The fearful equine

A recent Facebook conversation about positive reinforcement led to someone asking a question about one of my favorite fallacies – if you comfort a fearful or spooking horse, aren’t you just reinforcing the fear?  I first encountered that idea when I started training our dogs, just over twenty years ago.  My experience with a variety of animals told me that was a silly idea – and the more I’ve learned about how brains work, the sillier the idea gets.  So, how do you handle the fearful equine?  As with all things related to horses, techniques are numerous – and I’ve probably tried them all at one time or other – but some are definitely safer and saner than others.

As anyone who deals with horses should be well aware, flight is their evolved main defense against predators.  Flee now, live to ask questions later, from a very safe distance.  What is critical to understand is that fear, and the resulting flight, is a largely autonomic response.  As such, the response itself is not under the individual’s direct control.  I am not a scientist, but I have read many who state that autonomous functions cannot be reinforced, as they are not voluntary to begin with.  However, how we react to the object that has frightened the horse can reinforce the idea that the object is a frightening one, increasing the chance that fear will set in the next time it is encountered.

The next knock against the theory is that comfort, in whatever form it takes, triggers other hormones in the brain that counteract those created by fear – if it is successful.  So, you would actually replace the fear with different emotions, if you can actually comfort the individual from their fear.  Perhaps there was a night when you were afraid of something in your closet, and your mother hugged you and sat on your bed, and you were left feeling warm and loved.  Did you become more or less likely to fear monsters in your closet?

As I said above, there are many approaches to dealing with a fearful horse.  Some of the most common include:

  • Prevent them from looking at the fearful object
  • Take them right up to the fearful object, often in a forceful way
  • Make them work hard in the area away from the fearful object, and only give them peace near the frightful object, so they’d rather be where it is
  • Expose them to the fearful object repeatedly, until they give up being afraid

There may be argument made for any of these, depending upon the horse and the situation.  However, I find all of them overall unsatisfactory in that they ignore the real nature of the horse, and none of them offer a long term solution for a horse who is habitually fearful of new things.  If not done very carefully, any of them can easily lead to a situation more dangerous for both horse and handler.

Angelo Telatin, behavioral scientist, has done studies on investigative behavior (IB) in horses.  He describes the following sequence observed in horses introduced to a novel object:

Noble going through IB with an umbrella

“The (IB) sequence observed was as follows: alert behavior (head raised, eyes and ears fixed, reduced/complete stop of motion). The neck telescoping gesture was used to bring the nose towards the object. The olfactory investigation resumed the forward movement toward the foreign object for further exploration. The tactile sense was then used to further investigate the new [object] with the lips. Some horses then proceeded to mouth the object.” once produced a video where Telatin discussed handling fear of new objects (or even specific objects) by speeding up this IB sequence.  This was not done through any force, as in the second bullet of my list above; rather, it was done my creating a motivation to voluntarily move more quickly to the final stage.  This was done through positive reinforcement.

As I wrote in Small Triumphs Can Be Huge!, out of frustration with Tally’s reactive nature, I experimented with positive reinforcement.  It was months after this started to work that I ran across the video and gained the additional insight into why it was successful in changing Tally’s response to frightening stimulus.  Like Tally, Noble has grown up with a reactive personality – seeing anything new as alarming.  Unlike Tally, he knows full well that he can break and run any time he wants.  So, when this behavior began, I reverted immediately to the formula that had worked for Tally.

As I said, you cannot actually reinforce a fear response by rewarding it – but you can condition how they respond when fear occurs.  The method I use is as follows:

  • Take a step toward the scary thing, get a reward
  • Each step toward it gets another reward
  • The final reward comes when they physically touch the scary object

As they begin to respond to this routine the timing between rewards can be lengthened – every two steps, every three, etc.  The day that I learned just how successful this approach had been, we’d received a new stack of hay and covered it with a tarp.  Tally walked out of the barn, saw the stack, stopped with her head held high and her gaze locked on the stack – and in the next second led me straight to the stack, touched it with her nose, then looked at me for her treat!

Noble has also been showing success with this method, getting him to observe and approach things that previously got him to spin and leave.  But this weekend was Noble’s “tarp on the haystack” moment.

Nosy Noble!

I decided to spend some time fixing his door and a wall in his stall.  Most of the work was from outside his stall, so I left him open to access it.  I was using an impact driver through most of the work.  If you’ve ever been around one of those, you’ll know just how loud it can get – I often think I should wear ear plugs.  In the past, I have used the tool around Noble, and he’s bolted out the door nearly every time.  I’ve spent a couple of sessions just running it at low speed, and giving him positive reinforcement for engaging.  But I was not prepared for how much progress he has made!  As I was working, with the tool running at full volume, he would reach over and touch it, then look to me for a treat!  Eventually he was just engaging with the construction activity for the amusement of it – no treats needed.

Clearly you do have to be careful as to what you condition your horse to accept – though this tool poses no real danger (but you can be sure I’ll keep saws away from his inquiring nose!).    It is also true, as my mother commented, that it takes trust for a horse to accept something like that.  But trust has to be built out of something, and this is where the positive reinforcement really pays off.  Here is an example of how it paid off with Tally – prior to the work, even rattling a tarp across the yard would send her shooting in the opposite direction.  This was about two months after starting our little experiment to “fix” her spooking.


The first element of trust is when a being is around you enough to realize that you won’t do any harm to them.  It’s an important step, but it’s not enough when times get tough.  True, deep trust comes when the horse is challenged, and you are able to show that you can help them get through the challenging situation safely.  It is that sort of situation that eventually leads to the trust where, in a real challenge, they will turn to you for direction.  And it is that sort of trust that should eventually lead to you allowing them to find a way out of situations, with your “moral support”.  For me, the relationship is truly strong when the individual in the best position to solve the problem is enabled and trusted by the other to do that – that is a true partnership.

So, don’t worry that you might make your horse more fearful by comforting them.  But look for an even more positive way to empower them to control their instinctual reaction, to your mutual benefit.  You cannot stop a fear response, but you can help your horse find a better way to handle to it.  In the end you might not only have a calmer horse, but a better relationship as well.

Be good to your horses!



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