Equine behaviourist Richard Maxwell explains that all horses are naturally phobic to some degree, ranging from the almost bombproof characters to those that spook at every leaf. They all learn by experience so if they undergo something frightening or painful, as a prey animal this memory will stand out because they can’t afford to let it happen again.
“Horses are one-time learners in these situations, they remember the fear and pain. For some it only needs to be one or the other, but if you have both it’s a double-whammy,” says Richard.
“It all comes down to self-preservation, and the memory of the stress means they’ll resist repeating the experience – the way the horse sees it he has the right to use his size, strength and speed to avoid it and that’s when he starts to become unruly, so we have to show him through training that these things aren’t an advantage.”
How do you crack a phobia?
Tackling an equine phobia isn’t simply a matter of exposing your horse to the thing he’s scared of in the hope he gets used to it, as Richard explains. “If you were scared of snakes and I tied you up and covered you with them it wouldn’t help, and it’s the same for horses. If a phobia overtakes your emotions and you can’t cope, then you just can’t cope – the adrenaline is surging and you can’t do anything other than panic, which in a horse sees his flight instinct take over,” he says. “We have to show him that although we can’t make something scary go away or stop it happening, we can teach him to manage his reaction and cope better, so he stays safe.”
The trick lies in finding something your horse is mildly scared of and carefully desensitising him to it without adrenalizing him – he has to realise it’s not going away but equally isn’t hurting him. BUT before you start desensitizing your horse, be aware things may get worse before they get better.
“Even when they’re scared most horses will do what you ask. The next time you ask him he’ll probably say ‘thanks but no thanks’, and it’s here his behaviour begins to deteriorate. Then you get the ‘up yours’ response where he’ll try and bring his size, speed and strength into play,” explains Max. “The moment it gets animated is the start of change – if you stop then you’ll have done more harm than good so stay calm and see it through.The next time you try it the horse has given it some thought and will go along with what you want - he realises his behaviour changed nothing, he didn’t gain anything from it and sees it’s to his benefit to make that behaviour redundant.”
How to control your horse’s feet
Richard explains that if you can train your horse to lower his head, change his frame and place his feet where you want them on demand, you can control him in panic situations. The first step is to ensure you have full control of your horse in all directions at all speeds, and can move from one to another seamlessly. Here’s how:
In a safe enclosed space, start by asking him to back up and move forwards – don’t be surprised if he initially resists. The classic stance will be the front feet together and hind feet spread wide. Your horse might try and use his size and strength by bracing himself to resist what you’re asking. You want him to roll back and forward without interruption, so be clear and to the point he’ll soon learn changing his physical or emotional position is inappropriate and will do what you’re asking.
Once you’ve mastered moving backwards and forwards smoothly, practise stopping him and changing direction on the lunge. The ability to change direction quickly and efficiently counters the horse’s natural strength. He might resist at first but don’t rush it and you’ll get there. Ideally you’ll master this in walk, trot and canter, but don’t worry if you only manage walk and trot.
When you’ve mastered both these stages you can start to desensitise your horse to his particular fear, for example;
For horses that are afraid of noisy things, try this:
Here we have to break down the perception that something noisy is threatening. Most horses will find a plastic bottle filled with stones hard to deal with, so you must show him when it touches him there’s no pain. Gently shake the bottle until you’re touching him – he’ll move away at first so use that two-metre circle. When he realises there’s no pain and stops, remove the bottle. Repeat until he’s not reacting – he’ll bring his head lower each time and will eventually become curious about the bottle. Learning to stand still and stay calm is good enough for most people out hacking. Once he’s fine with the bottle you can desensitise him to other noisy things - it’s not about getting him to like things but making him realise he doesn’t have to worry about them.
More about our expert
Richard Maxwell, aka Max, served in the Household Cavalry training both horses and riders. After leaving the Army Max worked with Monty Roberts, and has combined conventional and natural training methods to develop his own style, which he describes as ‘practical horsemanship’. For more information visit www.richard-maxwell.com