To understand what’s going on in your horse’s head when it spooks, we have to go back in time………………
Long before any of us thought about sitting on a horse, they learned to survive by running first, and thinking later. They had to rely on their instinct and learn to distinguish predators very quickly before they became lunch.
The fight or flight instinct is a reptilian response which sits in the cerebellum. When compared to a human brain, the horse’s cerebellum is large which makes the functions that sit in here very refined. This stress response causes hormones such as cortisol to flood the body, readying the horse for running away, forming its primary defence mechanism. To humans (who don’t need this immediate response) it’s sometimes hard to see what it is that’s caused the problem. Sometimes, it’s not in the horse’s visions; perhaps in his super sensitive hearing or smell.
This diagram easily explains the escalation of fear.
It’s only when the horse finds that he cannot move his feet to run away from the threat that he’ll stand and fight. This would be a last resort, however, as the horse isn’t really equipped for defending himself in this way.
It’s been found that horses have other responses to fear too including fiddling (not standing still), freeze (not able to respond at all), shut down (an acceptance response born of not having the power to be able to deal with the threat) and fainting (yes really) when they become over-whelmed.
All horses are capable of having these responses and it’s found that the more confident the horse, the more able they are to think things through and choose their response to the stressor. This confidence is in themselves, and in their environment, and in the people around them. So, how do you help your horse be confident? This easy four ‘L’ programme will help.
Love; this can mean many things to different people and horses. It’s not necessarily about showering your horse with kisses and treats; some appreciate this, but some might find it stressful in itself. I always think of love as being a commitment to understanding and responding to their needs. Being as knowledgeable about them as possible, and providing them with stimulating, safe, comfortable natural life. When was the last time you spent time just observing your horse, watching him graze, noticing his response to his world?
Leadership; often misunderstood, this doesn’t mean that you are your horse’s boss. I often describe my relationship with my horse as being 50/50, but I’m the Chair. I want my horse to know that he can trust me when we’re together, and that he can learn from me. I want him to know that I’ll help him learn the best response, and not punish him when he acts on instinct.
Learning; horses will very quickly learn how to stay safe. Often, those who we describe as lazy have simply learned to look after themselves because they don’t know how much effort they’re going to have to put into running from that tiger later. It’s essential that you don’t expect your horse to learn when he’s stressed; keeping him under his threshold is essential. Imagine being expected to learn maths when there’s a big spider nearby (if you’re worried about spiders that is!!). It’s not going to happen is it because all your resources are going into wondering when that spider is going to take one step towards you. I’m a big fan of reward-based learning and have had much success with using positive reinforcement. Other methods such as desensitisation work well with horses too. Most horses love to learn, and when they’re inspired, they gain in confidence that they can think for themselves.
Language; what language do you speak with your horse. Is it human or horse? Now, I’m keeping it real here, but being able to step into their world and learn how he communicates will bring you major brownie points. Body language is one of the primary modes of communication for horses. How aware of you of your energy when you’re with your horse? How much are you focusing on him, or thinking about what a bad day you’ve had? Your horse will pick up on all of this, so it’s worth taking time to notice how he’s responding to you.
So, next time your horse spooks at ‘nothing’, it’s unlikely that he sees it in the same way as you. This isn't a quick fix programme as you're helping your horse deal with his instinct and millions of years of survival.
I cover this, and other aspects of equine psychology, on the Rider Development Programme, so when you want to find out more, click here to let me have your details and I’ll keep you posted when the next one runs.