How to help your horse feel safe

 

As a prey animal, the horse relies on being cautious and speedy to keep safe and survive. To help your horse feel safe they need:

  1. A herd of close friends who they can rely on to keep watch. Being among their companions means that there are more eyes and ears looking out for trouble.

  2. A pair bond (best friend) similar to themselves in age, gender and size.

  3. Males in the herd, as they take on the role of protector.

  4. Space to flee if they feel threatened.

  5. The ability to see far and wide around themselves. Horses especially like an area of high ground to look out from.

  6. A familiar home range helps horses to feel safe as they know escape routes and where all the resources they need are.

When the herd feels threatened they bunch together and look into the distance. The distance between their bodies shows how apprehensive they are. They will approach something of interest by circling around it gradually getting closer. Sometimes they circle at a trot, perhaps to warm their muscles up. When frightened they’ll have jerky movements so that predators are unsure of their escape route. If they flee they usually run for about 50-100 metres before turning around to look, listen and smell to test the situation (2). 

 

It is important to understand that they have 4 options when they feel threatened called the four f’s (4):

  1. Fidget behaviours                                                                                    

  2. Flee

  3. Freeze

  4. Fight                                                                                                         

Fidget behaviours are the healthy horse’s first choice when mildly threatened.  These include appeasements and displacements.

Appeasements are submissive behaviours which reduce aggression from another e.g. head lowering, moving away, clamped tail etc.

Displacements are normal behaviours acted out in an inappropriate context. They are motivated by fear, frustration or confusion e.g. yawning, licking and chewing etc.  A human example is to play with your hair or check your phone when you feel uncomfortable. It is important to look at the whole context when assessing behaviour as each action has more than one meaning e.g. if you ask your horse to back up and he scratches his leg this is likely a displacement as he is confused. However, in a different situation he will scratch as he simply has an itch.

If fidget behaviours don’t reduce the threat or it is of a high intensity then they will either flee or freeze. Donkeys are more likely to freeze and this is why they are often called stubborn. If the first three f’s have been unsuccessful then the animal will have to resort to fighting.  

When with your horse keep an eye on their body language to make sure that they do not feel threatened by what you are doing or by anything in their environment. If your horse sees something which is worrying then generally they will stop (freeze) and stare in that direction. If your horse does this stay with them and follow their gaze to look as well. Then sigh and turn away and show them with your body language that you are relaxed. By doing this you show them that you listen when they tell you something is wrong and that you are not worried by whatever it is. Allow them to look for as long as they want. Don’t discount their feelings and force them to turn away. Imagine you were afraid of spiders, when there is one in your room you stare at it until it is gone. If someone stopped you looking you would feel even worse not knowing where it was. If you have a treat give them one when they turn back to you to reward their attention on you and build a positive association. Depending on the horse they may want to approach the object or walk a semi-circle around it, let them do what feels best to them. Never force them to approach something as you will lose their trust in you and make them more likely to flee.

 

 

To avoid fears developing in the first place it is important to fulfil the list of needs at the top. It is also important to expose your horses (especially youngsters) to a variety of objects in the field where they feel safe. So that they learn to play with new objects rather than to fear them. You can see in the video Buddy has no issues with cones or plastic sheets! Another huge aspect to the development of fears is an abrupt, early weaning. Foals should stay with their mum until they are at the very least one year old. More on this to come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

  1. Fraser, A (1992) The behaviour of the horse, CAB International, Wallingford

  2. Feist, J & McCullough, D (1976) Behaviour patterns and communication in feral horses, Z. Tierspsychol. 41:337-371 

  3. McGreevy, P (2004) Equine Behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh

  4. Simpson, H (2004) Teach yourself horse, D J Murphy Ltd, Brighton

  5. Simpson, H (2008) Meeting the needs of your horse, Carmarthen

  6. Waring, G (2003) Horse Behaviour, Noyes Publications, New York

Long term it is best to help your horse with their specific fears, anxieties and phobias.  The easiest short-term fix is to avoid anything which causes your horse distress. As with anything practice makes perfect and you don’t want them to become even more reactive to the triggers. The horses feel the butterflies in their stomach and their heart race. Being scared is a horrible feeling and we need to work to rid our horses of these negative emotions. Just because they ‘have always been spooky’ doesn’t mean they can’t be helped to feel calmer and happier. A qualified behaviourist will be able to assess your horse and provide you with specific behaviour modification programmes to counter-condition and change your horses emotional response to triggers. To see a list of qualified behaviourists 

© 2020 Meadow Family Rescue & Rehab

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