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 very interesting. 

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 are: 

Pulling the bit out of a horse’s 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 can’t 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 horse’s 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. 

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Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Joyce Loomis-Kernek
Last modified: January 05, 2014