Equine behaviorist Lauren Bond explains the mental process behind why horses spook (and it has little to do with the invisible monster in the corner).
I’ve read several things in social media recently relating to horse “spooks” or “meltdowns” and in most of the comments and posts there is a common misconception that I felt was worth addressing here: spooks are almost never about one singular thing. Put a different way, it is rare that a horse meltdown is triggered by a single stimulus. It is more of a stacking process, with a tipping of the scale to the meltdown point.
What is a stimulus?
Anything that can be perceived by the horse is considered a stimulus. It is something that tickles the brain. So if your horse can feel it, see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, etc, it counts as a stimulus. As with all species, horses are sensitive to the world around them: they observe things, experience things, notice changes and sometimes are bothered by things. (There are plenty of things in our horse’s environment that don’t register as anything because they are so ever-present or so underwhelming that your horse doesn’t bother to pay attention to them, just like us: we tune stimuli out all the time. Think about whether you notice the feeling of your clothing against your skin.)
This time of year, I notice most often that horses are bothered by insects — many, many, many insects in some locations. What this means is that your horse is already being pestered, and then on top of that we add the trees blowing around, and the cows in a new field next door, and suddenly all it takes is one more little thing to set that horse off.
Look at each meltdown as 100% of the vessel of behavior: think of a cup full to the very brim, making it inevitable that you will spill some if you try to move it. Perhaps this cup is like a layered shot in a shot glass, with each color liquor is a different stimulus. When you get the full glass, you get bad decisions — or worse, lack of control over the decisions. Let’s look at this stacking effect with some real-world examples.
Mr Ed might be bothered 25% by the insects in the area, even with fly spray.
Flying insects: 25%
Now, today the lawn guy is here mowing and weed-wacking and that makes Mr Ed nervous because he hates the sound, so mower dude adds another 25%.
Weed eating monster: 25%
Now on an average day, that only makes up 50% of the vessel. At 50% stress, this horse is prone to some looking around or some distraction, or perhaps even some mildly nervous behavior like vocalizing or freezing and looking, but we still aren’t at explosive levels.
But then let’s assume that we missed an appointment with the saddle fitter and the saddle is pinching him a bit, or making his back sore. Pain can certainly take up the other 50%, but for the sake of today’s example, let’s say we have a stoic guy who likes his job and tries hard. Sore back is worth 25% (although in real life probably more.)
Bitey saddle (ouch): 25%
Now, the “in real life part” of this comes in, and let’s say you got a big vet bill, or a speeding ticket on the way to the barn, so now you are in a foul mood. So you are bringing your emotions to your ride, because you’re human and that’s what happens. Let’s say you go too quickly to corrections with him in the ride. Maybe you get a little unjustly kicky, or you use the whip a bit early for his taste. Not only is this a little unfair, but it also adds to his already-existing stack of pressure. His perception of unjust punishment is worth 35% to him.
Mean Mommy/Daddy: 35%
So you have totaled out at 115% and now you have an explosion on your hands. Let’s do another one, quickly:
- Friend yelling in pasture: 15%
- Other horse struggling in the area: 25%
- Feeding time: 15%
- Horses running fences because it is feeding time: 20%
- Asking for hard work in arena: 20%
- Rogue Horsefly: 5%
Now we are at 100 percent and anything can ruin your horse’s mental capacity. We have all seen a similar scenario, and it can be so frustrating when that is the time you have available in your schedule to ride and your horse just isn’t capable of working that day. By riding an hour earlier, you could have easily avoided the stressed-out horse, feeding time, and fence runners because they weren’t present, which means your time with your horse could remain around a 40% stress level and that is probably manageable.
Each horse places different values on each thing, and different days and different circumstances will stack different ways. Individual horses deal with different vessel fullness differently — confusing and annoying to us primates who like rules and order and find comfort in our routines. But this is where the art of horse handling and riding comes in. The ability to assess the horse’s current vessel level, to keep our expectations reasonable and to find release valves in our interactions and in our horses’ daily lives is what makes great horsepersons.
Some horses won’t begin to show signs of stress or pressure until they reach well over 50%. Some horses are intensely sensitive and they will begin to react at much lower levels. Some horses have such high value levels in certain things that they are almost 100% in a single stimulus. Whether we feel the horse’s assessments are justified or whether we know where they came from, it is our job to recognize the stressors, and to help the horse cope with the various stimuli.
Some horses are capable of letting off stress or pressure on their own without interference from us while some need a bit more help, and some of them require intense amounts of desensitization. We are the smarter of these two species, so it is our job to implement a sensible and realistic plan to lend assistance where we can. In order to do that, we must know what to look for as signs of stress. This is a topic for a series of articles, as research is emerging with some incredible tools for us to use. But in the meantime, you can spend some time learning your horse’s particular ways of showing stress. Some horses grind their teeth, some freeze and stare, some get a distant vacant look in their eye, some snort, some hold their breath, some get jumpy, bitey or kicky with ears pinned, and some shut down entirely and become wide-eyed in panic.
Each horse’s methods of dealing with a 100% stress level is different too. It is sometimes a bucking fit, sometimes bolting, sometimes shutting down, and sometimes making us a lawn dart. But one thing is universal: when your horse reaches 100%, it is no longer capable of thinking clearly and sensibly about the circumstances. It is also not learning anything positive. In fact, the chances that either of you are going to have anything like a positive experience at that point are 100% unlikely.
How to empty the cup
It behooves us to learn several methods for helping our horses relieve stress. As you can see from the list of things that can be impactful, there are only a few we have any direct control over, especially in the moment of impending disaster. Anything that works for your horse to lower his heart-rate and help him become calm, cool and comfortable should be implemented. Sometimes all it takes is bringing a friend within eyesight; sometimes praise for good efforts. Sometimes more fly spray will do it, or a longer warm up, or maybe a shorter ride. Sometimes it is more complicated like taking several steps back in the kind of training you are doing and reducing the amount of pressure you are putting on your horse in riding. Sometimes it is as simple as more turn-out (bubble wrap optional.)
If your horse displays a perpetual reaction to a stimulus, or if there is an unavoidable stimulus that constantly freaks him out, there are kind and scientific ways to desensitize him. Throwing your horse into the deep end of the pool with a flooding exercise likely isn’t going to help your overall relationship, or your horse’s happy acceptance of the stimulus that is the scariest. By flooding, I mean tethering your horse to the scary tractor for a day, putting them in a small paddock with the terrifying cow, or putting the weed wacker outside their stall for a day.
If you need help desensitizing your horse to anything, please feel free to get in touch with me for assistance. I am always happy to do a phone or video consult, or to travel to help you deal with an issue.
Lauren Bond is a Certified Equine Behavior Counselor who has loved horses since she was 5 years old. Lauren has worked as a groom, lesson barn manager, riding instructor and behaviorist. Lauren loves science and has been using it to train animals since 1998. Clicker training inspired her degree in animal behavior. Lauren works with a wide variety of client horses, including rescue horses, lesson horses, and competition horses all the way up to International Grand Prix. Lauren offers online consults, phone consults, in-person sessions and clinics. If you have a behavior question or if you would like to discuss a behavior issue, please email [email protected]. Read more about Lauren by going to www.equinesmartmd.com.