By Professor Natalie Waran
As a prey species, horses have been shaped through their evolution to keep themselves safe so that they can reproduce and survive through fleeing usually at high speed from any potentially dangerous situations. This is why they are often referred to as ‘flight animals’. Just as humans, their behavioural responses to both aversive as well as pleasant events are the natural expression of their underlying emotional responses. The way an animal behaves and the expression of their response to stimuli is individual to each horse and is based on an animal’s previous experience and genetic factors (its temperament), which interact in complex ways to determine how fearful a specific animal may become when it is exposed to routine situations such as being handled, trained, attending a horse show or being transported.
Whilst a behavioural response may serve to keep the horse safe when it is free-living, this is often problematic in the domestic situation where horses have much closer interactions with their owners, since these fear responses potentially place both horse and human in danger. When frightened or anxious, horses will show escape responses ranging from agitation involving a raised head and neck to extreme explosions and bolting. A report looking at causes of horse related injuries, stated that of all the self-reported accidents involving horses, 70% are due to horse behaviour and training reasons. In fact one author has suggested that we are 20 times more likely to have an accident when horse riding or being around a horse as compared with riding a motorbike. Its is clear that in order to enjoy a safer relationship with our horses as well as ensuring that they remain fear free, we need to understand the mechanisms, causes and how we can avoid provoking negative emotions such as fear in our companions.
So what do we know about fear in horses?
In order to behave appropriately, a fear-provoking situation will cause an animal to feel fearful since fear is an unpleasant emotion that results in the animal taking the necessary action to protect itself. When the animal can control how frightened it is by successfully removing itself from where it is experiencing the problem, then their behavioural response is positively reinforced and learning then takes place. This associative learning then enables the individual to avoid that situation, person or stimulus in future by behaving in the way that worked previously.
As a prey species, free-living, and in more natural environments, this response and learning ability is extremely important for horses. Those individuals who respond quickly to danger will survive best, and despite selective breeding and intensive management over many years, horses still have a level of reactivity which is particularly high compared with many other domesticated species, and some breeds of horses and indeed individuals, have been found to be more reactive than others. The so-called hot-blooded breeds, such as the Arab and the Thoroughbred have been shown to be quicker to respond to things in their environment and more flighty overall than the cold-bloods such as the Clydesdale and Irish Draught. This is probably because these breeds that have been selected over many generations to be fast paced and lighter framed, and faster responding.
Emotional responses in horses are processed in a structure within the horse’s brain called the amygdala. This rapid response system starts with the point at which the horse perceives a visual, auditory, olfactory or other stimulus associated with a potentially threatening or painful situation. The information leads to stimulation of the neurons (think of these as nerve cells) from the sensory organ, which stimulate the emotional centre of the brain, the amygdala, to cause a release of neurochemicals (the substances that carry brain messages between parts of the brain), and finally activation of other body organs enabling the animal to act swiftly to remove itself from the dangerous or scary situation. We now know that once learned, fearful responses do not appear to be forgotten leading to the suggestion that behavioural responses motivated by fear can become very quickly ‘hard-wired’ and are extremely difficult to overcome. Therefore to overcome fear related responses, the cortex (the higher brain centres where learning is processed) must continuously send an over-ride signal to suppress the fear memory.
Fear and horse training
Behavioural scientists define learning as the process by which behaviour develops during an animals’ lifetime as a consequence of the experiences it has. This can happen in different ways, but is usually through the animal making a strong association between a stimulus or signal and their response to it. For a horse to effectively learn a new response it needs to associate the response it makes with something rewarding or reinforcing, and for the new association to be maintained, the response must be repeated and consistently reinforced or rewarded a number of times. For swift learning to take place, the reward needs to be important and relevant to the horse. This is because animals need to be motivated to either gain something desirable to them or to avoid something they find unpleasant or aversive.
For prey species such as the horse, fear is a very strong motivator because it is an unpleasant emotional experience. Anything that removes the horse from experiencing that unpleasant feeling is strongly reinforced and will therefore be repeated. This is way when a horse has had a bad experience and has responded almost instinctively to protect itself, he will refine and repeat his response so that he is able to anticipate and react to cues that enable him to anticipate and avoid the frightening situation in future.
In horse training and in the performance situation, the trainer/rider through his/her actions will exert a considerable impact on their horse’s behaviour and emotions due to the process of training. It stands to reason then that methods of training based on provoking fear, may lead to short term success but may also produce animals with behavioural responses and fear memories that are not desirable for horse and human safety in the long term. During early handling and training, the horse is typically exposed to short term separation from its stable/field mates, a new environment, the presence of new objects, use of unfamiliar equipment around and on its body and proximity to humans, all or at least some of which will most likely evoke a fear response. It is likely that even done extremely carefully, these novel experiences will cause an element of fear in our horses. It is extremely important that any mild signs of fear or anxiety are recognised in training so that they can be reduced and replaced with more positive experiences.
