How To Spot Signs Of Fear In Your Horse

How many times have you heard of a horse exploding in a huge reaction “out of nowhere”? It can happen anytime: a horse out on a ride suddenly bucking, in the crossties pulling back and snapping the halter, or panicking and scrambling in the trailer.

Any experienced horse person can tell you, these things can simply happen out of the blue. But what if you learned to notice the warning signs and could defuse this dangerous situation?

You might think of the last time you went to the dentist. Most people have at least some level of concern when they go, and feel at least a little bit worried that they might experience some pain. Fortunately, dentists and staff have been trained to watch their patients closely, and to regularly check in with them. They ask you as the patient to tell them if you feel any pain, and tell you to raise your hand to ask them to stop.

Imagine yourself in a dentist’s chair, but this time, you are being held down by the assistant while the dentist works in your mouth. No one is noticing you are becoming more and more anxious, and a small amount of pain you feel causes your adrenaline to spike, expecting it to get  much worse. You start to wiggle, and are reprimanded for doing so. What are the chances you would panic and bolt out of the chair and room without further notice?

This scenario reminds me of how horses are often treated. We as the handlers know there is nothing to fear, and there will be no pain or harm caused. But the horse may have very little idea of what to expect, and has no way of asking you to slow down or stop what you are doing. This causes his tension level to rise, and he may over react to a tiny amount of pain or discomfort.

One of the principles of the Tellington TTouch Method is to observe your horse closely, to notice even the smallest sign of discomfort in the horse, and work to alleviate the horse’s concerns. These signs can be very small, and are often mistaken for good behavior. For instance, a horse may become completely still before he explodes in fear. This is a type of response to fear termed freezing, and can be very dangerous for the handler who thinks the horse is just fine with what is going on around him.

Some of the signs of concern we look for when handling or training a horse are:

Breathing – Many horses hold their breath when they are concerned or worried, or take shallow breaths. Look for the ribcage and belly to fill with each breath, and to release easily and completely. Often we only notice a horse has been holding his breath when he exhales deeply.

Mouth – A nervous horse will often hold the mouth very tightly and will have a hard chin. He may also fidget and nibble on ropes or anything nearby as a source of distraction to himself when he is nervous.

Tail – Many worried horses will have a very tight tail, tucked close to the buttocks. It is also a sign of distress for a horse to whip the tail back and forth as opposed to the gentle swish to remove a fly.

There are of course many other signs to notice, but these are some of the most obvious and easy to spot. Next time you tack up your horse in preparation for a ride, you might go a little more slowly and see if you can spot any areas of concern for your horse. Each small concern you can address and release will have a cumulative effect on your horse’s ability to relax and focus on the job.

Techniques to help alleviate your horse’s fears

Acupressure on Conception Vessel 17

This point is a powerful calming point that will both settle the horse and help him to relax and breathe fully and deeply. The point is located on the ventral midline, just behind the line of the horse’s elbows. There is usually a depression or soft spot here about the size of a quarter. Apply your fingertips gently to this spot, hold and take deep slow belly breaths as you wait to see the horse’s response. Most horses will start to relax, lower their heads, and start to breathe deeply.

TTouch Tail Work

There are a number of techniques from TTouch to help soften a tight tail and help a horse relax. One of the ones recommended is to do Tail Circles. First, check to see if the tail is not too tight – if it is completely clamped, start with some Hair Slides and TTouch circles on the dock itself. Once the tail has relaxed a little, reach with your hand up under the dock and lift it firmly skyward. With your other hand, grasp the lower part of the dock and arch the tail in a rainbow shape. Holding this angle, circle the tail as if winding up the horse. This movement will help the horse relieve tension and soften the tail.

Mimulus Flower Essence for fear

One of Dr Bach’s original flower essences, Mimulus, is an excellent choice to ease your horse’s fears. It is specific to “known” fears, fears that are clearly defined to the horse. For instance, your horse may be frightened of needles, or blankets, or the wash rack. Mimulus will help ease these specific fears and help him relax. Give two drops on a cookie twice daily for at least a few weeks to make a lasting change.