Overcoming Fear in Horses

Another ROTH Students Psychology Report for your reading enjoyment!

Cecilia Vohl

August 30, 2013

To understand how to overcome any fear for a horse, one must understand the language of equus, including body language and energy, especially when presented with a threat, while appreciating the interspecies communication involving hierarchy in the herd; then applying a methodology with patience that would motivate and empower the horse to gain the confidence and renewed perspective to overcome whatever issue creating that fear.

Fear can be created in horses in many ways: abuse or assault, being whipped or beaten; neglect in the form of isolation, starvation or improper hoof care; pain caused by improper tacking; rider error; herd dynamics where a horse may be isolated or driven out of a herd; dominant horses ganging up on a horse who is lower in the ranking order; unknown futures; or, grief and/or loss.  A good example of a fearful horse would be a wild mustang that was rounded up using helicopters until exhaustion, while witnessing its foal dying from being trampled on by other horses during the panic caused by the helicopters chasing them; then being corralled into holding pens, separated from their herd and family.

Being a prey animal, horses process a perceived threat quickly, with an innate understanding and constant concern for their well-being and survival.  A horse can associate a possible threat and react from within 3/10ths to 8/10ths of a second.  This is also the response time for any action by the horse and the response by the human to correct an unwanted behavior or move, or to acknowledge a try.

Horses respond to a fearful situation by responding with fight, flight, or freezing.  The fight response is exhibited with some form of aggression toward the threat by kicking, striking, bucking, or biting.  Some threat may be seen before actual physical contact is carried out, such as a squaring of the shoulders toward the threat, coupled with direct eye contact.  For horses who have never been given a bath, for instance, the hose may look like a snake, a possibly dangerous predator, with a life of its own, and the water is a new thing making a strange noise, causing the horse to try to move away from the perceived threat.  Dakota reacted in a fear-based manner, trying to head-butt and bite Laurent to get away from the water-spewing snake.  This action by Dakota is called a “displacement”:  Dakota was redirecting and shifting his frustration from not being able to leave, and since he couldn’t kick or bite the threatening hose or water, Laurent was a convenient outlet.

The flight response involves spooking, moving away suddenly in a bolt or fleeing.  An unrestrained horse will flee at a full gallop from 1/4 to 1/8 of a mile after being spooked before stopping to see what startled them.  Even though technically restrained in a round pen, a frightened horse will race around the pen for a very long time because the perceived threat is still present, such as an unfamiliar object, like a rope, or a particularly noisy plastic bag.  Every situation is unique to each horse.  It is up to the human to “capture the whisper” — to hear what the horse is telling us through its body language — and therefore anticipate the response before it occurs.  This prescience is essential to stopping the response to fear from beginning or escalating.

The freeze response is an instinctual response to being attacked to avoid further physical damage, holding absolutely still, waiting for the right moment to escape and survive, such as when the pressure is released for a moment while the predator adjusts its grip. The area around the horse where the freeze response is triggered is called the “into pressure” zone and varies from horse to horse.  This zone can vary from as far out as a few yards from the horse’s body, and reaches inward to the point of contact of the body.  Freezing can also manifest as despondency, shaking, or shutting down from a learned helplessness.

The method of interspecies communication is comprised of 80% body language, 13% eye contact, and 7% vocalization.  The reason for a predominantly “silent” form of communication in the form of body language is because sound would draw the attention of predators.  For instance, a horse will show aggression by squaring up with his or her shoulders directly to the threat, making direct eye contact, and then possibly striking out with its forelegs.  Or, that aggression may be in the form of the horse swinging its hips directly toward the threat, possibly kicking with its hind legs.  The reason for this aggression in the herd hierarchy was seen with the wild mustangs at the water hole at the McCollough Peaks, where Red Rocker communicated to the two bachelors, Cigaro and San Jose, that they needed to keep their distance from his mares by making direct eye contact and approaching them with his massive shoulders squared to them.  Red Rocker then shared breath with the two bachelors, then vocalized quickly and sharply as if to say, “And I mean it!”  That message was clearly received, and they both moved off to an acceptable distance.

The methodology to help a horse overcome a fear begins with establishing an open communication, leading to a trust-based respect with the horse to create a 50/50 partnership.  One must meet the horse where they are now, find out the horse’s history and personality through different exercises, and understand the horse is doing the best they can on that day.  Be patient. Take the time it takes, and it takes less time.  Allow that trust to foster by being the leader you would follow.

This objective is attained by first aligning one’s body, mind, and spirit, which horses can easily read within three to five minutes, allowing the horse to enter your heart-space so both horse and human can be open to communicate.  Round-penning is a good option to begin communicating and to learn the horse’s personality and history.  It is a safe environment where the horse can be observed while he or she has the freedom to investigate the new environment for 10 to 15 minutes unhaltered.  This session begins with haltering the horse after this unhaltered “quality time,” and leading the horse in a clockwise fashion in a tight circle in the middle, stopping at each compass point, praising the horse each time the horse turns to face you at a compass point; then unhaltering and sending the horse out to a trot around the pen, in essence “sending it out of the herd,” to begin the conversation and to assure you have the horse’s attention.

