The Fear Factor
Fear can be a good
thing and it can be a destructive thing. For example, a horse has a
fear factor in their make-up that causes them to flee from things that
might harm them. They have a built in response from a stimuli in the
brain that sends a signal to the muscles that causes the fight or flight
re-action. If you have been around young horses very long, you have
experienced this first hand. When you first start to saddle and ride
the two year olds, the things that they have spooked at become even more
of a threat because you are now sitting in the position where the
predators attack the horse right behind the withers. Leading a young
horse by something he sees as a threat and riding him by something he
sees as a threat are two different things. He must learn to overcome
the fear of a man riding on his back in his most vulnerable spot, while
passing things he perceives as threatening.
You can imagine all
the things that they spook at when we first start to season them. They
get their first look at banners, loudly colored barrels, different
colored and kinds of arena walls, and on and on. The response to new
things usually causes an automatic and quick fear response. This type
of fear can be overcome with time, seasoning and confidence that is
built when he sees that it is indeed not life threatening. This type of
fear keeps an animal from becoming extinct and it makes horse training
This article is about
another kind of fear. The destructive kind- the kind that is not easily
overcome and is a big challenge to a horse trainer. This type is fear
that is conditioned into the brain by man. If you have trained horses
for the public for very long, you will know exactly what I am talking
about. Horses are usually brought to a trainer because the owner is
having a problem and is not sure how to overcome the problem. Many
times, the problem has to do with a conditioned fear. By conditioned
fear, I mean that something happens to put fear or pain into the horse
and that fear becomes a response conditioned by that something being
repeated again and again. Once the fear has been conditioned into the
mind of the horse, it is then difficult to remove that conditioning.
Even when you remove the initial cause of the conditioned fear, the
creature of habit the horse does not forget easily.
Some examples of this
Pulling the bit out of
a horses mouth if you start to remove a bridle from a horse and pull
it out of his mouth, he will become conditioned to a pain coming when
you begin to unbridle him. He then responds by clinching his teeth.
Then you cant get the bridle out without a struggle. When I get a
horse in training like this, it takes lots of time spent while
unbridling him. I simply put my finger into the side of his mouth and
wait for him to drop the bit. At first, it takes a lot of patience and
time, because he is not confident to open his mouth and drop the bit.
The same thing can
happen while putting the bit into the horses mouth. If you jam the bit
into his teeth, he will learn to hold his mouth clinched instead of
letting you slip the bit into his mouth. In the winter months, we must
be careful to warm the bit in our hands before asking the horse to
accept a frozen piece of steel. Once you put fear in a horse from a
bit, it can be very difficult to overcome. He learns to lift his head
or avoid the bit.
Horses that are
cinched up too quickly when a horse has been gutted on the first pull
up, he will learn to pull back and panic. I get horses in training that
start to panic when you even reach for the cinch. Again, to
re-condition this horse is to spend time just barely pulling the cinch.
I do this without tying them up until they start to relax. Then walk off
to where you are going to ride and pull it up a bit more. You have to
regain his confidence when you reach for the cinch that you are not
going to take his air away.
Horses that run into
the arena with their heads straight in the air this horse has learned
to brace up from the rider being nervous at the start of the barrel
race. The horse has been conditioned to lift up the head and neck to
brace against the harsh and hurtful pulls on the mouth. Next barrel
race you go to, watch how many horses come into the arena like this.
This is a conditioned response to pain in the mouth. Fixing this
conditioning is not easy if the horse has been run very many times with
a painful start.
Horses that run down
the wall this horse has usually had his head jerked in preparation to
turning the first barrel. It can also be caused by a pain that is
associated with sharp teeth, wrong bridle, and other things. I have had
some success re-conditioning the response by changing all the things
that may have caused this. I found over the years that when I put the
owner back on the horse, the conditioned response would usually return
and down the wall they would go again. Why? Because the horse
remembered what caused the pain long after those things were changed.
Horses that run away
at the finish line this horse could very well be panicking from
bleeding backwards. If he is bleeding backwards, he has the sensation
that he is drowning. This creates a horrifying fear in a horse not to
be able to breathe. If your horse is doing this, have your vet scope
your horse right after a run. This response of running off at the line
can also be caused by jerking your horse to a stop and burning his
fetlocks. This can cause a horse to risk running into a gate instead of
coming to a safe stop.
Horses that have been
driven around curves or wrecked in a trailer these horses are hard to
re-condition because they get a fear of being put into a trailer. They
learn to lean kick the back of the trailer fall over, etc. all from
fear. This has to be undone the opposite way that it was done.
All of the above
examples are man made and the fear that results is a conditioned fear.
Perhaps we all need to have a better understanding of the difference in
God given fears and man made fears in our horses. One is for their
advantage and can be easily overcome with time and seasoning and the
other is destructive and difficult to overcome and to be forgotten.
Watch the horses that are working out
of complete confidence. They are confident, happy and loving their
jobs. They last for years and have a great life. They run in
the arena searching for the barrels with head held in a natural position
ready to gather and turn. These horses know no fear and are a
joy to watch. Compare these to the horse that runs in fearful
head in air and dreading what they know is coming. There is
a big difference in the longevity of these two horses not to speak of
their quality of life.