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Fear in Horses

By: Dr. Linda Aronson

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Horses signal alarm with eyes wide open, ears twitching to pick up strange sounds, mouth tense, nostrils dilated and tension throughout their whole body, although we generally have very little time to register this change before we are busy trying to cope with an animal in flight. If the horse is restrained, he will probably respond with sudden jerky withdrawal movements, he'll cringe and stand hunched with his tail compressed against his hindquarters, he will probably be sweating and his heart and respiratory rate will be elevated. If cornered, he may lash out in front or turn to kick.

Clearly not everything that causes alert suspicion is going to warrant outright panic in most horses, although for some sensitive souls it does seem that way. If you have a fearful horse it is a good idea to be aware of subtle changes that indicate he is becoming uneasy before he reaches the outright terror stage. Be aware that some horses will be more reactive when it is colder, especially if it is windy, or if there are sudden environmental changes. Prolonged stress and fear sometimes manifest as stereotypical or obsessive behaviors, such as pacing, weaving, cribbing, banging on doors or grating teeth across stall bars. Stressed horses are more susceptible to infection and other medical problems.

Treating the Fearful Horse

When treating horses with specific fears, it is important to avoid the fear-inducing stimulus initially, except under carefully controlled conditions. The first step is to rule out a physical cause for the horse's fear. For example, some horses shy because of visual impairment. They do not see, or see only vaguely, objects that under normal circumstances wouldn't frighten them. We also need to ensure that pain is not a factor in the horse's fear response.

As mentioned, even the tactic of removing all potentially scary things from our horse's environments may backfire if he starts to spook out of boredom. We also need to be aware that our reaction to a situation will to some extent determine how the horse will respond. Our attempts at reassurance, "There, there, it's all right," as we gently and perhaps tremulously pat his neck may be interpreted by the horse as a further heads up, "Uh-oh, Mom's worried, this must really be bad."

Whether a horse is scared of a specific thing or is generally fearful, the basic approach is the same – desensitization. The key ingredient is patience. Don't hurry the horse. If your horse must face his fear before he is properly desensitized, tranquilization may be necessary. Remember though that horses do not learn well when they are tranquilized.

In general, any fearful horse can be desensitized to any specific stimulus. However, there will still be things he experiences that we have not anticipated and which could potentially spook him. For this reason it is a good idea to countercondition him with an anti-spook response, something he cannot do and spook at the same time.

Desensitization

It is said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well you can; and you can teach old horses, too, but the older a horse is (11 seems to be the significant age) the more resistant he becomes to desensitization. This doesn't mean he can't learn when he is old, it just means that you have to try harder and for longer. Remember he is responding to a genuine perception of fear, trying to coerce or strong arm him will only worsen his fear. Always think positively when training a fearful horse.

Training will progress faster if you desensitize to one fear stimulus at a time. Start out working with as few other distractions as possible and gradually increase the stress and stimuli. The basic principal of desensitization is to habituate the horse to the thing that previously scared him, so that instead of provoking a fear response it becomes ho-hum, same old thing. He may even grow to like whatever it was that used to scare him, especially if he gets to associate it with the good things in life, such as yummy treats.

Whatever it is you want to desensitize, figure out how far away it has to be from him before he reacts negatively. Then begin working just beyond that distance. You can work the horse under saddle or in hand, but work on fairly basic simple commands with him. Reward him for the right response with praise or treats.

Gradually work him closer to the thing that scares him. If it is people that scare him you may eventually be able to get them to participate in his cure. As he becomes more willing to approach them you can have them give him tasty snacks or pats and rubs if he likes them.

Always let your horse go at his own pace, though. If he starts to get tense move further away. Always end a session on a good note, where your horse is succeeding. Keep your voice happy or neutral, praise, but not in such a bright voice the horse gets suspicious. Sometimes singing or even repeating a story will distract both of you from the thing he fears so he can relax and concentrate on you, as he should.

If your horse is less fearful, but wary, you may be able to bring him right up to the object he fears. Have him on a long, loose lead, even a lunge line, so that he can back up if it gets scary – and make sure you are wearing gloves. Let him explore the novel or scary thing fully and from all directions. Once he is comfortable with this level of exposure, you might try lifting it up, and even touching it to him (if this manageable). This is the basis of sacking out. You can gradually habituate the horse to something that was previously scaring him and touch it all over his body.
Counter-conditioning

When a horse is scared he may rear, run, try to hide or attack. The first two are the more likely responses if a horse has room to move around. The latter two are more common if the horse is confined or restrained. Forcing a horse to deal with his fears by flooding in a closely confined space is more likely to confirm the fears and make them far harder, sometimes impossible, to extinguish later.

In order to countercondition a horse to something he fears we need to have him respond to a cue to do something else. If he rears, we could train him to drop his head. If he runs, we could train him to jog in place, or to yield his hips first to the left and then to the right. Once these behaviors have been firmly established, just as in the case of the horse we have started to desensitize, we can begin to introduce things that may scare him, first at a low intensity and then gradually closer or more extreme. We can progressively increase the number of distractions until our horse is happy to perform no matter where he is or what is going on.

Although many horses are described, particularly by hopeful sellers, as bombproof, there's probably something that will startle and scare even the most calm and placid among them. However, the more we have worked with our horse the closer our bond will be with him and the greater our understanding. By preconditioning him to respond in a particular way to our specific cues, we can with a modicum of luck turn what could be a nasty wreck into just another day in the park.

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