Your horse spooks at the plastic bag in the barn aisle…unless it has his treats in it. He doesn’t want to go past a driveway where someone has put out a garbage can. He has suddenly started to avoid going into that one corner of the arena. You’ve worked at desensitizing him to all kinds of objects, but he still spooks occasionally at a new object or situation (stimuli).
There’s a perfectly valid reason for his behaviour. It’s called self-preservation. Being fearful and avoiding unfamiliar objects (or even familiar objects in a different place), is how horses stay alive in the wild. Your horse reacts first (as in “get out of here now!”), and gets himself to a distance where he feels he can safely check out that thing. He may become curious about what it is and then slowly and cautiously move toward it. But until he knows it’s harmless, he is alert and ready to flee again.
You may have been taught to make your horse face his fears by pushing him forward when he baulks and making him go right up to whatever is scaring him. You make him stand still – preventing him from escaping – while you flap or touch him with different objects. You’ve been taught to keep putting the horse in the fearful situation until he stops reacting. This technique is called flooding.
Flooding is often used in training horses because it seems to work in many cases. But what is often perceived as the horse accepting the thing or situation is actually the fear behaviour of freezing (see “Ground Work Tips” in the March/April issue). There are other downsides to using flooding. The horse may:
• injure himself or you
• associate his anxiety with you
• develop ‘learned helplessness’ making him dull and unresponsive in general
Try Systematic Desensitization
To build a positive partnership and increase your horse’s trust in you, the alternative is to use systematic desensitization. You gradually, in progressive increments and keeping him below the point where fear and panic start, expose your horse to a thing or situation that frightens him.
Whatever the stimulus (i.e. a specific object, sound or situation) that makes your horse nervous, it is safest to start working with him from the ground. The same techniques can also be applied when you’re riding, but if you or your horse become too tense, it’s best to dismount and do the work from the ground.
The first step is to help your horse relax by taking him far enough away from the situation that he feels safe. This area is his comfort zone and you’ll return to it whenever he (or you) become overwhelmed. Encourage him to come into a calm posture by lowering his head (see “Leading Your Horse Safely and Calmly” in the September/October issue).
When your horse is calm, move him gradually closer to the stimulus. Watch carefully for subtle signs of tension (eg. high, head, tented eye, not blinking, puckered nostrils, holding his breath, etc.) so that he is just at the point of feeling a little bit anxious without being in full fear or panic. Approach the object or problem area indirectly either by going past it on an angle or circling around it. Continue to encourage your horse to stay in the calm posture and pay attention to his tension levels. Always go back to his comfort zone to allow him to calm down if his anxiety escalates.
Put yourself between your horse and the stimulus so that he feels some protection from you, and so that he is able to easily move away from situation. It also keeps you safe if your horse does spook, as you won’t be in a position to be run over.
Allow your horse to bend his body away from whatever is making him feel stressed. He’ll have a sense of control in the situation and will feel less stress knowing that he has the ability to move away from it if he needs to.
If your horse puts his full attention on the stimulus, he won’t be paying attention to you.
If that happens, redirect his focus by moving him in different directions and away from the stimulus until he is focused on you.
Patience is Key
Take your time and be patient. Using these techniques to help your horse overcome his fears builds his confidence and trust in you for the long term. He’ll become generally less anxious and you’ll avoid creating other behavioural problems. You’ll both be calm, confident and connected as you build your positive partnership together.