Horse, Be Calm!
By Betsy Kelleher
How do you deal with genuine fears inside your horse’s head? Many of us have that problem at one time or another, and I’d love to hear from any readers with their advice! If I get enough response, it will be added to a later column.
I received an e-mail from a friend who had gone back to being a horse owner after years without one. Smart gal, she took time to look for the right companion, choosing an experienced, older horse. They got along well and she rode often, she told me, then one bad winter experience has caused months of concern. She was riding in an indoor arena when the snow on the roof slid down the outside. Her horse spooked at the sound, whirled and took off, leaving her on the ground. No broken bones, but she was hurt badly enough that she couldn’t ride for three weeks.
Now she has to deal constantly with her own fear of something happening again, made worse because her horse continues to act fearfully not only inside the arena but everywhere. It is going to take time, courage and a lot of outside help to heal this situation! Fear is wisdom telling us to be cautious, until we can feel safe again. Horses have the same feelings, and as prey animals, they have an instinct of fear. So how do you get a horse over his fears? How do we get beyond our own? How do you tell your horse to not be afraid of some object or sound he doesn’t understand, when you yourself have lost courage? How do you tell him the snow is gone?
My own quiet old Traveller has shown extreme fearfulness recently. The metal barn roof has some issues resulting in loud noise on windy days, and we’ve had plenty of those! He is no longer comfortable in crossties during such times. While lunging in the indoor arena last month, we had a pelting rain on the metal roof and poor Traveller ran around me in circles until I pulled him close enough to put my hand on his shoulder and he stopped. At one point, I believe he had a real panic attack. On the trail recently, he spooked at a deer and refused to go any further, even though he’s seen deer before! Do we all get more fearful with age?
Many horse owners out there are dealing with similar situations and I can’t possibly cover everything in one column to help everyone. But I’ve tried to condense what I’ve learned and read and hope it helps. I think the key is to look at the situation, determine the real cause of the problem by searching in many directions, and make a plan toward the solution.
We must learn how to communicate confidence and courage to our horses, to be in control through their trust and dependence upon our guidance. Learn to feel with them, be totally with them, listen to them and let them be what they are meant to be. If we try to make them be something else, to force them, to push them, to use them, sometimes a horse won’t allow that. The horse will resist or flee.
We must face and conquer our own fears, to control our emotions and to be confident and skillful, for our own sake as well as theirs. They rely on us for protection and care and we rely on them to take us safely where we want to go. That doesn’t mean to jump back on and pretend all is well. You do what you feel you can do, until you find ways to go further. You must know in your heart that both you and your horse are ready. You can’t lie to a horse; it will know if you are not sure of yourself. A horse and rider relationship is a very real partnership. It can be a close bond, satisfying and special and sustaining, or it can be distant and empty, based only upon doing the job that needs to be done. Develop sensitivity to your horse’s unique personality and work with it, or there will be struggles, just like in a marriage.
To determine the real cause of any current problem, at least four things are involved, so let’s make a checklist. First is the horse itself. While certain breeds are hotter than others, more important is the individual horse’s training, age, health and experience, as well as temperament or personality. “Bad” behavior can often be a lack of training or a sign of fearful uncertainty or pain. Bombproof training is a good thing! And don’t scoff at teaching the “calm down” cue. Lowering a horse’s head does seem to have a calming effect.
If the horse needs more training or retraining than the owner can handle, a professional trainer should be chosen very carefully, to avoid adding to the problem. A trainer should be calm, confident and skillful, kind but firm. The trainer and horse owner should work together to help the horse bond with the owner and be able to trust and work well for the owner once the trainer has finished.
If there are possible health issues, consult a good vet or equine dentist and don’t forget the horse’s eyes. If the horse has a “hot” temperament, you either learn to deal with it or trade horses. If you and your horse do not have a good relationship of trust and respect, that should be your first concern. Quite often, there is a specific known cause for a horse’s “bad” behavior. It may be physical or emotional. My friend’s horse was terrified by a noise he did not understand. Knowing the situation, I would add that he hadn’t had enough time out of his stall because of the winter weather, probably also became buddy sour with one companion in a paddock, and could even have felt added pressure by a change from the relaxed Western type riding to a collected dressage discipline. This horse needs a summer vacation!
