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Horse fear

On Good Behaviour... Fear Fixes
Using systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to reduce fearful behaviour.

By: Karin Apfel

In the horse that has specific fears or phobias, or whose fearful behaviour is overwhelming, it is necessary to apply some specific retraining techniques if you wish to make significant changes. Some examples of these types of phobias might include panicky behaviour around the trailer after a shipping accident; extreme sound sensitivity; fear of the vet after a painful procedure; fear of entering water; claustrophobia; and many more.
Forcing the horse to accept the situation that frightens it by restraint or other more severe techniques almost always results in increased fear and more violent resistance. Compare the situation that your horse fears to someone who is afraid of heights being forced to climb onto a bungee jumping tower. The harder the phobic person is pushed and the closer to the end of the platform he gets, the more that person would resist and the less able they would be to deal rationally with the situation.
Two avenues often taken with a fearful horse are to avoid triggering the situation if possible (no more bungee jumping), or sell the horse. If, however, you wish to keep the horse and retrain it, two techniques combined offer the best results. These are exposure to the frightening situation in a specific manner until it no longer produces a fearful reaction (desensitization) and linking the frightening situation with something pleasant to change the horse's response to it (counter conditioning). Desensitization can work without counter conditioning (as in the book "Black Beauty" when Beauty is turned out as a young horse in a field near train tracks), but it may take more time and can often be dangerous. For example, if Beauty had already had a strong fear of loud noises, he may have had such a panicked reaction to the passing of the train that he may have run into the fence or otherwise injured himself attempting to escape.
In response to the brain's perception of 'danger', an animal's flight or fight response kicks in, including a rapid increase in heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure and a mobilization of energy reserves - the adrenalin rush. This physical response is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is not under conscious control. There are two parts of the ANS, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, and they are antagonistic. That is, one cannot operate while the other is operating. Under normal conditions, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) act to create balance in the body. When an animal is anxious, the SNS is activated and when it is in a relaxed state the PNS is operational. The activation of one turns off the other. Under acute stress the SNS in effect "locks out" the PNS.
If you can get a frightened horse's PNS to turn on under the conditions in which the animal usually gets stressed, the animal should relax. If this occurs a number of times, the horse's anxiety response to certain stimuli could become reconditioned. That is, the horse would learn to relax in the situation that frightens it.
In order to manipulate the horse to relax under aversive conditions, one must utilize those activities which are incompatible with anxiety and are mediated by the PNS. Sex is one (but not really practical for training purposes), a deep state of relaxation another and also eating. The crucial caveat is that the intensity of the response to these calming activities must be of greater intensity than the anxiety response in order to inhibit the anxiety.
Owners can reduce their horse's fear by first targeting anxiety producing stimuli that only elicit low levels of stress. Generally, these are stimuli that are similar enough to the primary anxiety-producing stimulus to cause the horse to become afraid, but not as fearful as it would be if the primary stimulus were present. By pairing the mild anxiety producing stimulus with an activity mediated by the PNS, the latter should be able to override the former.
In the case of the horse afraid of the trailer, the owner would need to analyze which are the primary triggers of the horse's fear. It may be approaching the trailer or even the donning of shipping boots and head bumper. If it is the trailer, then the owner must set up a situation in which the trailer is present, but at enough distance that the horse's anxiety is low enough so that it is able to graze or eat from a bucket. If necessary, a different type of trailer or a different loading location could be used, differing even more from the primary stimulus. The frightening stimulus must be present while the relaxing stimulus is added to the situation; namely, the horse would need to be massaged or fed (whatever creates relaxation) once the owner has brought the horse as near the trailer as necessary to cause mild anxiety. Once the horse has become completely relaxed at this distance (this may take minutes or days depending on the horse), then he can be moved closer and the process continued.
It is extremely important that the anxiety-inhibiting stimulus (the food or massage) is strong enough to counter condition the anxiety-producing stimulus. Similarly, the anxiety-inhibiting stimulus must be paired with very low levels of anxiety. The third critical factor is that the anxiety-inhibiting stimulus must be paired contiguously with the stressful stimulus. That is, they must occur near one another so that the two become linked in the horse's mind. Another factor (one that many people tend to forget) is that the trainer must not advance to the next level until the horse is completely comfortable with the preceding step. If, at any time, the horse becomes highly anxious, it should be taken out of the situation immediately for at least 24 hours. It takes that much time (some belive it can take as long as several days) for the residual physical reactions of the strong SNS activation to leave the body. The next day the horse should be returned to the previous step in the plan.
Finally, it is best to actually have a plan. (For example: session one - stand and graze 50' from trailer; session two - stand and graze 40' from trailer, etc. Continue in this vein until your horse is happily eating grain out of a bucket in the trailer.) This will decrease the chances of 'skipping ahead' and having to return to the beginning. You will also need to have a clear sense of the triggers that frighten the horse and deal with each one separately. If shipping boots also cause a fearful reaction, that problem would need to be resolved separately from the 'approaching the trailer' problem before the two could be combined. The sessions could run once a week or several per day. It depends on the horse and the time the trainer has available. In severe cases, you may wish to consider sedating the horse in the beginning, but this should be discontinued as soon as possible. Lastly, it is important that the trainer stay calm throughout the process. As a herd animal, horses take cues from their herd mates. If your horse's reaction frightens you, find someone else to do the retraining. You must set the example by remaining calm in the presence of the vet or trailer or horse-eating creek before the horse can 'retrain' his own responses.

