The sociable nature of horses…
Horses are HIGHLY SOCIABLE and when they have enough space choose to live together in small groups. It’s horses strong social needs that made it possible for humans to domesticate them in the first place. No large solitary animal has even been domesticated. Their sociable nature gives horses the desire to please us, their human companions.
As owners we experience our horse’s natural tendency to co-operate, on a daily basis. We’re so accustomed to their pleasing ways that sometimes it’s good to pause, to see things instead from the horse’s perspective.
It may seem quite normal to us when a horse strolls willingly up a steep, narrow ramp and into a dark confined space of a trailer. It’s quite natural for us to watch a horse perform hoof perfectly in a completely foreign arena, whilst his senses are bombarded with an array of novel sights, sounds and smells. In environments that are fundamentally alien to a large grazing herd animal, it’s quite amazing the variety of activities in which horses willingly partake, for our benefit.
Throughout history horses and humans have shared a very special bond. The best horsemen value the horse’s naturally pleasing nature which makes it possible for training to happen. However, as two separate species with different needs it’s good to ask ourselves, ‘are we doing all we can to meet the needs of our beloved horses who live in our domesticated environment?’
The flight nature of horses…
Naturally horses would survive predators by taking flight. Their physiology and emotions are designed for their survival. Our domesticated horses now live in ‘safer’ environments, free from lions and tigers and bears oh my! Despite this, their flight urge is unchanged and so FEAR is a strong emotion in horses. It’s remarkable and thanks to their tendency to please, that this large, strong, flight animal is often able to control it’s natural fear response. We can see this when a horse, encouraged by his trusted companion rider, bravely goes past something that clearly concerns him. Even hacking out alone, which means leaving the security of home and friends, can be a big deal for a highly sociable horse.
At times we can be sharply reminded of the horse’s natural flight urge. Such as when we hear expletives and ‘loose horse!’ yelled across the horsebox park as a horse with lead rope trailing gallops by. Or when a highly valued international dressage horse rears and spins, ditching his rider, at something seemingly miniscule that caught his eye during an important dressage test!
Do Horses have Autistic tendencies?
For survival, horses have hyper specificity to visual objects. They see details that humans simply do not see. This is because naturally in wide open spaces any predator would usually be seen before being picked up by the horse’s smell and audio senses. Perhaps you’ve known a horse to spook at an object because it’s moved from it’s usual place. Or shy at something he’d happily seen before and now sees from a different angle or perspective. This is because the object can appear entirely NEW from the horse’s outlook. Temple Grandin has written some fascinating books including Making Animals Happy, in which she suggests that some of horse’s thinking can be akin to autism in people, in that they are sensitive to sensory-based detail. They are highly specific, for example, something that looks like the same object to us could look alien to a horse and threatening. Some horses, but not all, may have particular aversions to the following because of the way details are perceived;
- Reflections on water or metal and bright ‘spots’
- Going from light into dark areas
- Clothing hanging on a fence
- Small objects on the floor, i.e. a coffee cup or a moving leaf!
- Hearing metal clanging or air ‘hissing’ such as the release sound lorry brakes make.
A good way to notice ‘scary’ things, from a horses perspective, is to remember they see not only in great detail but notice anything NOVEL. Bin day is a good example of this. For six days of the week wheelie bins or bags aren’t there, they don’t exist, then, on the seventh day, aha, they appear like potential equine munching monsters!
A horse’s senses are so specific to detail that it can be scared of a whip if in the hand of the rider on board but not when the rider is on the ground. A cat sat on a faraway fence can appear scarey but not at all threatening when sat on the ground right in front. I’ve even known a horse who was terrified by the sight of the underside of a white dressage numnah. That same numnah didn’t worry the horse in the slightest with the saddle on top of it, nor did a numnah of a different colour or shape. This is because the sight of that specific white dressage numnah was a fear memory for that animal, created from a previous bad experience.
How can we help?
Because of their visual sensitivity and the strength of the fear emotion, horses can easily create fear memories. It is difficult to completely eradicate a fear memory. I often come across behavioural challenges with horses that have fear memories. Owners are concerned for the welfare of these horses and often for their own safety too. A scared horse will behave totally unpredictably and given their size, these gentle creatures can become unintentionally dangerous. The good news is that training can greatly help and most fear memories can be overcome. But fear extinction is technically unlearning rather than forgetting. Temple Grandin explains it nicely when she says “It’s like a computer file, you can close the file, but it’s still stored on the hard drive”.
The 3P’s of preventing a fear memory…
Like with most things, prevention is better than cure. This is particularly true here. Preventing a fear memory from being created in the first place is the best thing we can do to help our horses. This is possible by remembering the ‘3 P’s of prevention’.
