Fearful and/or anxious horses
We all feel fear and anxiety and I’m sure that you will agree they do not feel good. When in these states your horse is feeling his heart race, butterflies in his tummy etc. Although, short-term anxiety and fear are actually very helpful, they keep us from straying into danger and aid our survival. Problems arise when horses feel fearful or anxious long-term due to the way they are kept and/or trained.
Anxiety is the feeling of unease about the possibility of future danger. Horses who suffer from anxiety always predict the worst, especially if they are depressed. For example, an anxious horse will see a plastic bag blow in the wind and go “Oh no, I’t going to get me!”. Whereas a horse brought up in an enriched environment with many positive experiences will go “Oooh maybe there are apples in there, let me go see”. Anxious horses will misinterpret others and think they are being threatened. A human example are humans who are fearful of dogs; when a dog jumps up to greet them they will misinterpret this and think the dog is attacking them!
Fear is a feeling of uneasiness when in the presence of a particular object, individual or situation which they feel is threatening them. Fear focuses their attention; it's like they have tunnel vision and everything else, including you is filtered out. Your horse is not ignoring you; he literally cannot hear you. Extreme fear can cause the animal to panic.
In both cases the body readies itself for action e.g. through increased tension, hyper-activity and vigilance. When your horse is feeling threatened they are more sensitive and ‘on their toes’ so you must be careful around them. Just like if you are tense and a friend taps you on the shoulder you will startle and jump in the air when you wouldn’t normally.
A fear can develop from a bad experience with someone or something. Whereas anxiety can have many different factors e.g. abrupt early weaning. In addition being moved away from home, leaving your friends behind again and again can have long-term implications on a horses ability to be resilient and confident.
To help an anxious or fearful horse:
Be calm and confident yourself. If you were walking in a rough neighbourhood with a police officer and he looked worried then you would be terrified as even your protector is afraid! This may be how your horse feels when they see you are fearful.
If you know a situation that they are not comfortable with is about to happen; stop it, leave the area with them or make sure that they are standing still and feed them treats until ‘it’ passes. Position them so that they can see the thing so that they will not be surprised.
Look at things from their perspective. What would their answer would be if you asked “How does this make you feel?”
Do not trap or restrain them e.g. tie up or in the stable.
Comfort them when they are feeling afraid.
Protect them from who or whatever they need protection from, you may need to stand in-between.
Give them a smaller world that they feel comfortable with. Avoid anything which causes them distress.
Clothier, S (2012) Arousal, Anxiety and Fear [DVD] Flying Dog Press, USA
Simpson, H (2010) Equine Behaviour Qualification notes