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Managing your horse’s Anxiety and Fear

In this article, I explain the difference between anxiety and fear in horses. I also outline strategies and exercises for helping you manage your horse’s anxiety, as well as explaining how to deal with your horse’s separation anxiety. Have a look at the video, at the bottom of the article, in which I demonstrate how to help a horse overcome its fears. And as usual, I would love to here from you, so please leave me some feedback below.

Managing-horse-fear-anxiety

 

Understanding the difference between anxiety and fear in your horse

 Anxiety and fear, although caused by similar things, have a few important differences.

Fear

Fear is an inbuilt self preservation mechanism that is there to keep a horse’s body safe. Anytime they perceive a threat to their wellbeing, real or imagined, their body mobilises its instinctive fight or flight response as a means of self preservation. Fear in both horses and people serves the same purpose. An example would be a horse bolting with somebody, the horse gets spooked by something it perceives as a threat to its safety and bolts as part of its self preservation instinct. The person riding the bolting horse sees the horse’s behaviour as the perceived threat and as an instinctive response braces their body, tries to hang on and stops the horse.

Anxiety

Anxiety is an intensification of fear, that usually comes about when a horse has one or many unresolved fears from the past, which get continually triggered by current events or circumstances. This works the same way for people. An example of this, which is common for horse people, is the fear that comes from getting bucked off a horse and having a fall. It is common that when they get back on a horse, they feel the same intense fear as they felt as they were being bucked off. Even though the horse is currently not showing any signs of bucking and there is no current physical threat, the unresolved fear is being triggered as an attempt, by your mind and body, to avoid the same outcome. Anxiety can trigger a past remembered fear without the presence of any real actual danger. This works the same way with horses.

A horse can experience extreme fear from being chased by a dog, which results in the same fear response being triggered every time the horse sees a dog in the future. Even though, the dogs which the horse encounters in the future, pose no physical threat. The horse’s memory is triggered by the association of the stimulus in the brain. This association can lead to the horse being scared of anything, that triggers the memory of the original experience.

Fear is our intuitive focused awareness of an external threat and is there to keep us safe. When we see the important role fear plays in keeping us safe, we can learn to honour and respect our fear by seeing the benefits and its purpose in our life. Once we can understand its purpose and role in our life, we can then start to understand fear and anxiety in our horse the same way.

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Strategies for helping you and your horse to manage and overcome fear and anxiety

 Learn to identify the specific fear or fears

In order to effectively help your horse, overcome their fear, you need to identify the fear first. Identifying the fear specifically will allow you to be more effective in your approach to help your horse overcome the fear. If your horse has many fears, then deal with the most significant ones first. It is important to remember that all fear is essentially caused by the same thing; your horse perceives and believes that there is something legitimate threatening its wellbeing. Therefore, the main objective is to help your horse come to the realisation that there is nothing threatening their wellbeing.

Teaching your horse how to manage its energy

Often times a horse’s inability to manage its fear is directly related to its inability to manage its energy. If we understand that emotions are just energy, then if we can teach a horse to manage its energy, it will automatically get better at managing its fear. In most cases, horses that have excessive fears and anxiety usually have trouble bringing their energy down once they get their energy up. When a horse is on adrenaline due to a fear response, it creates a spike in the horse’s energy. In the case of a horse that has learned to manage its energy through the training process, the horse can easily adjust and bring itself back into balance. Therefore, the horse can self regulate its fear response without getting mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. In the case of a horse that hasn’t learned to manage its energy, the fear response overwhelms the horse mentally which leads to panic and a more extreme flight response.

When a horse experiences a fear in the wild, their general reaction is to move their feet and take flight. This response serves the horse as a means of releasing the stagnant energy that fear creates, essentially bringing the horse back into balance mentally and emotionally. We can use the same approach when working with a horse that has fear and anxiety. When a horse has a fear response and is on adrenaline we can redirect the horse’s flight energy into something controlled like circles and half circles. This act of redirecting the horse’s energy into something controlled helps the horse to eventually bring itself back into balance.

