Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, May 14, 2015 06:32 PM
I would like to discuss a topic that I never hear about in the magazines. May be I am looking in the wrong ones but the bottom line very rarely I hear a good advice on the subject. The topic is hysterics in horses. The behavior when it looks and feels like a horse lost it's mind and acting crazy or about to act crazy. Whatever triggered this response is not so important. It can be a new situation, separation from a herd, or other event that made a horse very upset, worried and just plain panicky. We all come across such behavior once in a while, hopefully, not very often. It is very dangerous situation. It is in fact can be so dangerous that horses are shot to stop the panic when it involves a plane and it happens during a flight.
All horses can get very worried and upset when put into very unfamiliar situation. And our job is actually to gradually train them and expose them to many different situations and environments. Sometimes horses are not completely panicking they are just really on high drive and such an alert mode they are close to panic. This happens quite often, especially, with young horses. And very often the trigger can be lessened, or removed to gradually expose the horse to it until they know. Or, leave the horse alone with a trigger until they calm down (saddling and leaving a horse in a round pen to deal with it). However, there are times when it is impossible to remove the trigger like a flight on a plane.
Very often when a horse becomes very worried handlers and riders try to calm the horse down by talking to it smoothly, stroking their necks, etc. These are good responses when the worry is very small and the horse trusts and knows the handler and starts to respond fairly quickly. However, many riders/handlers continue to act in the described above way when the situation has changed already for the worse and the horse is so upset it doesn't respond to soothing actions anymore and starts to act up pushing into handler with his head, shoulders, stepping on their feet, etc. Lot of times handlers still try to continue with the same approach and end up knocked off their balance. The horse doesn't see the handler anymore, doesn't listen to him/her and feels completely alone, left to his own protection. At this moment the response from a person should be more like a "slap across the face" to stop the building up pressure inside the horse, change their focus and make them pause. At this point any method works as long as it doesn't put neither you, other people or your horse in real danger. Sometimes just a loud whistle is enough and at other times a few good whacks with a whip is required, throwing sand, splashing water, jumping and waving your arms, etc.
Even in the wild a leading mare or a stallion will "attack" a panicky horse to stop their behavior if the situation doesn't warrant it. It is like with a person who lost his ability to think clearly "talking" nicely to such a horse will not work. A handler has to cut in fairly dramatically to stop the horse from building on the problem, otherwise, the horse may hurt someone or itself.
    The challenge for many people is:
  • Ability to recognize the need for such action - lots of time handlers wait for too long until the situation becomes more dangerous
  • Change the attitude in a split second without becoming emotional - again, handlers wait too long until the horse really gets on their nerves and then attack him with emotions. The danger here is attacking more than necessary and continuing attacking when it is time to quit
  • "Attack" the horse with enough drama to make them change their focus - a lot of times people are worried that they are not nice to their horse when they have to act dramatically. Trust me what is not nice is letting your horse to spiral down into panic until something bad happens.
  • Then switch off your act without any residue left - this is the hardest thing to do. The moment you see your horse turn his attention to you and stop acting up halt all your drama action. Stand there very still but alert for couple seconds to test if your horse is really paying attention to you. Then change your voice, posture, body language like nothing has happened and truly mean it.
I heard about this a long time ago. However, since then I practiced it and found that it works very well. Also, I found that if your horses know that you will not let them go into panic mode they start responding quicker and require less drama. I found that even with babies this works and actually babies learn so fast that even at a distance you can stop their hysterics. I had an incident recently when Arro (yearling) became very agitated in his stall coming from bad weather and waiting for his food that I haven't yet given them because I wanted to bring them in from pouring rain as soon as possible. He started yelling and running hard into the stall door (my doors are dutch). I took my whip and jumped toward the door at the moment he did, yelling and waving the whip not even touching him. He jumped back tossing his head. I hit the door with the whip demanding him to stop. He did, he froze and next moment very quietly with as soothing voice as I could master I murmured to him what a good boy he was. That was it. After that he stood there waiting for his food and when I entered his stall to give it to him there was no residue of the incident. He calmly stepped back to let me in, waited until I poured food into his bucket and started eating.
Developing skills like that is not an easy task. You do not want to put your horse in panicky situations on purpose and there is no way of doing it safely and under control. If you are gradually exposing your horse to new situations the important thing is to be able to remove the trigger after a short expose. Creating panic in your horse on purpose is not a good idea by any stretch. However, if it happens look at it as an opportunity to practice switching your horse's attention from a trigger to you. You will make mistakes. There is no way around it. So, be careful! Horses are incredibly fast, strong and flighty! Never allow yourself to be cornered, always have your legs slightly apart, one in front of the other, knees bent. Practice pushing off the solid object to jump backwards/sideways. Then ask someone to advance on you fast so you can push off them and jump backwards/sideways. Your ability to surprise your horse so much that he forgets about a trigger and focuses on you is your best bet to finish it quickly and safely!
This method is working very well for me. All my own horses experienced the situation/s where I demanded complete attention in a very quick and dramatic way. I am very aware not to abuse this technique. It is important to learn when to use it, otherwise, it turns into bulling. However, if I have to I unleash it in a full power without holding back.
I would like to hear from the equestrian community. If you read this blog and you have an opinion on this subject that you can back up by experience, facts or being a witness please let me know and I publish it here.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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