It’s useful to consider that basically everything is novel to a horse in our domesticated environment. It’s rare to see any fear related behavioural issues in nature!
We can help by making provisions for our horses to ‘Habituate’ (be gradually and carefully exposed) to the particular lifestyle they lead.
If we can tune into their sensory worlds more, we’ll understand our horses a little better. Try to see/hear/feel any new experience from your horse’s point of view. The feel of a new bit in the mouth, the sound of a passing bicycle as it ‘whooshes’ by, the way a flag looks as it changes shape in the wind.
We humans tend to talk to our horses a lot but a horse will rarely talk back by communicating vocally (unless of course your name is Mr Ed!).
Plan any training ahead allowing plenty of time. Keep it short, sweet and simple, which helps horses learn. Imagine novel objects from a horse’s viewpoint. For instance, a flapping flag doesn’t only make different shapes depending on the wind but can be different styles and make an unusual clapping sound. A great way to get a horse used to this as well as some other objects is to place/tie them securely in his paddock. There he’s safely free to investigate it for himself and gradually realise it poses no threat, i.e. a flag is not a horse-eating demon at all!
The best trainers habituate their horses to new things very gradually so as not to get a negative reaction. They give horses time to process a new experience before a bad reaction could create a negative fear memory.
In our busy lives time is precious but with a little planning and patience we can prevent fear memories or any fear related behaviour challenge.
How else can we help horses deal with fear?
Maybe your horse developed a fear memory before you knew him or accidently through no fault of his or your own. It’s very easy for fear memories to end up ‘stored on your horse’s hard drive’.
Good trainers (and owners) don’t reward negative reactions. A good rule of thumb is to ignore bad and reward positive behaviour. The best trainers will intrinsically do this without realising they’re actually applying ‘Learning Theory’. For example, if whilst on a hack a horse spots a rubbish sack at the roadside and spins away, or takes just a couple of steps away and is immediately rewarded by a reassuring stroke on his neck, or even a slight release of leg pressure on his sides, he may deem this a reward. If this perceived reward for the ‘spooky’ behaviour happens within half a second, then he may inadvertently learn to react in the same way another time. It can be quite easy for even experienced riders to accidentally reward their horses like this, not realising the links that the horse makes in his brain between the object, his action and the reward!
As well as previous experience and learning, breed types also influence how much a horse will tolerate without responding in fear. It’s been proven that finer boned animals are more hyper sensitive and so can be more ‘flighty’. For breed types such as Thoroughbreds or Arabs, it’s even more important to carefully and gradually introduce any new experience.
Sedation may not help in the long term…
The widely used sedative Acepromazine (ACP) which can be useful to safely ‘take the edge off’ a horse that is fearful about something, actually inhibits learning. So if for example you use ACP to calm a horse for clipping, you shouldn’t necessarily expect to see an improvement in the fear response the next time you clip.
Clicker training can help…
Clicker training can sometimes be useful in curbing a horse’s natural fear response. It can help a horse in a potentially fearful situation. Alexandra Kurland who wrote Clicker Training for your Horse says, “Clicker training . . . teaches emotional self control, and that’s huge.”
Clicker training teaches an animal to positively associate a ‘click’ sound with s treat. Once the horse has made a strong connection the treat is removed but on the click, the anticipation of the tasty reward remains and is a very strong motivator. This kind of training is effective and useful when riding or a little distance from the horse, when a treat can’t be practically given. The anticipation of a treat, or something nice, feels good to a horse and is like a mini reward in itself.
Whilst clicker training carried out by a skilful trainer can make a positive difference and help to prevent more minor fearful reactions, it’s not infallible at solving all fear related behavioural problems. It would be fantastic if it did, but a severe fear memory coupled with a horse’s individuality can require further consideration and re-training.
Help for your horse to overcome an undesirable fear reaction, or any kind of behaviour training, can be provided by a qualified Equine Behaviour Consultant. By establishing the specifics of the fear memory, a retraining plan using only kind and effective techniques can be tailored for your horse.
‘Systematic Desensitisation’ (SD) is just one positive technique that an Equine Behaviour Consultant may promote. SD works by teaching the horse, calmly and positively through baby steps, to happily accept a ‘scary thing’ as something that poses no real threat. There are some techniques unfortunately still widely used such as ‘flooding’, where a horse is forced to tolerate something he fears by having his senses ‘flooded’ by the scary thing. Not only is this bad for welfare but no learning happens with this technique and can make the fear worse and a situation more dangerous.
Given that horses are large, strong and naturally roaming grazing animals, they are amazingly willing to co-operate with us. By taking the time to experience the world a little more from a horse’s highly sensory point of view, and by using the 3 P’s of Prevention – Provision, Preparation and Patience – we can help horses prevent fear memories. Not only will they be happier but safer and ‘better’ horses for us to enjoy!