Unfortunately, its extremely easy to provoke fear in horses as a result of the training process and problem behaviours in horses frequently develop because horses are extremely good at learning rapidly when they have successfully dealt with something that causes a negative feeling. Common fear provoking events leading to a learned behaviour often results in horses acquiring undesirable responses such as unwillingness to enter a trailer especially when coming home from a show, rushing when show jumping and even refusing to be caught in the field. Increasingly those involved with horses are being asked to recognize that coercive (force or punishment heavy) riding and handling techniques may not only compromise the horse’s welfare but can also rider safety. Placing both horse and rider at a greater risk of injuries resulting from their horse’s fear reactions.
One of the best ways to avoid this is for us to accept and recognise that what many riders and trainers may call ‘tension’ is actually a manifestation of negative emotions such as fear or anxiety. If horses regularly experience tension or stress due to; lack of clarity and confusion in their training, cohersive/abusive handling or as a result of demanding performance requirements, their flight response is regularly activated causing higher levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol to be released. Animal welfare research has shown that a raised cortisol level is a reliable indicator of stress and when the endocrine system is continually activated causing cortisol to remain higher than normal, there are damaging effects on an animal's body systems even leading to increased susceptibility to illness. Longer term tension can also result in the horse performing conflict or stress related behaviours including separation anxiety, increased aggression, stereotypic behaviour and if prolonged can finally lead to an animal switching off to its environment exhibiting a disturbing condition described by scientists as ‘learned helplessness’.
In the training situation, common behavioural manifestations of underlying fear include; defensive behaviours such as bucking, kicking, high head carriage, restlessness and running away, or offensive behaviours such as biting, chasing, rearing and striking out. In addition, horses with little control of their environment and where their behavioral responses have been ignored or punished, may simply stop responding to their surroundings because they have no control over them (learned helplessness). Horses in this severe form of depressed state are considered to be at the end of a chain of events associated with a stress or fear response where they have tried repeatedly to deal with the situation, been punished or prevented from removing the stressor, and finally have just given up. In the old days –this might have been termed, ‘breaking the horse’s spirit’. Examples of this cruel method of training still persist in some places mainly due to tradition and lack of understanding of the welfare concerns and other effective but more humane training approaches.
Humane – equine-centred training
In order to ensure we train horses as humanely and effectively as possible we need to consider how frequently fear is involved in the interactions we have with our horses. No responsible and caring horse owner wants to think that their behaviour, training system and expectations of their horse may be associated with a negative emotion such as fear. However the truth is, that there are many situations we place our horses in and things we expect them to deal with, that cause our horses to experience fear and anxiety. It is our job as responsible horse owners and trainers to minimize the negative experiences and increase the positive ones.
For the horse, flight is an instinctive behaviour evolved to ensure the horse’s survival when under threat. Other species will instinctively burrow underground, climb trees and some will stand and fight. Much of our early training of horses involves suppressing the natural flight response and shaping new behaviours which humans find more useful. The problem is that no amount of training can get around the fact that flight or escape behaviour will always be the ‘default’ behaviour for a frightened horse.
The aim of good effective training is therefore to ensure that the horse is not frightened during the handling, training or performance process, so that new desirable behaviours incompatible with the running/flight response become ingrained in the horse. Training horses to halt and to hold that position until given the signal to move forwards or backwards or to turn, is key to over-riding the horse’s natural inclination to escape when under pressure. Although this might appear to relatively straight forward – many of the problem behaviours we see in horses can be traced back to a lack of clarity between a specific signal and the desired response, or in other words poor application of aids, causing confusion which can lead to frustration, stress and conflict behaviours.
Its essential that the responsible horse owner adopts the approach of doing no harm during their interactions and training, since unlike human athletes, who will often choose to put themselves through significant hardship in order to achieve their future training and performance goals, there is no evidence scientific or otherwise that animals have the capability to weigh future benefits or possibilities against current hard work, physical discomfort, confusion and fear.
Understanding learning theory and being able to apply the theory in practice is important if the horse and rider are to enjoy a positive relationship. The main advantage of the correct use of learning theory in horse training is that it establishes a common language based on scientific evidence. If we want to shape our horse’s behavioural responses in a way that is humane and equine-centred it is important that we know how to do this effectively as well as ensuring the process is a positive experience for both human and horse.