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Fear in Horses

By: Dr. Linda Aronson

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Horses are a prey species and as such it is their nature to run first and ask questions later. However, if we are trying to ride or drive them or even control them in hand, this can be dangerous behavior.

Like most species, horses aren't born with fear. It is possible to introduce and assimilate a great many stimuli at birth so the foal won't react with fear when he gets older. This is the basis of much of Dr. Robert Miller's technique of imprinting foals.

  • Touching the young foal all over – including inside body orifices – until he relaxes

  • Getting him used to different substrates – plastic bags, sacking, paper – by rubbing them over him

  • Introducing the sound and vibration of clippers without actually clipping

  • Fans

  • Banging on his feet – preparing him for the farrier and generally having his feet handled

  • Circling his girth area – in preparation for a girth strap - will make it easier for him to accept these things later in life without exhibiting fear.

    Foals resist restraint at birth but will adapt to it. The more they are handled, particularly at a distance from their dams, the more self confident they will become. However, foals raised solely in the presence of humans will fear other horses when reintroduced to their own species.

    Fear of new objects begins as early as the second hour of life, but the young foal will continue to show curiosity about his surroundings while he is secure in the presence of his dam. However, if the foal experiences something negative in this most sensitive time of life it can set him up for a life long fear. As the horse ages he can still acquire long-term fears, but the initial stimulus has to be more profound.

    Most fear is acquired. The more profound the stimulus that produces the fear the harder it will be to eradicate. Pain is probably the most likely stimulus to induce a deep-seated fear.

    Specific Fears

    As with other species, horse fears fall into three categories:

  • Animate fears (fear of living things)
  • Fear of inanimate things
  • Fear of situations

    Animate Fears

    These can be further sub-divided into:

  • Fear of other horses
  • Fear of different species, including humans

    Most animate fears are directed towards unfamiliar animals or people. Fear of other horses usually stems from lack of exposure to other horses during the sensitive learning "socialization" period or to an unpleasant encounter or series of experiences with a particular horse. Fear of other species can arise during this time but are more likely to be acquired later. Dogs that chase horses and people who are unnecessarily rough will induce fear.

    Fear can have particularly dangerous consequences in horses because of their size. Horses may strike out at or kick dogs that approach them; even those that do not intend to give chase. Similarly they may react violently to humans armed only with good intention, anticipating rough treatment. Because the horse's behavior in this instance is motivated by fear, punishment will only make it worse.

    Inanimate Fears

    These are probably the most common fears in horses and stem from their principle means of defense – flight. Horses rely on speed to put as much distance as possible between themselves and whatever it is that might harm them. When a horse feels fully in control of a situation, he will usually let his natural curiosity overcome his fear. A horse alone in a field might approach and explore the flapping plastic bag caught on a hedge. But he will be poised to run if necessary. With a rider restricting his movements a horse may prefer to run while he has the chance rather than stopping to check something out. Some horses are so overcome by their fears that they prefer to avoid something rather than explore it.

    Almost anything can cause a horse to spook. Sometimes approaching the same object from a different direction can provoke fear. Some things are scary because they resemble something else – a log that looks like a crouching puma, or others because of their novelty – either the horse hasn't seen anything like it before or it is in a new location, changing the familiarity of the scene. Shadows may hide all sorts of strange beasts.

    In general, horses are probably more likely to react to something at the periphery of their vision or hearing than closer to them, provided the latter is clearly seen or heard and doesn't happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Oddly enough, though, a bored horse may react for no apparent reason other than to give themselves something to do. On the 15th repetition of the same movement around the arena, for instance, your horse may spook at a non-existent phantom. There are no fairies so perhaps he's telling you it's time to do something different.

    Situational Fears

    There are many situational fears. Among the more common is separation anxiety or barn sourness. The horse doesn't want to leave his buddies or the safety and security of his home turf. He whinnies and tries to run back home if given the opportunity.

    You also frequently see, or rather hear, this behavior at shows. The intense stimulation of unusual sights, smells, sounds and the presence of crowds, can unsettle the most calm and stable characters. Even in the international show ring you may come across horses pitifully calling for their stable mates.

    Reluctance to enter or exit the trailer, or panic once in motion, may also be considered situational fears. Some horses have problems entering or exiting stalls with raised thresholds or low ceilings. For other horses, entering the in-gate at a show, or approaching the judge's hut in the dressage ring is very much a situational fear.

    New places, especially moving to a new barn, can also be scary for many horses. They have to adapt to a new routine, new people, new horses and other changes that, depending upon how used they are to being away from home, can manifest in physiological signs, such as colic, as well as behavioral problems.

    Clipping, vaccination and invasive or exploratory veterinary treatments, as well as visits from the blacksmith, can induce fear in some horses. All of these have the potential for pain as well as bringing unusual stimuli and sensations. Grooming and saddling, particularly tightening the girth, may be painful and frightening for some horses, depending upon how they have been introduced. Anything that causes pain or discomfort has the potential for producing fear-related aggression and should be engaged upon only with proper restraint and mental preparedness.

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