Helping our Horses Deal with Fear

Horses have survived for thousands of years because of their strong survival instincts. Of all their instincts, flight is the strongest. Horses need to be able to move their feet. If they are aware that they can run away at any time, they are more likely to think about what is scaring them. When we restrain a horse by tying them up we take the ability to follow that instinct away from them. Once fleeing from danger is no longer an option they will pull back, bolt, and rear, kick etc. When a horse gets to this point its own safety is not important to them. They will risk injury to themselves to ensure survival. They will also run over you if you happen to be in the way. Horses simply do not think when they get scared and their instincts take over. When they are panicked, they can work themselves into frenzy. At that point, they genuinely fear for their lives. They do not understand that whatever is scaring them is literally not going to eat them. How would you react if you were in a situation where you were restrained and you thought your life was being threatened? Would you not do everything physically possible to escape with your life?

Once we understand why horses react the way they do, we may need to adjust how we handle our horses to keep them from feeling so threatened. When introducing new and scary things to your horse do not tie them up. You can not stop a horse from being afraid but you can help them overcome their fears. Let them move their feet so they feel that they can escape if they need to. They will not feel the need to defend themselves. This allows their brain to remain in control of their body and keeps their instincts in check. They will realize that what was scaring them has not hurt them. When horses spook at things when we are leading them our natural reaction is to hold on and not let them move away. By doing this we only increase the stress level for the horse. They are scared of something AND we are trying to force them to stand still. Instead of bracing against them move with them. If they try to back away walk back with them. It they jump to the side control the direction they go in and let them run around you. Do not let them turn away from the threatening object. Once they get their head turned away from us we have lost control and they will get away. If this happens it is likely to happen again and again. If the horse escapes it has rewarded itself by removing the pressure it was resisting.

Horses unlike dogs will not deal with fear for a treat. Horses in the wild have food all around them. Why would they put themselves in danger to get something they already have? How often have you seen a horse trying to be bribed with grain? How often has it worked? Treats given at a time when the horse is acting poorly will only be rewarding the poor behavior. This behavior will then become a conditioned response.
We often introduce scary things too quickly. The more time the horse has to get used to new things the more quickly they will be accepted. We can not force a horse to accept new things. We must make it comfortable for them to do so. If you have two hours to introduce something new to your horse it will take five minutes. If you only have five minutes, it will take two hours.

How we present things to them is important. We must be slow and smooth when approaching them so it is easier for them to handle the new object or idea. If we are too quick and jerky in our movements, we are more likely to scare them. I always like to leave the horse before he feels the need to leave me. If I feel that he is about to run away I will stop and back off. It is critical to leave before your horse starts to leave. After each time I stop and back off, he should be able to handle just a little bit more the next time I approach.

If you ever feel that your horse is scared and he is about to panic, he probably is. Help him out if you can. Your horse is already afraid that something is going to bite him. If you get after your horse for being afraid then something did bite him. Then he is justified in his fears. Having a scared horse is not fun. Nor is it safe for you or him because a scared horse will eventually turn into a wreck.
© 2003 Will Clinging