We’ve all been there at one time or another. As a rider, crying tears of frustration or lashing out in anger at a person or a horse. Or dealing with a horse who seems to have lost all of his training ‒ and his mind!
When frustration, anxiety, or stress build up to the point of feeling overwhelmed, emotions override logical thinking resulting in a meltdown. This eruption of uncontrollable outbursts and undesirable behaviours is as normal for our horses as it is for us.
In some people, an emotional meltdown might show up as uncontrollable crying, snapping at people or lashing out in anger. This could even include yelling at and/or hitting your horse ‒ something that you wouldn’t normally do.
In some horses, the meltdown appears as actually being out of control: bolting, bucking, rearing, running backwards, kicking or striking, etc.
For people and horses, meltdowns might show up as panicking, shutting down, or running away from a stressful situation.
Causes of meltdowns
Whether it’s you or your horse having the meltdown, understand that the cause is the same. Being overwhelmed ‒ or being over the fear/stress threshold ‒ leaves you unable to cope with a situation. Training and logical thinking are lost as the emotions or instincts start running the show. The fear response of fight, flight or freeze is triggered in the same way as it is to a physical threat. You might notice you have a harder time controlling your emotions when you’re tired, hungry, or under stress in some area of your life.
Your horse might become overwhelmed due to changes in his environment or routine, over-stimulation, pain, fear, confusion, frustration or slowly building anxiety from multiple stressors stacking up.
The good news is that you and your horse can both avoid meltdowns, and recover from them if one does occur.
The key to prevention is being aware of the signals that you or your horse are becoming stressed and then immediately taking steps to reduce the stress.
Pay attention to physical cues:
Tension in the face (e.g. tented eye, tight mouth, flared or pinched nostrils)
General muscle tension or bracing
Changes in breathing (e.g. holding breath, breathing becomes shallow, snorting)
High-headed, unwilling to move forward
Face becomes flushed, hot
Hands become cold
Muscles become tense
Hold breath or breathing becomes shallow
You’ll do more harm than good, for both yourself and your horse, if you ignore these signs and attempt to push through the situation.
What to do to stop the meltdown
It’s best to stop what you’re doing either for the day or even for a few minutes while you take steps to calm down.
- Take a break or stop completely what you were doing
- Leave the environment where you or your horse are feeling stressed.
- If riding, dismount and hand-walk your horse for a few minutes before deciding whether or not to continue
- Go back to your comfort zone ‒ that could be a physical location and/or something that is really simple and comfortable for you and your horse to do
- Breathe from your diaphragm, taking slow, deep breaths
- Make your exhale longer than your inhale
- Soften your eyes and open your peripheral vision
Learn from the experience
Remember that a meltdown is an emotional response to a stressful situation. You may feel embarrassed by a meltdown. But if one has happened, it can be a valuable learning experience. You may have been:
- pushing yourself or your horse too much
- setting your expectations too high
- holding your emotions in check too much
- not hearing what your horse has been trying to tell you
- missing pieces from your own or your horse’s training
- unaware of pain your horse was feeling
Once you determine what caused the meltdown, you can set appropriate goals and create a plan that works better for you and your horse. If you’re unable to do that on your own, seek the help of a reputable professional.
Lowering your and/or your horse’s stress level are key to preventing either of you from having a meltdown. Take the pressure off and look for ways to bring fun back into your riding. The better you are at stopping meltdowns from happening, the less likely you are to experience one.
If you’re feeling stressed in your riding or your life, talking with someone about how you’re feeling can be a big help. Confiding in a trusted friend, partner, or coach might be all you need.
If feeling overwhelmed is a chronic situation for you, you’re not sure what is causing you to feel overwhelmed or you’re dealing with a high level of anxiety, talking with a professional who can listen without judgement and provide therapy might be a better option.