The good, the bad, and the ugly.
As horse owners, at some point we are going to restrict our horses movement. Tieing him up, trailering, stalling, stabling and riding are all ways we can restrict the freedom of movement of our horses, and a necessary part of horse ownership.
But did you know that the way you restrict movement has a huge impact on your horses mental health, and can promote calmness and confidence or shut down and learned helplessness depending on the who, what, when, where and why?
It is so important that we look past the apparent success of our task, and consider the body language and processes of the horse.
For example, a horse that is tied, trailered, stalled etc and goes through a phase of distress or fight (calling, pawing, fighting against ropes or panels), and then arrives at a place of ‘calm’ could have succumbed to the final phase in the prey animals survival mechanism - acceptance of death, and is simply demonstrating this. It is often after this acceptance phase that ‘learned helplessness’ kicks in, as the horse also arrives at the understanding that he has no further options.
Prior to the acceptance of death phase comes;
Do the opposite of what the predator says
Run away from the predator
Fight the predator
Push into pressure
Accept your fate.
This is why the idea of ‘letting him figure it out’ in the cases of separation anxiety and situations of that nature can appear to have ‘worked’ as the horse gives up his options.
Restrictions of movement can also result in a horse that appears more trainable, quiet and accepting, as he believes he has no alternatives.
I am not suggesting a world in which we do not restrict the movement of our horses, as this would be both unrealistic and unsafe, but one where we consider how we are training these things.
Take hobbles for example - You can throw a set of hobbles on a horse, let him fight, struggle and figure out he can’t go anywhere, and you’ll have a horse that is ‘hobble trained’, but he will also have a little bit less spirit. Introduce the idea of hobbles through training and confidence building, and you’ll have a happy and confident hobble trained horse.
Teach a horse to be trailered by loading him and then ‘quickly shutting the back’ so he can’t escape will teach him he can’t leave the trailer - but he may still be worried and tense about it. Teach him to load confidently and with time, and you’ll have a horse that trailers confidently.
Teach a horse to look to you when he is anxious or worried because you know what to do, makes him feel confident and happy in your presence, rather than teaching him he can only rely on himself, even after asking you for help.
In closing, it is crucial that we remember that one of a horses natural coping mechanisms to stress is to move their feet. Taking this away doesn’t remove the desire or need, it simply causes the horse to shut down and look for alternative coping methods, for example stereotypical behaviour such as weaving, crib biting or a complete disconnect to the environment.