking a few steps backwards and inviting him towards me. As soon as he even looks at me or come a step closer to me I immediately reward. When he is with me I make sure to relax, be kind, share treats or whatever might be pleasant to him. This way I can let him know that no matter the danger he can always find comfort, relaxation and support with me.
- Show a better alternative. This actually relates a lot to what I just wrote above as the procedure is the same, but the point a little different. By constantly rewarding the slightest bit of relaxation, breathing, lowering of the head or any other sign of settling down from your horse you will show him the better alternative of how to handle the stress in his body and mind. In the future it will be easier for him to calm down quickly because he not only knows that you will be calm and supportive around him, but also because he has been shown a way to act in the situation. Instead of telling him what you don’t want him to do, you have shown him and rewarded him for all the things you DO want.
- Make little successes. The three first steps are the most important in the process and usually that will help the horse settle a bit if not completely. When you manage to get out of the evil stressful circle you can help your horse stay relaxed and present with you be engaging him in little exercises or something else that you know he is good at. Make sure to have super low expectations and thereby allow your horse to be praised and succesfull from the slightest attempts. That will make him excited to try more and take part in your training. As a result he will easier forget about the stress and enjoy his time with you.
To sum it all up the most important things in handling a horse in stress is to support him and acknowledge his feelings. By undermining them and yelling at him for feeling the way he does, he will only loose trust in you as a partner and be confirmed in the fact that he has something to fear. In worst case he will simply become shut down and not dare to show any feelings because he has experienced the lack of empathy and support from his human handler. Be there for your horse when he is stressed or scared instead of being against him. Help him figure out a better way of handling his feelings and put him up for success.
If you have questions or thoughts please leave a comment below!