Interrupting Anxiety

Following on from the previous post which talks about our composure in helping horses through their anxiety, there are a number of actions we can take as well to interrupt anxiety and help our horses cope with scary situations.

These are based on some personal experiences getting my own horses through difficult situations – my list is not comprehensive by any means. The main point I would like to make is that there are two paths the horse can take in their thinking once they find themselves experiencing fear. Either towards self-soothing or not. The latter ends up in a bolt, spook, or some other highly adrenaline-bound behaviour. If the horse has learnt to self-soothe then they will be able to interrupt their own anxiety. We can give them a hand with this by introducing actions that will interrupt it and help them down the path to self-soothing.

Tip 1. Let the horse move their feet if they are mildly fearful. Move in a circle to stop any bolting.

Tip 2. Stop movement completely by disengaging the hind in a one rein stop. This is for extremely fearful situations that may turn dangerous if the horse is allowed to move.

Tip 3. If the horse is going into a scary or new environment then encourage the horse to put their head down. This is easier from the ground. The use of treats can also help the horse move their head down, and be a reward for calm behaviour. If possible, have a more experienced buddy horse there as a calming tool.

Tip 4. Use a wiggle of the reins or lead rope, or a voice interruption for a spook when the horse is not prone to bolting, and then go back immediately to what you were doing or something else easier (don’t stop and reward the spook). Spooking often happens due to overwhelming factors, which can include working hard or doing something difficult on top of some other stimulus. Therefore reducing the stimulus of something that you can control (the task the horse does) can help the horse to control themselves.

Tip 5. Have a well practiced routine that the horse knows and can execute well as a warm up in a difficult environment. This will give the horse confidence. E.g. walk in 10 meter circles, change the rein, stop, move backwards, and any other moves that the horse knows well to be done in the same order.

Those are some of my tips to help the horse in the moment. Of course, spending time with gradual introduction to stimulating environments can build the horses ‘immunity’ to getting overwhelmed. Good stimulus (like rubbing the mane in front of the wither – if they like that, accupressure near the poll and other relaxing points, or giving feed/treats) in conjunction with scary stimulus can diminish the response, which can be repeated at regular intervals to desensitise horses to environments and sounds. Horses bodies are large and unwieldy which leaves them feeling vulnerable to things going on around them. Therefore good coordination and body awareness (proprioception) can also aid the horse in their level of confidence. There are methods such as using TTouch wraps that can help horses feel more confident and aware of their bodies, stretching and mobilising bodywork, and Sure Foot® pads that help horses reset their nervous system. All of this helps with their coping mechanisms under stress.