Responding to fear
How do you respond to your horse when he is scared or insecure?
During the time I have been teaching I have come across this exact topic a couple of times and as many people find it difficult to cope with the fear in a big animal such as our horses, I believe it is time for me to speak my thoughts on the subject and hopefully encourage to access fearful situations in a new way.
I guess it is common knowledge to most people who work with horses that these animals in case of danger responds by going into a fight-or-flight mode. Just to sum up the theory behind this expression it means that if they feel threatened they will either fight the thread or try to escape it. We most often see that they choose the escape solution as horses after all are a flight animal. Almost only in situations where they are unable to escape and run away they will choose to pick the fight. However my point with the text was not to state the obvious that we all know, but to actually shed some light on what happens in humans being during the same kind of situations.
The thing is that we as humans beings have the exact same way of responding during situations that we see as potentially dangerous or life-threatening. We either fight or flight. Depending on the human being we are talking about some are more prone to choose flight while others more easily goes into the fight. That is a matter of personality, previous experiences and the exact situation of course. I do however believe that we due to being partly hunters by nature are more likely to choose the fight compared to the horses who are flight animals by nature. Shortly said that when we are threatened or at least feel like it many of us might attempt to fight the thread to make it go away rather than turn around and run for our lives as the horses often do. Why is that even relevant or important to be aware of?
The reason why I find this such an important issue is because we in the company of horses are very likely to now and then find ourselves in a more or less dangerous situation. Not because the horse is ill-mannered or behaving dangerously, but it could be for the simple reason that the horse becomes scared or frightened. Imagine this situation for your inner eye…
You are going for walk in the forest with your horse and everything seems to be harmony and idyll. All of a sudden he senses or sees something in the bushes that you have not noticed and still are unable to localize. He tenses up, lifts his head and starts breathing superficially. He is moving a bit around in the same spot preparing for takeoff (flight). You on the other hand hold on to the other end of the rope and you have no idea what causes the danger. Seen from your perspective there is nothing to be afraid of and the behavior from your horse seems to be completely unnecessary.
How do you respond to your horse now? Chances are that you due to his suddenly overwhelming behavior tenses up a bit yourself. Standing beside a 600kg horse who prepares for flight is not something anyone appreciates or enjoys when they are on the other end of the lead rope I believe. What happens now is that YOUR fight-or-flight mode kicks in as well and that is where the problems often arrive. As mentioned previously many humans beings will choose the fight response if they feel threatened and see a possibility of winning the fight. I believe that is why I (and probably many others) more often than not see people starting to FIGHT their horses when they become anxious. People will either jerk on the rope, yell at them or something like it. My theory is that they do not necessarily act in this way because they think it is the best nor on purpose, but because THEY become scared and follow their fight response in order to make the threat go away. The threat would go away if the horse stopped being scared, but how likely is it that he becomes less scared just because you are yelling in his head or jerking on the lead rope? Honestly? Not very likely!
Chances are that he will become so scared of YOU at the same time that he stops showing his fear on the outside, but I promise you that it will still be right there under his skin. The only outcome will be that he now not only fears whatever he saw in the forest, but also you. You have just confirmed him that whenever he is scared he will have to deal with it alone and he sure as hell does not get any support from you to overcome his fears. He is not even allowed to show he is scared actually. What seemed to be an uncomfortable situation for him before has now only become even more uncomfortable and that is something a horse remembers. That does not mean that you can’t change the way he approaches fearful situations, but it is something you will have to be aware of and work on.
So what would be the better option? The best way to not only avoid situations like this, but also to make your horse braver in the future is by acknowledging his fear and support him in leaving it behind. Instead of confirming him in being scared by making the situation even more uncomfortable for him, you should give yourself the challenge to make it the best possible experience for him.
Below I have listed a few reminders or good ideas for you next time you are in a situation with a horse who becomes scared or anxious.
- The more he tenses up, the more you relax and breathe deeply
- Whatever he sees, you try to see it with him and figure out what scares him
- If you manage to locate the scary object you can tell him about it. Assure him that it is nothing he needs to be afraid of
- You can distract him with treats, scratches or invite him to eat some grass nearby to make him calm down
- If he becomes brave enough to take a closer look at the scary object, support him! Go with him and praise him for being brave
By allowing your horse to either eat treats, grass or something else when he is scared you make his body restart the parasympathetic nervous system because the body prepares for digesting the newly eaten food. By following the steps above I promise you that you will have better chances of leaving this situation in a way that has been a good experience for both of you. Not only will your horse now be less scared around this object the next time you pass, he will also know that you are his friend and will be there to support him when the world is overwhelming. Furthermore you can be sure that he feels more confident now that he has managed to overcome his fear and might even been able to confront it. I think we all know the feeling of standing face to face with something that really scares us. It might be a bridge hanging far up in the open air, a rollercoaster or anything that could seem potentially dangerous to you. When you have received the support and encouragement to overcome it and made it, haven’t you then felt amazing afterwards? That is how your horse will feel about himself if you manage to make a fearful situation a good experience!
Another way of reminding yourself to stay calm and supportive in a situation of fear is by imagining that you stand with a little kid in your hand. This little kid has seen something that scares him and he does not know what to do. Would you in this case just pull him off and tell him to stop being scared or would you take your time to support him, tell him it was okay and help him overcome his fear in a good way? I don’t think it will be necessary to even ask…
Try to think of these few things the next time you are in a middle of a situation that makes your fight-or-flight mode trigger and observe yourself in how you respond. You have the opportunity to help your horse become braver, more trusting in you and make it a good experience – why not take it?