A second consideration is the environmental influence: the weather, the atmosphere, the time of year, wind, a possible weather change or approaching storm. Horses are especially sensitive to these factors. I don’t usually ride on windy days, and from now on, I probably won’t ride in the indoor arena with snow on the roof!
Third, consider the human element: how experienced and skillful is the rider, and how balanced and relaxed in the saddle? A rider needs an attitude of confident authority to be effective (especially with a young horse or one that is frightened). There are good riders who are strong and controlling, and there are good riders who are quiet and easy going. Some horses need one kind of rider, while other horses work best for the other. We need to keep learning, to keep improving our skills and our knowledge of horses.
There’s a fourth consideration. Whenever a horse shows undesirable action, look for pain. It may be a saddle that doesn’t fit, causing pressure on a sensitive back. It might be the bit rubbing against wolf teeth that need to be removed. It might be a sore muscle. It might be an ulcer, or something else within the horse causing pain, and how can we know? We need to take time to look for the real cause. And fear itself is a painful influence when stuck inside one’s brain!
We’ve all had fearful moments with our horses, and sometimes it’s difficult to erase these images. If we allow fearful images to control our thoughts, we cannot find the confidence to enjoy the ride again. We need to visualize the good moments we’ve had. I often take lessons to force myself to ride through difficult times with the influence of someone who has more insight and courage. But our horses also need special help.
There is a Christian-based Rider Recovery Program founded by Patricia “Boo” Titchenal of Brighton, Illinois, that is worth mentioning. I know Patricia’s mother, having sold her my best lesson pony many years ago. I attended Patricia’s seminar at the Illinois Horse Fair and was quite impressed. If you have a real problem as a result of an accident with your horse and you want to seriously work on the problem, get in touch with Patricia. You can send her an e-mail at email@example.com. Her program effectively seeks to determine the specific cause of the problem and works to establish a close bond between horse and rider. Visit her website at www.riderrecovery.com.
The relationship between horse and human is basic and of great consequence. It’s good to spend a lot of time with your horse. Grooming in the stall, touching all over the horse’s body, hand grazing on some grass, just being together, getting to feel the connection and to know each other. Whatever touches or actions your horse does not allow should tell you what needs work. Watch your horse as he relates to other horses and to people. Don’t take it for granted that your horse is mean if he acts up. Look for reasons. Look for answers to your questions. You should be able to find indications of fear, or aggressive behavior, of uncertainty, or pain, or some kind of resistance to something! Take time to listen and learn. Your horse will know if you really love him, and will respond, if it’s real. Horses can teach us how to be and how to live in the NOW. To get along safely and effectively with a horse, you must learn to be aware of them and of yourself.
Horses are like children, needing supervision and care and wisdom to handle them without causing damage! So often, we assume a horse will cooperate and do what we want, but it’s best not to assume that until we really know the horse well. These animals are too big, too ingrained with instincts of their own hereditary fears and protectiveness. We must learn to provide an atmosphere of safety and trust for them to do well. We must learn to work with them in a way that teaches them effectively, or they will teach us how fragile and mortal we are! We will learn or we will suffer!
If we could teach a horse to trust us totally, to depend on us for direction before running away from unknown sounds and objects, and if we could always be calm and confident, we would have a safe and perfect partnership. Not sure if anyone has ever accomplished that, but moving toward the goal takes time and consistent, patient effort, not to mention knowledge and skill, and every step toward the goal is worth that effort.
But let’s extend this knowledge in a different direction. Isn’t that exactly what God would like from us? To quote from the old King James Bible, in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and he shall direct thy paths.” If we could learn to trust our Lord totally, to depend upon Him for direction at all times, it would be a perfect relationship. But even though we haven’t yet attained that goal, it is worthwhile to strive for it, every step of the way.
(Originally published in the May 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)