Finding the Fear

I had never anticipated writing an article on equine-related fear. That was something that happened to other people. I had been very lucky when I was learning to ride - the British Forces Pony Club (in Sennelager, Germany - anyone else know it?) where I probably received my most influential early teaching had a selection of manic ponies and most of our hacks resembled mock hunts across the training area, jumping everything in sight and considering the ride boring if we hadn't fallen off. One of my favourite ponies would even buck if you touched him lightly behind his saddle and, in my ignorant belief that this was high spirits rather than pain (as I am now ashamed to admit), we would have lots of rodeo games as well.

As I became older I grew out of such a gung ho approach and learnt to consider the horse a lot more than I did as a teenager. But I still love going out galloping and jumping and have generally felt comfortable around horses.

Then I became pregnant and it all changed.

In my part-time work as an independent barefoot trimmer I was trimming a number of horses, some easier to handle than others. It had never been a problem - I would do what I could, avoid getting into any confrontation, respect the horse's wishes and leave a training program with the owners so that they could do some shaping with the horse and help me do more the next time. Depending on how much effort the owners put in, we were making progress.

As my hormones kicked in, I started feeling much more protective of myself. I started jumping out of the way of a reluctant pony much more readily than I would normally. The barging I anticipated was sometimes entirely imaginary on my part but I started to cause it to happen. The combination of my inadvertant reinforcement of "unwanted behaviour" and my fear of getting hurt worried the horse even more, started a downward spiral of behaviour. The "unwanted behaviour" escalated and, had I been unaware of what was happening, I would have been in danger of creating problems for the owner after I'd gone. Luckily I realised and we were able to make alternative arrangements for the more problematic horses before I made things worse.

When my baby was around 5 months' old a friend asked me to help her with her mare who was being difficult to lead out of the field. I had watched my friend struggling and noticed that there was poorly-timed reinforcement all over the place - the mare was getting confused and, in the absence of clear instruction, taking control of the situation with bites, pawing and the odd rear. Rather arrogantly I went to help, vowing to ignore the unwanted behaviour, work through the extinction burst and offer the mare the consistency she needed to understand what was desired of her.

I soon realised that I was out of my depth and not out of my fearful phase - as I applied light pressure to the lead rope, she resisted with biting, pawing and rearing and my resolve and ability to work through the extinction burst withered away. Reinforcing this sort of behaviour is obviously a bad thing but as I went to re-catch her from the other end of the field, I knew that I was not the person to try again. I would inadvertantly make things worse. So I took off the head-collar, let her go and helped my friend devise a safe plan of action until we could get a different trainer out.

In my fear of the situation I was mentally labelling this mare as somewhat dominant and felt she needed to learn from some simple exercises that she could relax and not fight basic requests from a human. I had seen the trainer use these exercises with other horses, whereby the horse learns to yield to very mild pressure, as a basis for future exercises involving positive reinforcement instead.

The trainer duly came and his words were like a slap round the face to me. He commented on what a wonderfully light and sensitive mare she was. He gave her lots of scratches and had her relaxing in his company. He led her around so that she could willingly earn more scratches. She learnt to stay out of his space in order to earn yet more scratches. And she showed no desire to rear or bite or perform any of the behaviours that I had found so scary. So she had no need of these pressure+release exercises that I had been so sure would be key.

I know all of this so well. I have been promoting and teaching the use of positive reinforcement for years. I have argued ad nauseum that it is the fearful, sensitive and hence aggressive horses who need it more than most. Yet all it took was one little baby, a dollop of fear and a scary situation to have me reaching for an assortment of pressure techniques and making the situation worse.

So I hope I, and maybe some of you, can learn from my mistakes. If you are in a situation of which you feel afraid, extract yourself as quickly and safely as you can and give it some serious thought before you get back in there. If you still feel the need to use pressure techniques on a horse who is using aggression and "big" behaviours to say "help", maybe you need to reconsider whether you are actually putting your fear of getting hurt and/or your ego ahead of your desire to help the horse. And if you stil think the horse is saying "sod off or else" rather than "help" then maybe have a big think about why the horse might say that to you.

There is nothing wrong with feeling afraid. It is a pretty good mechanism by which we can keep ourselves safe. Yet our culture is not very forgiving, and the equine world even less so. "Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway" is a best-selling self-help book by Susan Jeffers, in some ways very good, in other ways perpetuating the message that fear needs to be overcome as quickly as possible. What's the rush? Using flooding techniques for ourselves is just as inadvisable as for our horses. Shaping our own behaviour gradually in the way we would (should!) shape that of a fearful horse helps us to counter-condition our own fears and not overface ourselves. That in turn prevents us getting into situations we cannot handle without resorting to aggression. To me, resorting to aggression to overcome a scary and preventable equine encounter is much more a sign of failure than pre-empting it and knowing when to leave it for another day.

In my years of advocating the use of positive reinforcement with horses I have found that whenever I waver and start to think I've found a horse who is the exception to my principles, it is always this horse who ultimately becomes the better teacher. Always this horse who actually reinforces my view that horses are peace-loving and not out to get us. Always this horse who tells me more about what is going on in my head that I might like to admit. I see my friend's mare daily and she serves as a constant reminder to me, if you think positive reinforcement is not the answer than be very, very careful.

And on the plus side, I hacked my horse last weekend and flew over some log jumps for the first time since very early pregnancy. It felt fab!

Copyright Catherine Bell 2010