When a horse is stressed, he needs a certain experience to feel safe within the environment. As owners, if we can learn the elements our horses need to feel safe and provide them, we will help alleviate our horses anxiety within that moment in time, and over time, help the horse build trust with us, and not get stressed in the first place.
Our failure to understand a horses basic needs in time of stress, causes us to do the opposite of what the horse needs, and escalate the issue.
Humans, when faced with a horse in stress usually do one of two things ;- They try to get the horse to ‘stand still’ because this is what the human needs for the human to feel better, or, they have learned through some kind of training that the horse needs to ‘move his feet’ and so they start lunging the horse. The trouble with adding pressure to a horse that is already stressed, is that you become the source of the horses discomfort. Many a clinician has used this technique to push the horse into further stress, so they can then demonstrate how talented they are by ‘fixing’ the horse. (That’s an entire other story).
Humans, in times of stress need space and stillness. Horses in times of stress, need to herd up, and move their feet. It is vital however, that we understand the purpose of moving the horses feet, and we do it in such a way that is calming to the horse, not in a way that creates more trauma. So we need to understand the purpose of a horse moving his feet. Your horse moves his feet to either put distance between himself and the thing that is bothering him, or, in the cases where him being isolated or away from his herd is the bother, he will move his feet towards something he believes is going to make him feel better -- usually another horse/s.
So firstly we need to identify if our horse is moving his feet away from something, or towards something.
If our horse is moving away from something, we are able to facilitate this by walking within his window of tolerance, and then proceeding to help him process the ‘scary thing’ from within his comfort zone. Remembering that our horses need to observe ‘scary things’ with both eyes, and from varying distances to feel safe.
Alternatively, if our horse is trying to move towards something -- a buddy perhaps, we can use the opportunity to become the ‘safe zone’ that our horse is seeking. Holding space for our horses, while providing physical comfort through focussed movement (not chasing or lunging) provides the safe zone energy that our horse is seeking.
It is vital to note that lunging our horse in this situation is doing a couple of things -- Firstly it is sending the horse away when he needs us the most, essentially abandoning him. This then confirms his suspicion that you aren’t the safe zone he is looking for. Secondly, sending him out on the lunge when he is elevated or in flight mode is essentially encouraging him to engage or execute ‘flight’ -- Just because he is restrained, doesn’t mean that the physiology in his body is not telling him “Oh yes we are stressed and now we are running-- hello flight mode”. You are essentially layering in for him to run when he is stressed.
Many of you reading might be thinking, ‘But it works when I lunge him’. Yes. The reason it works is because horses have a ‘flight zone’. Once they have run far enough to escape the threatening situation, their physiology is such that they come out of flight mode (sympathetic nervous system) and move back into rest (parasympathetic nervous system). Basically your horse is designed to come out of flight mode and back into rest mode -- The trouble is, what we are trying to do is help the horse not enter flight / fight mode (I don't know about you, but I don't want a horse to get into flight or fight when I am on him).
Leadership isn’t about creating trauma to then fix it, leadership is about knowing what your horse needs to feel safe, and providing it
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