Using known equus body language — eyes on eyes (used as a reprimand, asking for attention, and controls speed), shoulders square (influences direction), human at a 45 degree angle back behind the horse (drives horse forward) — the conversation begins, controlling the speed and direction of the horse, and the manner of the turn from either clockwise to counterclockwise or vice versa.  Once this communication is established by observing that the horse has the inside ear cocked toward the human, eyes are on eyes, and the responses are appropriate to the cues between each other, the horse will know he or she is understood and will ask to be invited back into your herd of two.  It is also effective nonverbal communication for the human to remember to visualize the intended action by the horse, to bring the energy up appropriately for the situation from the heart directed to the horse, and then finally to show the intention through clear body language.  Horses receive information telepathically, so the visualization piece is very helpful to them.  They feel the energy quickly, and it is clearly understood.  Those two aspects – visualization and energizing — are confirmed by the body language of the human.  To that end, it is important to remember to breathe.  The horse will then relax and be able to focus on whatever task they are concentrating on at the time.

The signs of this “ask” by the horse to be “allowed back into the herd” are licking and chewing, head-dropping, the nose turned toward the human, a slow, steady walk by the horse, and coming off the enclosure fence, narrowing of the radius of the flight circle.  To accept this ask, the human simply turns sideways — exposing the ribcage, demonstrating vulnerability and passivity — drops the eyes, lowers their energy, all actions which exhibit nonthreatening behavior, which will invite the horse to eagerly come into the human’s personal space to seal the contract, where lots of praise, affection, and love can be given to the horse.  This release of pressure of being turned away and out of the herd and allowing the horse to rest are rewards for the horse, reassuring the horse that he or she is doing the right thing and has been accepted back into the herd of two, which provides safety and comfort to the horse.

Another excellent tool for giving the horse confidence is the obstacle course, often referred to as “liberty work,” where various unknown objects can be explored by the horse, creating an environment for the horse to willingly learn.  Horses are naturally curious, so they will investigate each object, which is the first step in taking action to success.  And once the knowledge is gained and perception changed from the object being a threat to being innocuous will strides be taken to vanquish that fear previously associated with the “threat.”  Conquering the unknown in small steps is a great way to overcome fear.

As an example, the obstacle course can address any concerns the horse may have in regards to the ranking order of its herd by giving it confidence to assert itself in the face of a possible conflict. The first step is to allow the horse to explore, on its own, the obstacles for about six to nine minutes before the human enters the area to assist and guide the horse through the exploration process; this way, the horse will believe he or she dealt with their fears on their own, giving them the first level of confidence needed to study and process the rest of the course. This period when the horse explores the obstacle course is called the “quality time” for the horse. When constrained by boundaries, horses find it easier to move in a clockwise direction for most horses.  This is also a good time to observe the horse’s personality, mood on that day, and possible history factors that may come into play while overcoming any fear.  Horses are naturally drawn to the objects they fear the most; consequently, success in prevailing over any issues can be attained by asking the horse to conquer the easiest obstacle first, working in a step-by-step fashion, guiding the horse to investigate each successive object of increasing fear at a smooth and consistent pace, saving the most fearful object for last.  This will build confidence and provide a source of entertainment and fun for the horse.

When investigating the obstacle course, it is necessary for the human to listen and respond appropriately while guiding the horse with clear nonverbal language, remembering that the response to the horse’s action must come within 3/10ths to 8/10ths of a second.  It is also important to remember the three components of communicating your motivation to the horse: visualize, energize, and body language.  Again, breathing relaxes both the human and the horse, which allows both to be more open to communicate effectively.  When the horse makes any try to confront their fears with any particular obstacle, congratulations are in order in the form of a pet on the forehead or neck and/or allowing the horse to rest.  This release of pressure and acceptance is the reward for the horse.

Another more direct approach to overcoming any fear in horses is the exercise called “spook-busting.”  Here, various objects are placed in a large area, and the practice of “shaping” and “desensitization” are employed.  Shaping and desensitization are used in all other areas to help the horse overcome fear, as well, but in this exercise, they are of particular importance.  Shaping involves breaking down the challenges in easy-to-understand steps for the horse, and once each step is explored and perception is shifted from the object being a threat to it being just another harmless thing, a positive reinforcement (praise, rest, and a release of pressure) given for the horse’s try, further exposure toward the desired goal is introduced, allowing the horse to reach realistic victories, permitting the horse to feel successively more comfortable and confident with each small triumph.

Understanding what promotes fear and what to do about it for the horse is an invaluable tool in creating a well-rounded, happy, and confident horse.  The bond between human and horse is strengthened, the human caregiver becomes a source of safety for the horse, possibly dangerous situations are handled with aplomb, and life becomes a thing of pleasure and fun for all concerned.

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