Source: http://www.completerider.com

Good Seat of Discipline

by Deborah Kaetz

Like other sports, the art of dressage riding involves a great amount of training for body and mind. This includes hours, month and years of ovals, circles and figure eights, with and without stirrups, working with injuries (of the rider and the horse), highs and lows, ups and downs. But, because I am also working with the mind and body of another sentient being, this kind of riding practice becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

When I came upon Chögyam Trungpa's teachings on this subject, I was thrilled to learn that something I enjoyed so much had the lineage stamp of approval, in fact, came highly recommended. In trying to write about my own riding experiences, I quickly realized that I could hardly begin to describe what being close to or on top of a horse meant as eloquently as he could.

The quotations I have chosen are from The Magyal Pomra Encampment Transcripts: 1979-1982. These talks were given by the Makkyi Rapjam and include comments by Lady Diana Mukpo. The Makkyi Rapjam (Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche) learned about horses and horsemanship in Tibet and continued to ride throughout his lifetime. His wife, Lady Diana Mukpo, trained in dressage at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and now teaches dressage in Providence, R.I.

A lot of you who are here have never smelled a horse, never actually experienced a horse. It if very important for you to relate with even the metaphorical exertion which is the horse. You have to smell the horses, feel them, and examine their chewing, their tails, their ears, the way they smell, their breath.... Actually horseness is very much related to the warrior principle altogether, which is very important. (1979, Talk 3)

I love the smell of horse. When I walk into the stable, the smell immediately overwhelms my senses. One step inside the door and I have left the old moment and walked into a new one, into a new realm. There is the sweet smell of urine, the sweetness of hay, the ripening odour of manure, leather and oil, and the solid sense of sweat and hair and animal energy. The earthiness of this realm is all-pervading and seductive.

When I enter the stables, I have to leave my own preoccupations at the door. These animals are my teachers and they insist that I be present with them. Otherwise the feedback here is immediate. A kick in the leg or 1,000 pounds coming down hard on my foot brings me back fast. Standing next to a 16 hands tall thoroughbred, I do not feel like the superior species.

Moh, for example, is not trying to be something he is not, while I am TRYING to be a rider. He is eager and willing to work with me. He loves the attention and he loves his carrots. Moh lives with 22 animal friends in two long rows of stalls, completely dependent on his human caretakers, yet he maintains his pride of horseness. When I ride on his back, I can sense this pride, and, if I am able to let go of my own thinking, he allows me to share it with him.

The basic point is that riding a horse is an extremely valid situation. Even in the sutras, if we might quote them, the horse is often referred to as exertion or virya. Exertion is always like riding a horse. Exertion is never regarded as just wearing oneself out, but exertion is regarded as riding on the energy that exists. (1979, Talk 3)

Riding is a sport that does not dawn overnight. One has to practice and practice and then practice more. It complements meditation. In both, one has to practice without a goal. Having a goal takes me out of the present moment, and this is especially true for riding. If I think too hard or become too self-critical, angry or impatient with myself, it not only shows up in my body, but it manifests in the horse as well. When I am not carrying my head and shoulders correctly, my horse's head and shoulders collapse. When I am stiff or rigid in the saddle, so is he underneath me.

My horse's gait mirrors my mind. When my mind and body are working in harmony, this synchronicity immediately manifests in the horse's gait. The act of riding then, feels effortless. At that point, both of us are riding the energy as one. WE are windhorse.

The only way I can speak about horsemanship is through my own experience. I think it firstly involves some kind of inspiration which comes after one has made the initial contact. Through inspiration, one develops discipline, and in working with the element of the horse, one has to be completely on the spot an done has to be able to tune into the horse's energy. When one actually learns to take one's seat on a horse and to control the energy, one has to be both completely flexible as well as rigid. One has to be rigid in the sense of holding one's seat, but in order to keep that rigidity one has to be flexible.

I think that is the basic element of horsemanship. One maintains stability in working with the mind of the horse, as well as in working with one's own mind. One's own stability comes through being flexible. I suppose one could broaden that concept into one's own life.

When I began to ride, I thought "having a good seat" meant sitting tall in the saddle, looking good. Now I realize that I rode for years without even being aware of my "seat". Seat is not to be confused with sitting. Having a good "seat" involves one's whole being, mind and body. What happens first is that one realizes how fragmented that whole being really is. If I think about my legs, I forget I have hands. When I concentrate on the reins, I tense my shoulders. "Having a good seat" on a horse involves balance, weight changes, lengthening head, neck, spine and legs. It means riding through fear, not letting the fear stiffen one's body or one's resolve. Fear arises when the horse stumbles, when he bucks at the pressure of the legs, when another horse comes too close and his ears flatten on his head. When fear overwhelms me, having a good seat literally becomes impossible.

Riding is about getting out of one's own way, and getting out of the horse's way as well. When I am riding in harmony with my horse, the energy is able to flow freely. In those few fleeting moments when I am able to be present with this, I can handle whatever obstacle might come our way.

This understanding actually goes back to the old technique of riding a horse. When you have a rider and you have a horse, then you begin to realize how to hold your seat, how to hold yourself on your saddle. If you have a bad seat, you can't connect heaven and earth. If you have a good one, then you can actually connect heaven and earth together. You are fine, your horse is fine. You have excellent gait, excellent control, and then you can hold your reins or handle naturally whatever comes up in the situation.

Source: http://www.shambhala.org

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