Thoroughbred Logic: Fighting “Flight Syndrome”

“I expect that when asked, my horses would ride towards what they should run away from. The gallop-off-into-the-sunset would be a last resort, albeit a fantastically swift one.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week, come along for the ride as Aubrey offers her logic on building brave horses that learn to respond rather than react. 

It is not news to anyone that when taken at their most basic components, horses are prey animals. Thus, when stressed, there are stereotypically two options: fight or flight. Again, stereotypically, Thoroughbreds — who are literally bred to run — will take the first option: peace, I’m outta here.

I have joked for a while that this is my apocalypse plan: face imminent societal collapse with herd of brave horses. I would expect that each of them would be comfortable riding into battle, but I would also know that at the end of the day, the horse under me would be fast enough to successfully get the hell out of Dodge. There’s an important piece imbedded in there, though: I expect that when asked, my horses would ride towards what they should run away from. The gallop-off-into-the-sunset would be a last resort, albeit a fantastically swift one.

No? You don’t have a hypothetical plan for the end of time? Weird…

That ridiculousness aside for a minute, managing flight syndrome is a real thing. You can recognize it when a horse blasts around a handler on a lunge, bolts on the lead when encountering new things, skitters sideways at the new arena banners, or rushes fences. Now there are a ton of reasons for spooking or rushing, but one of them is that flight syndrome — the stress-induced DNA-engrained “nope, nope, nope bye.”

My friend Laura Newell came to visit this week and brought her own circus and her own monkeys. This has been a great opportunity to increase the bravery in mine, as with Aspenfiveoneseven (handled by Alanah Giltmier and featured here). Photo by author.

There are a lot of ways to counter a horse’s flight response in a situation-by-situation approach. But one that works conceptually across the board is to build bravery. And bravery for smart critters, takes trust in their handler and confidence in their own abilities. Some horses show up with this naturally. Others, well… building this relationship and encouraging the affiliated responses is a life-long process.

Despite her occasional nerves, CJ’s Empire is gaining bravery daily and turning into a heck of a nice horse. Photo by Kelly Robison.

So while so much of what I write is about going forward and accepting a slightly higher a tempo off the bat, building bravery is about slowing it down. It is about taking the horse from reaction to response — and the difference there is that we’re moving from the firing of the nervous system to actually using the brain. THINK, don’t just act. This is usually a good reminder for both horse and rider. And in order to do this, one must sometimes slow down and do more than check the box. Jumped the jump? OK. But did they rush, peek, or blast off on the landing? Are they thinking and brave or reacting and slightly scared?

There are a few ways I get at this — and I’m certain there are 45,000 others. But building brave horses who think their way through their flight response is about encouraging trust in you the human. It is about staying calm and insistent while their nerves are up and they dance around. It is about sitting up tall as you approach each fence, so that they don’t feel your anticipation. It is about quiet physical and mental leadership that allows them to slow their reactions and distill them into a response.

Quality Step makes this fantastic expression, but still happily and bravely canters where asked. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

And then it is about persistence and taking ego out of the game. It is about not accepting the checked box as good enough before you move up and on. When the lovely new OTTB trotted that cross-rail but landed, blasting off at the canter, or leapt at the fence from two strides out — nope, not a good time to try to canter it or to move on to the vertical. Slow. It. Down. Make it a completely uninteresting non-thing. Crossrail? Pffft. Whatever. Quiet trot in, land in same quiet trot. Cool, do that a few times and then maybe move onto the next thing and trying to land in canter.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) being a rock star as a demo horse at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic and just popping softly through the grid. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Look, I know we all love to the photos of the super high jumping greenies — the ones with their knees to their nose and the “pole is lava” mentality. But I want the brain of the one who sizes it up, rolls their eyes at me for how boring this is and gives it just enough effort to get comfortably to the other side. I have no doubt that those horses will up the ante when they are finally impressed with what they are leaping over. Their low “meh” jump, though — that folks, is bravery in disguise. Yes, I still want them to be careful with the poles and use wood not PVC for that reason, but I do not want them to ever jump out of fear or without thinking.

So we slow it down. We walk the ground poles. We walk the ditch. Walk the bank. And then we walk it again. And in my lessons with my coach (Werner Geven), I have learned to go back to the basics: walk the barrels, sideways, upright, narrow or wide. Walk in quietly canter out. Trot the grid until it is quiet all the way through. Then probably trot it one more time before thinking about cantering in. Slow. It. Down. (And he’s referencing my brain as much as the horse’s locomotion).

Rhodie (Western Ridge) learning to slow his flight response and quietly go down the banks. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Once they learn that they can step to the other side, the physical act of jumping slows down. There is far less rushing. And when the horse is thinking, generally speaking, they become braver and more ridable. And here’s the kicker — at that point, it all becomes safer. Safer to handle them on the ground. Safer to ride in new spaces. Safer to pop around stadium. Safer to head out to cross-country.

And then there’s my favorite part of this — it is when you can successful go slowly and bravely that then you can go fast(er). These horses can think on their feet, but I want the brain switched all the way on. I want them to meet my suggestions of “let’s do this” with a “hell yeah, gimme that ditch/bank/trakehner,” etc. And when they’re not sure, I want to get an “alright, I’m trusting you on this one.” And I hope that how I handle it increases their confidence for the next time.

Rhodie getting to take on Training level Stadium with a bit more gusto. Photo by Cora Williamson.

But yes, sometimes, building this bravery in a horse means that you have to overcome your own nerves. You have to square with your pasts and your ghosts your off-balance moments and your falls. You have to slow it all down — take your time, build your confidence and trust — but know that you can do it, even if you’re pretty certain you can’t. Yeah, yeah, life lessons are all over the place here, but I’m talking about the ditch or riding in a field or facing that crazy warmup arena for now. I don’t really care if a student’s last horse stopped at fillers every time. I care that they choose to be confident enough for the horse that they are riding today that one would never know they used to have issues.

And sure, part of that is simply faking it — gritting your teeth when you are scared and doing it anyway. Scientists say horses can “hear” your heartbeat from four feet away. They will feel your nerves, but if you sit up tall, put an appropriate amount of leg on, take a big relaxing breath and square to “go do it” quietly — whatever IT is — you’re setting up yourself and your horse for success. And eventually, that confidence won’t be artificial — and neither will theirs.

Amanda Woomer and Louis (Unbridled Bayou) successfully tacking the 2’6″ grid at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic this past weekend. Photo by Cora Williamson.

All of that might be helpful if you have to go charge at the zombies, but really, it just makes everyday with your horse that much easier and meeting every challenge or competition that much more fun. Happy riding folks. Here’s hoping for fair skies, brave horses, and zero need for apocalyptic survival strategies.