There is no such thing as a truly “bomb proof” horse. There are horses that are so exposed to stimuli that they are able to tune out loud noises, crowds, moving vehicles and even the excitement of high speed rodeo events. For these horses, it may in fact be a quiet environment that causes them to react strongly to certain stimuli. However, for the average trail horse, light schedule show or “play day” horse any new object, no matter how innocuous it seems to humans has the potential to be a horse-eating predator. A horse that is in fear of an object, opening, animal, vehicle or even a particularly shady area and is forced to “man up” and get closer to it will become less trusting of its owner.
Horse owners are frequently faced with the question of what to do when their trusty steed suddenly stops, frozen in its tracks at the sight of…something. Perhaps the horse sees a killer stump with a dark hole in it, or perhaps a white duck that is clearly carnivorous with a penchant for horsemeat. For some horses, anything that resembles a plastic bag is a serious enemy to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes it takes a while for the rider to figure out what the “something” even is. The horse may simply freeze, wide eyed and tense, bowing its back up under the saddle but willing to keep its feet still. In some cases, the horse may flip around 180 degrees and attempt to flee the object or skitter in any direction, side passing beautifully but always away from the source of its fear. If forced to move forward, the horse may physically react in a way that is dangerous to both the rider and horse including rearing and bucking.
Some horses however will give in to high levels of pressure from their rider and, against their instincts, allow themselves to be forced toward and past the object of their fear. They are likely to do so with great agitation and then try to escape the situation as quickly as possible on the other side. It is likely that the next few times they encounter that same suspicious Grand Canyon of a tiny creek or the leftover roll of wire fencing from spring mending, the same dance of fear will ensue.
The question is whether forcing the horse to ‘man up” teaches the horse to be brave, or teaches the horse to lose trust that its rider has its best interests in mind. On a human level, if a child has arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and, in the interest of making the child “man up” an adult forces the child to let a spider crawl on their arm, what has the child learned? The child is still going to be terrified of spiders and less trusting of the adult. The same psychology applies when an adult teaches a fearful child to swim by letting go of them in the pool before the child is ready. While this “sink or swim” method of learning may ultimately keep a child afloat, the method does nothing to inspire true relationship confidence.
How the horse owner handles their relationship with their horse is the key component that will either teach a horse confidence or teach them to submit while remaining fearful. The third option is the rider ends up tossed and the horse bolts for the barn. Confidence inspires more confidence, which translates into less fear in all situations – even new ones. Submission results in temporary behavior that gets a rider down the trail and almost always guarantees a rinse and repeat cycle the next time the horse encounters a ‘scary” object.
Natural Horsemanship gurus Pat and Linda Parelli teach a method of “approach and retreat” in which a rider, sensing that their horse is feeling unconfident, allows the horse to drift away from the object of its fear but the idea to drift comes from the rider. The rider then otherwise engages their horse’s mind and feet in activities around the feared area, drifting closer, then away until the horse’s threshold for being close to the object increases and fear decreases.
For example, if your horse simply cannot comfortably pass by the big blue Port O’ Potty at the trailhead it is better not to force the issue – especially because, given Murphy’s Law, that will be the moment a hiker pops out the door and scares the living bejesus out of your horse. Instead, the approach and retreat method teaches to ease the horse closer while focusing on something completely different. In fact, ignore the potty completely and in a relaxed manner, simply play with your horse in the area. The more you focus on the feared object, the more credibility it gains in your horse’s eyes. As the leader, if you are focused on something, the horse will focus on it as well so concentrate on moving your horse’s feet, or standing still, or grazing, or putting the horse’s head down instead.
As Linda Parelli says, “It’s not about the spooky spot, it’s about your relationship and your leadership.” Even though forcing your horse to “man up” might result in the temporary “success” of moving past an object, it does nothing to inspire trust. If the horse cannot trust its rider, its partner, its caregiver, the horse will not fully trust in that person’s ability to lead. As such, the horse will make independent decisions, generally of the fight or flight nature when faced with new situations instead of acting with confidence.
Horse owners have the choice whether or not to force a horse to ‘man up” in the face of fear or to take the time, sometimes at the expense of their recreational activities, to inspire confidence and trust in their horse instead. Ultimately, by investing time in a stronger relationship with their horse, that confidence and trust will lead to a much safer and more fulfilling horse and rider experience.
Opinion by Alana Marie Burke