Helping Your Horse Overcome His Fear – Part One

Part One: Why desensitization doesn’t do what you think

Your new horse is perfect – except he is terrified of his new blanket. You picked it out for him, thinking it was very stylish and would keep him warm and clean, but he absolutely hates it. It’s not the fit, you have checked and nothing seems wrong there. He is just afraid of it. What should you do?

Most horse people are familiar with a technique called desensitization. This can be applied in a few ways, but the classic cowboy method is called “sacking out”. A young horse is tied tightly to a solid post, and the cowboy approaches with a blanket. He then rubs the blanket all over the horse’s body. The horse may struggle and try to pull away, but is held firm by the post. This process continues until the horse stops struggling and accepts the situation.

What is it like to be Desensitized?

I’d like to take a moment to put ourselves in the horse’s place, and check into what is going on during desensitization. (I will put in a trigger warning here for arachnophobes in the audience)

Perhaps you have a fear of spiders, and would like to overcome your fear. You set up an appointment with a professional who claims he can desensitize you to your fear of spiders and you set up a session.

You walk in the office, the door shuts and you are invited to take a seat in the chair. He starts by telling you that spiders are quite harmless and there is no danger to you at all. At this point he opens a small aquarium and picks up a tarantula. He walks over to you, grasps your arm firmly to keep you from moving, and proceeds to touch you all over with the tarantula.

Take a quick check in with yourself now – are you holding your breath? is your heart rate up a little? are you feeling anxious and unsettled?

If a brief imagination exercise can cause this response, an actual desensitization session will clearly cause a much greater response. This type of situation is more accurately called “flooding”. When you are forcefully held while exposed to a stimulus your amygdala (the fear center in the brain) is activated, you experience profound fear, and the mind shuts down awareness of the body in order to survive an overwhelming situation. This dissociation, a disconnection between mind and body, is what happens in a traumatic event. 

I think you can imagine how this technique is an unpleasant way to overcome a phobia, to say the least. I question if the phobia has really been overcome. It seems more likely that you have created or reinforced a dissociation pathway – the animal is not less afraid of the object, merely has learned the coping strategy more effectively, and can access it quickly. The fear remains, but the animal has dulled to it and is not mentally present.

Two Basic Emotional States

Temple Grandin, PhD and professor at Colorado State University, writes about two basic emotional states – fear and seeking. Fear is more or less self explanatory; seeking is the state of curiosity, exploration and learning. These states are independent and do not operate at the same time, therefore when one is active the other is not. 

She has written extensively on animal behavior, and been instrumental in the creation of more humane animal management systems. In her book, Animals Make Us Human, she states:

“When you’re working with animals, novelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it’s presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty.”

So, now we know what not to do, how do we help our horse overcome his fear?

Options for overcoming fear

Fortunately, there are a lot of great options to help your horse overcome his fears by stimulating his inherent curiosity and desire to learn. The Tellington TTouch Method employs many techniques, but the underlying theory of the work is to “chunk down” each exercise and introduce each element separately, constantly watching the horse for any sign of discomfort or concern. Remember, fear and seeking are separate states and do not operate at the same time, so if you see any sign of fear back up a little in the exercise and help your horse find his sense of safety and curiosity again.

As Temple Grandin says, animals are terrified by forced novelty. Allow your horse to explore, encourage him to check out whatever is concerning him at his own pace and in his own time. So, in the case of the terrifying blanket above, you might consider placing the blanket on the fence of the paddock and allowing him to explore it on his own (with your supervision of course). It may be less threatening if it is folded and on the ground. It may be more interesting with a carrot on top. Starting very slowly, and staying well under his fear response, you can gradually introduce him to this fascinating object that may or may not have carrots hidden in it (just an idea – nothing activates the seeking response like the possibility of snacks!). The path to him being perfectly calm when you place the blanket over his back may have a thousand steps, or you may be able to do it in one session. You simply have to follow the horse’s lead, allow him to feel safe and curious, and give him confidence in your attention to his safety.

One of the techniques we use in TTouch is to use the wand to stroke down the base of the neck, front of the chest, and down the front legs to the hooves. This has a great calming effect on a concerned horse. After a few (or many) calm and deliberate strokes, the horse will begin to breathe again, lower the head and release the tension in the neck, and start to come back into themselves. Once they have come out of the fear state, they can now access the seeking response and you can continue.

I will be sharing more strategies and techniques for overcoming fears in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!