How can you help a reactive horse?
This is a question I am often asked by frustrated or anxious horse owners. The answer is in the question really. Reactive means that the horse is often anxious about certain stimuli entering its direct environment. This could be a sudden movement that causes a nervous reaction – wind moving the branches, a fluttering plastic bag in a hedge or maybe even a pterodactyl perceived type of sparrow! Perhaps a new type of noise came into its hearing range? Someone power washing a driveway or vehicle, hammering, roadworks or a million other stimuli.
The very fact that a horse feels the need to react will result in quick, sharp or downright dangerous startle and avoidance behaviours. These behaviours will be to quickly shy away, spook, flee, jump away, spin, plant or freeze and are just a few. They show that this horse lives on the edge of fear all of the time. The fear system is an innate, hard-driven system. It is all about survival after all and it is present because the reptilian part of the brain is being used.
This part of the ancient brain triggers all the flight, freeze and fight responses. Cognitive learning and rational thinking ability fly out the door as the horse remains in a state of survival.
I hope you now understand what is happening to this horse under stress and why the horse has no control over its reactions without our help.
Mostly, the first commonly used reaction from a rider is an aggressive one. “Make the horse walk forward” by increasing aversive aids. Tell it off for being “stupid”. Pull its head around by its tender mouth to “move its feet”. Hit it with the whip you are allowed to carry. (Strange scenario really. We have banned the use of whips on humans. Slapping our children is now classed as assault. We have banned the use of whips on dogs. Circus acts are no longer allowed to use whips on Tigers and Lions to force them through hoops of fire because the general public doesn’t like seeing it, yet no one minds seeing riders hit their beloved horse to make it move. They even buy pretty looking whips for their children to use on their beloved ponies!)
It does not need to be this way. We can change so very much through structured training protocols using systematic desensitisation, counter conditioning and reward based marker training. We help them learn how to help themselves.