Written By Guest Writer – Walt Friedrich
An inappropriate tag for any horse, actually: the words imply a psychological problem, and while every horse can exhibit great caution – even phobia – toward an external circumstance, fear is actually a completely natural and rational response. Practicing that cautious behavior is what’s kept horses prospering on this Earth for countless millenia, despite all the hungry predators along the way.
Horses spend their lifetimes accumulating dossiers in their memories about every new event or condition they come into contact with, and attached to each of those stimuli is what we might consider a warning tag; red, maybe, for mountain-lion-level potential danger, or green, maybe, for local white-tail deer, and unique colors for everything in between. Memory tags like these short-cut the decision-making process; does she explode out of a dangerous situation instantly lest she becomes something’s lunch, or does she just ignore it completely, or just go about her business but keep an eye on it? When a horse encounters something new, it stays in “limbo” in her mind, until she’s able to define whether or not it’s safe to accept.
This wariness is what frustrates us so, when our horse shies away from something new that we know is perfectly safe for her. The more we urge her acceptance, the more wary she becomes. Classic example: remember when you first tried to get her to board the trailer? She thinks, “Something new, it’s dark in there, could be a mountain lion hiding, and this feller wants me to just walk in. That’s crazy! I’m not going in there! Red tag!”…and from that time forward she’s anti-trailer.
Fears Can Get Very Serious
Many of her warning tags represent “merely” fears – rather specific in the horse’s mind, and serious enough to the horse, often based upon actual events or experiences, although they can be difficult enough to overcome. When they are deep-seated enough, they can render a horse phobic. Phobia has a broader context, perhaps, than simple fear, causing a horse to “act out” in response to conditions similar to those of previous experience. But it’s not limited to a memory-driven condition; some phobias develop immediately in response to a single traumatic episode, a horse may develop a thunderstorm phobia if it’s barn is damaged by severe weather.
And yet it’s still not quite so simple. Phobias can develop from poor handling practice such as physically forcing a frightened horse into a trailer instead of taking the time and effort to overcome her fear and accept the trailer before boarding. Thus, the horse associates trailers with thoughtless treatment and a fear is born. Complicating matters, when acting up to avoid the trailer, if the horse were allowed to run from the trailer rather than board it, she’s learned that fear itself is rewarded! Forethought and anticipation are important aspects when teaching your horse something new.
So how do we prepare a horse for a potentially phobia-generating condition? Anticipate it. A logically sound method to kill that phobia before it blooms is to expose the horse to a very carefully-controlled fear-provoking stimulus. Start at a very low level of intensity and gradually increase the level — “gradually” is the keyword – while rewarding the horse if she stays calm as she confronts the stimulus. The rate of increase of your stimulus must be so gradual that the horse never experiences full-blown fear during this entire process: if you move ahead too quickly and the horse develops a fear response (it can come on quite suddenly), it will overwhelm any progress you’ve made.
That technique is touchy but works well when properly executed, and the grease that makes it work so well is the reward you give the horse continuously for confronting and accepting the fear-inducing stimulus. Make the reward equally pleasant; apples or carrots or maybe sweet feed grain work well. Your objective is to make the entire sequence more pleasant than frightening. The important caveat: if the horse displays any fear at all, do not reward it; wait until she relaxes.
But suppose the horse does develop a phobia, or already has one as a pre-existing condition? All is not lost: attack the problem in exactly the same way as you would to prevent one from developing, as previously outlined here. Note, however, that “curing” an existing phobia will probably take longer than preventing one. You’ll have to move forward in tiny increments; prevention is faster and easier than correction because there are no roots to remove.
Finally, once you’ve taught your horse to handle frightening stimuli, you should occasionally give her a brief refresher course to prevent her from reverting back. A phobia-free horse is a very happy horse!
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
Let’s consider a practical example. Your horse would look great if she were routinely clipped, but you know the clipper’s noise will be scary for her and you know the direct approach would immediately doom the project. But with the right approach, she’ll end up accepting it very nicely; she will reinforce her trust in you, and you will reinforce the value of your own patience.
Understand, however, that it’s not the noise so much that will frighten her – she hears noises all day long and usually ignores them. Instead, what frightens her is the combination of your approaching her and carrying a strange, new noise with you. She considers that an unknown threat which she has long ago learned to avoid, and here it is again, in a new form. Consider it a red-tag fear, and do not make light of it.
Your approach is to accustom her to the noise, prevent a bolt-and-run reaction, and ultimately get clipped and enjoy the sensation. It’s a tall order, whose price you pay is your own time and patience, and along the way your horse will learn that not all new and noisy situations need to be automatically feared. The unseen benefit, however, is you’ll have avoided the creation of what would probably manifest into a phobia with many future consequences, and made both your lives more comfortable when dealing with something new.
Have an assistant hold the horse while you stand, holding the running clipper, far enough away from the horse so she isn’t alarmed. Remember, throughout this delicate process, a wrong move can erase any progress you have made. Your patience and calmness are essential. Take one step toward the horse, clipper running, and stop. Stand still. Take another step. Repeat, but don’t rush it. If she shows the slightest bit of fear, freeze, clipper running, and wait her out. Continue this process, step-by-step, slowly, stopping and waiting at the slightest sign of fear on the horse’s part. Each time the horse calms down, have your assistant, who’s holding the horse, give her a treat, then begin that s-l-o-w approach again. Continue, and eventually you’ll be standing next to your horse with the clipper running. Note that you actually may need to break it down into several periods of work spread over several days – that’s OK, this is initially nerve-wracking for the horse, so call it quits for the day when you determine she’s about had it. Continue tomorrow as necessary, and when you’ve finally arrived at the horse’s side with the clipper running and everyone’s breathing normally, you and your horse have each got a huge success under your belts.
The wrap-up to this part of her training is for the next couple days, start the clipper when you’re standing at various distances from the horse, and walk to her – you’ll be able to do that walk more quickly the more often you do it. But what you don’t want is for her to spook, so take your time. Remember, scaring her into a phobia is very much easier than getter her out of it.
Now, finally, comes the fun part – your paycheck: once you’re finally standing beside your horse, place your hand on the horse, then slowly and carefully place the running clipper on the back of your hand. This will accustom the horse to the vibration. Eventually, you should be able to place the clipper on the horse’s body and actually clip its hair, and you’ll be able to do it any time you choose, with the horse standing calmly for you – and looking so great!
During the training phase as outlined here, take whatever time is necessary, limiting your sessions to a half-hour. Always end each session on a positive note, while the horse is alert and happy.
Now Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad ‘Scaredy-Cat?
As so many of us have discovered and rediscovered, fears and phobias are correctible, but once corrected doesn’t necessarily mean they’re eliminated, they’re often actually just controlled. Thus, once you’ve desensitized your horse to a frightening stimulus, you should periodically “refresh” her so any fear or phobia doesn’t revert back to its original state. Genuine, full-blown fear is a challenging condition to treat, but with occasional refresher courses, your horse should be able to keep her fears and phobias under control.
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