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#11: What to do About that Spook!


Horses are by nature, neophobic…this means they find new sights, sounds, smells, situations (etc.) worrisome. But when you add something they value into the equation, you can change their neural pathways to start to perceive new/strange objects as an opportunity for reinforcement. 
Oftentimes, horses can deal with one little piece of new info okay, but when you add several novel stimuli, your horse can become trigger stacked. This piling up of adrenaline causes them to be more reactive and this is why when they're in new situations, they become too overwhelmed to focus/listen to you. Once they are in this heightened state of anxiety, it becomes difficult to bring them back to a place of calm. 
So how can we help our horses to become more confident in new situations? And how can we help our horses to be able to process and begin to make better decisions with minimal worry?
Before Shawna came to my farm, I struggled with a young mare named Addy. She had been mistreated and had become dangerous to handle. I had purchased coaching calls with Shawna to try to sort through the issues we were having. One of the things she had me do was to teach her to touch the target. Shawna had me do quite a few sessions with the target in a variety of settings and situations so that it could become classically conditioned for Addy. This means it now took on a visceral involuntary response of pleasant feelings/associations anytime the target was in view. 
I won't lie… at first I thought to myself “What the heck? How is this going to help her?” Oh but it did. She had a serious fear of thunder storms. Storms would cause her to pace frantically in her stall until she was lathered with sweat. I would watch helplessly and cry because there was nothing I could do that would help her. Enter the target…
Once she understood and had good associations with the target, I was able to use it to bring her back to a place of regulation. During a storm I'd ask her to target up high, down low, left, right, etc. She soon became more focused on the game and let go of her worry. I could also ask for some other simple behaviors as well. A few storms later, Addy was content to munch on her hay during a storm. This was such a relief for me and obviously for her!
As a traditional trainer, I was always taught that when my horses shied away from something while riding, I should push them toward the worrisome object with my leg and steer them toward it with my hands. I did this for years. I forced them to move closer because I was taught that I was their “leader” and they needed to learn to “respect” me. This “respect” was supposed to translate to trust, but instead this had the opposite effect.
It is only natural to want to escalate consequences when a horse is fearful since after all, we humans understand that the object isn't anything worth fearing. But as Shawna says, “their fear is their reality”. It's not up to us to decide what is scary to them. Our job is to give them the tools to understand they can find safety in our presence regardless of what new stimuli we introduce them to. Pretty soon, these new situations become an opportunity for reinforcement and you'll find your horse actually seeking out new objects to explore on their own. 
In both of these photos, you can see us using the target to help the horses make better associations with worrisome objects. For Arosa (top photo) we were not able to have her at liberty since she was at a horse show (which is always our preference). Arosa was having some trouble stopping at fences when she would show. It turned out, she wasn't all that worried about the fences themselves. She was worried about all the other things going on in the show environment around her and it was too much to keep track of. So she would stop when it became overwhelming for her. 
Once we recognized this, we simply gave her time in the ring the morning before she showed to process the environment and used a target to bring better associations with the jumps. We asked her to walk up to each jump and explore it, then clicking her relaxed curiosity. Giving her this processing time helped her to recognize the show environment around her was also safe. After that, she went back to her stall for a while to further process and to let latent learning do its work before she showed.  When she showed that day, she was very relaxed and focused and won both of her classes. 
Below, Oliver is at liberty and exploring an area with a couple objects he isn't very familiar with. He trepidatiously approached the feed dish to see if there was anything there for him as you can see in the photo. His nostrils are flared and he is ready to back out quickly if needed. After that, he continued to explore with relaxed body language. Those moments of taking a breath, cocking a hind leg, softening of the eyes/posture are all clickable moments. 
When we try to put ourselves into the mindset of our horses, our empathy tends to supersede our necessity for immediate progress. And you know what? Over time, those deposits we're making into their trust bank pay off big time. Shawna always says slow down, you'll go faster and it's so true. 
Their plan for Arosa to learn be confident with the jumps was to walk, trot and canter past them and leg yield her toward them. They were gentle about it, but insistent. Arosa tended to internalize her worry, so it was very difficult to spot. Many horses are stoic or have learned to hide their fear because that has been safer for them. Inevitably though, it will come out sideways in another time or place. 
You see, when we insist that horses must face the things they're worried about, we keep their adrenaline up. This does not put them in an ideal state for learning. When we help them to recognize they're safe, it's not only a win for our relationship… it's a win for the horse's nervous system. Over time, we can create new neural pathways in our horses' brains that desire fun explorations instead of feelings of worry and anxiety.
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