Recently I’ve been working with a few horses who have some rather serious issues. Most of these issues occur when the horses are stressed or put in unfamiliar situations. This has really gotten me thinking about the coping mechanisms horses develop and how we can help horses cope better.
Horses in the wild generally do not develop a lot of coping mechanisms. Instead they avoid stressful situations by fleeing or not repeating a behavior that resulted in stress. Their only natural coping mechanism is flight.
Unfortunately, a lot of the training we do with domestic horses is aimed towards getting rid of the flight response. Domestic horses are often placed in stressful situations both purposefully and accidentally and not allowed to leave by use of physical restraint. This includes tying horses, placing them in small stalls and corrals, stopping horses when riding and forcing them to stand still, and asking horses to calmly walk at your shoulder in hand, despite what may be going on around you.
Horses are perfectly capable of doing these things until there is a scary object, sound, or movement that frightens the horse. Handlers generally respond to the horse’s spook and subsequent movement with punishment. Eventually, the horse learns that escape isn’t an option.
These situations are not fair to the horse if we haven’t given him coping mechanisms to deal with the resulting fear, stress, and anxiety. When the horse is forced to ignore or “deal with” something that frightens him, he will become stressed and potentially develop general anxiety over time. Since most horses are unprepared for these situations, they develop their own set of coping mechanisms.
Common tactics domestic horses use to deal with stress include cribbing, pacing, and stall walking. These are all considered vices, yet no one talks about how they are man-made issues created by subjecting the horse to a stress-filled existence.
Some horses learn to shut down instead of developing a vice with repeated exposure to stress. This results in a horse that retreats within himself and ignores outside stimuli. Although shutting down is a great survival tactic for the horse, it isn’t a coping mechanism I encourage. If a horse ignores stimuli when he gets worried he will also ignore his handler, which can become dangerous. I want my horses to be present and aware of their surroundings in a way that allows them to let go of the stress and function normally.
Instead of waiting for our horses to pick up bad habits as a way of managing stress, we should teach them how to manage and diffuse stress. I teach my horses how to relax and both on the ground and under saddle as a foundational piece of my training.
The most common way I teach horses to cope with is stress is on the line. I use movement to keep the horse engaged and suppling exercises to naturally relax the horse’s muscles. At first I have to walk the horse through the relaxation process. I ask the horse to supple tight spots until his muscles are loose and relaxed. The horse’s mind quickly follows.
Over time the horse will begin to relax on the line by himself. This then transfers to the horse’s other work. The horse will start stretching and seeking relaxation when loose. This work can also be done under saddle. However, this only works when the horse is able move. In small confined spaces the horse still doesn’t have a good coping mechanism.
Once my horses begin to seek relaxation on work, I teach my horses to lower their heads and breathe to diffuse stress. This is a lot like yoga or meditation for us. The stretching of the horse’s neck helps relax the horse physically, which then allows the horse to mentally relax. Over time the horse becomes better at this and can use it as a self-soothing tool and coping mechanism in stressful situations.
Once the horse is fairly good at relaxing, I will begin to introduce some stressful situations to the horse. When the horse becomes worried I walk him through the above exercises until he becomes relaxed again. With practice the horse learns that he should use my coping mechanisms when stressed or frightened. This is how you develop a thinking horse able to take on stressful situations with confidence.
To me, this is the foundation to all of our training. Once a horse is able to stay relaxed, responsive to his handler, and in a good mindset, the rest of his training is easy. If the horse doesn’t have these skills you are constantly running into the same roadblocks in your training because the horse never learned how to be relaxed and cope with stress. Next time you are working with a horse try to determine how he copes with stress. If he doesn’t handle it well maybe try these exercises to build his coping skills. It’s a simple concept that makes a world of difference.