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How Horses Show Fear - The Five Fs
 By Winniefield Park   •   29th Sep 2013   •   7,279 views   •   0 comments
How Horses Show Fear

My daughter is bringing along a large pony. She had originally thought she would buy the pony, get it started and then sell it before winter. However, she really likes the pony and now wants to keep it over the winter and show it a bit in the spring. You can tell that this pony is a ďthinker". She's very smart and learns quickly. Everything was going well, and my daughter was very excited about having a smart youngster to work with.

But, in her excitement, she may have pushed the pony faster than she should have. The result was, a very short time into a schooling session the pony froze. What transpired when the pony unfroze is the type of thing that turns guardian angels' (and mothers') hair grey. My daughter quickly learned that she had to curb her ambition and go the pony's speed, not her's. The pony had exhibited one of the five Fs, when it reached 'information overload'.

Horses have five types of responses when they become fearful: flight, fight, fidget, freeze and faint.

Flight
Flight is the first choice response of a horse that senses danger or pain. It's what sends horses thundering when they see a perceived threatólike a hungry cougar, or a mailbox dripping horse blood. Flight is what horses are built for.

Fight
When flight isn't possible, horses will fight. That's why a horse in its stall or in the cross ties, may kick or bite if they feel threatened. If a horse is really backed into a corner, they will defend themselves quite aggressively.

Freeze
Freezing is often seen as being stubborn. This is a defense mechanism and usually a precursor to flight. Under saddle, this can happen, with the horse holding its breath and standing stock still. Since it can't bring into play its flight response, being restrained by the rider, it may act out in other ways, such as bucking or rearing.

Faint
I've never seen a horse faint. I've certainly heard about it. The horse, under some stress, simply shuts down and sinks or falls down. Horses that are very cold backed may do this in response to the pain. A horse put in something like overly tight side reins or over-check may respond by fainting as well.

Fidget
We've probably all seen this reaction. Horses that chew the bit shanks, grab the lead ropes, get pushy, flap their lips, or act out in other ways that could be regarded as 'fidgeting or fiddling'. We might think that the horse is doing this to get attention, or because it's bored. However, some horses fidget because they're having trouble coping with a situation.

Each reaction is triggered by the production of certain chemicals that either shut down or activate specific parts of the brain, causing the horse to stop thinking and start reacting. A fidgeting horse may be distracting itself, like we do when we play computer games instead of studying or working. So how do we prevent any one of the five Fs? It's almost impossible to prevent them completely.

If you're out riding and a hot-air balloon suddenly looms overhead, whooshing its canister of fuel, your horse is going to react. Good schooling does a lot to contain spooks that might turn into a run for the hills episode. A calm and clear request from the rider can often calm a spooky horse.

When training, be sure that you are going the horse's pace, not your own. Horse time isn't our time, and it may take a few more lessons to perfect what you are teaching your horse, regardless of the show that is only two days away. In a situation where the horse is freezing, it's important to get the horse to put its head down and start breathing.

A horse with its head down is more relaxed, and you can teach 'head down' when you're working from the ground. As long as the head is up, the ears are pricked, and the eyes are bulging, adrenaline is being produced. To prevent an explosive chemical reaction, pay attention to body language and work on 'head down'.

Pay attention to what a fidgeting horse may be telling you. Rather than just regarding it as cute or annoying, notice the situation it's happening in, and how the horse may actually be expressing stress.

Image Credit: © Angela Cable | Dreamstime.com
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