Memories 2 – Avoiding the link between FEAR and PAIN
Imagine that you are out walking with a friend and you see something you are scared of, say a strange alien-looking object that you think might be dangerous. Normally you would avoid it, or get someone else to check it out, or maybe approach it carefully but be ready to run away if it threatened you.
Now, imagine that your friend hits you for not approaching it – you don’t know whether to risk approaching it and (maybe) get hurt worse, or put up with the pain of being hit. Either way, you will be wary next time you see a similar object because you might get hit by your friend or the object might still be dangerous anyway!
But, what if your friend says ‘don’t worry, I know what that is and it is harmless’. You might not fully believe your friend (depending on how trustworthy they are) but you won’t have to worry about the pain of being hit as well.
Although horses don’t think the same way humans do, we can sometimes put human thoughts to their actions to explain their reactions e.g.
Human thinks: “I want my horse to go forward. My horse has stopped/slowed down, so I will hit it to make it go forward because it has to learn not to stop until it’s told.”
Horse thinks: “I am not sure about that object. It could be dangerous. Ouch- being near that object causes me pain, so I better avoid going near it now and in the future.”
Or: “I am not sure about that object. It could be dangerous. Oh no, my human is forcing me nearer and it hurts – I have so much to worry about; what is going to happen next?”
Or even: “Everything I do with my human causes me stress or pain. I don’t want to have a human ride me anymore.”
Of course, as already stated these are NOT like the actual thoughts that go through a horse’s brain. It doesn’t have the ability to reason like a human. Instead, it just reacts to what it feels based on its genetics and past experiences. But the EFFECTS can easily be seen if a horse is hit when it is already scared of an object i.e. it may:
- Show a greater fear reaction, trying to avoid the object.
- Show an increase in nervousness, becoming more anxious and tense even when it is not near the object it didn’t like.
- Try to get rid of the rider that is causing it stress/pain, or just ‘give up’ and become dull and unwilling because it can’t avoid the situation (known as ‘learned helplessness’).
It seems obvious that causing a horse (or human) pain will make it more fearful, but is easy to forget when you are at a competition or anywhere else where you are focussed on other things. Even experienced riders can do it without thinking.
So, what can you do instead?
- Talking to the horse is reassuring, as long as your voice is calm and steady. A high-pitched rapid tone can make the horse more nervous!
- Scratch the horse’s withers. This mimics ‘allogrooming’ (where one horse scratches another horse) and will reduce the horse’s heart rate whether it is done by a horse or a human.
- If you are worried about your own balance, then even pressing one hand firmly on the neck near the withers can help, as a horse can be reassured by the physical contact of another herd member (e.g. when one horse rests its head on another). You can combine this with holding a neck-strap, which is what we do when we are riding horses that are unpredictable.
- If circumstances allow it, then stand the horse at a safe distance so that it can see the object but not be scared of it. Only gradually move closer, making sure that you don’t frighten the horse in the process. Sometimes getting off and leading the horse up to or past the object will reassure the horse.
- If you need to keep moving, then try not to ‘point’ the horse directly at the object. It is more likely to spook at an object if it can focus with both eyes, as it has difficulty judging how far away the object is if it can only see it with one eye. Unless it is a jump then you will be going past the object anyway, so turn the horse’s head slightly away from the object.
- Use another horse as a ‘lead’ to get the horse to past. Horses gain a lot of confidence from another horse (known as ‘social facilitation’).
- Walking backwards and forwards past a scary object, gradually moving closer, can help to desensitise the horse to the object.
- Get the horse used to as many strange objects at home, so that it is able to cope better when it is out and about (known as ‘habituation’). If done gradually, without frightening the horse, then this also helps build trust between the horse and its rider.
- Avoid large heavy pats – a horse has to learn that a pat is a ‘reward’, because it is not a natural thing for it to get patted. When the horse is nervous, a pat is more likely to be interpreted as threatening rather than reassuring.
- Don’t hit the horse, shout at it, get anyone to chase it, or do anything else to increase its stress levels, as this will make it worse. An exception would be if you were in a situation where safety was important e.g. the horse has leapt into the middle of the road and a truck is coming; or is about to reverse into a barbed wire fence or a large ditch.
- Don’t give up if things go wrong i.e. try not to leave the horse with a bad memory. Even getting the horse to relax a little bit can help with future training.
Doing the wrong thing can give the horse bad memories about an object for life!
Doing the right thing can mean that the horse accepts that object or situation, with good memories.
And it helps to build up a bond of trust between rider and horse.