More Exposure, More Fear?

Why does more exposure not necessarily make the horse more accepting?

I was asked about a horse who is petrified of the barn pig. This pig, roaming about, doing her pigly business, has a horse in perpetual fear. His fear has worsened, not improved, over the time the pig has been roaming around. So why does more exposure not relieve his fear?

It has to do with stress. The horse sees the pig and feels fear. The next time the horse sees the pig, he feels even more fear. Pretty soon, the triggers that cause fear happen sooner, and last longer. After some time, the horse is living in constant fear of the pig- just waiting for the next time she creeps around.

You’ve probably experienced something like this yourself, with some stressful situation you have to keep going to, say, a bad job. One day at work leaves you feeling stressed. The next day as you drive to work, you are stressed just waiting for what’s coming. Soon, you can’t relax when you get home, because you know you have to go back tomorrow. Is work stressful every day? Maybe, but maybe your brain is full of cortisol which is conditioning this stress response without relief.

So how do we lessen the horses fear of pigs? Short, controlled exposures with positive outcomes. It’s much easier when you set things up to create curiosity. I like for my horses to spend time following behind livestock, without the livestock turning to face them at first.

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