Exercises to redirect the horse’s energy when they are experiencing fear and are on adrenaline.

  • Circles and half circles
  • Disengaging and moving the hind quarters
  • Backing
  • Any activity that redirects the horse’s energy into something more controlled and productive

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Managing Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a very common occurrence in the horse world. It is in a horse’s nature to be gregarious and live in a herd, this is part of a prey animals survival instinct, to know that there is safety in numbers. Living in a herd allows horses to look out for each other, as a herd of horses is far more perceptive to predators then a single horse on its own.

This instinctive response doesn’t present a problem when the horse sees you as the trust worthy leader of your little herd of two. But it does often present problems when your horse becomes more bonded with its paddock buddy’s then it is to you. This is where the behaviour can arise and become quite a major problem. Separation anxiety is primarily caused by a horse’s attachment to another or other horses. As a result, the horse loses confidence when the other horses leave or it leaves the other horses. Often times, separation anxiety is also a sign that a horse has very little self confidence when it is on its own or with a human companion instead. In these situations, building the horses self confidence and independent decision making ability through the training process will often dissolve the separation anxiety over time.

In most cases, I find that separation anxiety is reflection of the horse’s mental and emotional fitness. If horse owners don’t provide a relationship and training environment that consistently empowers their horse on a mental, emotional and physical level then separation anxiety, and any anxiety for that matter, will be more prominent and extreme.

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Getting your horse more mentally, emotionally and physically balanced

Excessive fear and anxiety is often times the result of the owner’s inability to bring balance to their horse mentally, emotionally and physically. As an experienced trainer, I will often see a horse being out of balance in its early stages and correct it before it becomes a more serious and noticeable problem. But horse owners may not even notice that their horse is getting more and more out of balance, until the horse does something more dramatic to make them take notice. In many cases, the horse has to resort to one or many of its instinctive fight or flight behaviours like bucking, shying, rearing, or bolting before people will take it seriously.

In order to bring your horse back into balance mentally, emotionally and physically, you need to get better at recognising when your horse is out of balance. Horse behaviour is the most obvious feedback that your horse will give you as a way of telling you what’s going on. Every behaviour that your horse exhibits is a form of communication. Even behaviour that people label as bad behaviour, is a horse expressing how they feel. When you get better at reading your horse’s subtler behaviours you can take action sooner to correct the imbalance before it gets to the point of being dangerous.

As you gain experience, your ability to read your horse will get better and you will respond in a more natural and automatic way with better feel and timing. As you get better at bringing your horse back into balance your horse will develop more trust in your leadership when faced with adversity and uncertainty. As you progress, you will find that your horse will get better at staying in balance without your help and it will also take a lot more to get your horse out of balance.

 

To learn how to help your horse overcome its fear and anxiety, through understanding your own body signals better, come along to our next Mastering Body Awareness with Horses clinic.  This unique clinic will teach you all about how your body language can help or hinder your horse’s development. Improving your horse’s skills & reliability and connecting on a deeper level with your horse.

 

Also have a look at this video, in which Ben shows how to help your horse overcome its fear about fixed objects like a ditch.

3 Responses to “Managing your horse’s Anxiety and Fear

  • Kaitlyn
    2 years ago

    Do you have a headshot of the black horse shown in the first few photos? I have a rescue horse I’m trying to figure out and he looks exactly the same from the side.

    • Hi Kaitlyn, we have known the owner and the black horse for years. Please email us and give us more details of the horse you are looking for. I do have lots of head shots of this horse, but am reluctant to give out any information about the horse or owner until I have more details form you. I’m happy to help you though, so please email us and we can discuss it.
      Thank you
      Linda

  • Hi there . I was given this beautiful buckskin quarter horse he is 23. Previous owners had him sinve he was 8 months old and had no contact with any other horses or animals. We took him back to our place which we have horses and now he has attached himself to one of our miniature ponies. He cant handle being 2 steps away from it or he carries on . Is there a solution to this problem , can this be fixed.
    Thanks in advance…

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