Horse Fears, Human Fears

How do you separate the horses’ fears from yours? And how do you know if they’re actually afraid, or just conditioned to escape?

My gelding was extremely unconfident about going out on the trail, and especially through water. But when I turned him out with the other horses, he had no problem scrambling through the woods and wading through chest deep water. The problem wasn’t the water, it was lack of trust in human direction (can’t say I blame him).

So over time, he became conditioned to resist when directed at something novel- and add to that resistance the human need to be right and to make the horse do something, you have a horse who doesn’t stick around to find out what we want, and gets right to work getting bunched up mentally and physically. Is he afraid of water? No, he’s afraid of the human not setting things up for him to understand. If I gave him enough time to get through that water, he’d be splashing in it in no time- but if I start insisting, he might rear or turn and run.

Now add a person’s fear of something, and transmitted tension, gripping legs, imbalanced seats and pulling hands out of self defense and you have a real problem. When something potentially threatening comes up and the rider spends more time defending themselves against their horses reaction than directing and guiding the horse, you have a horse with zero confidence in the person or the novel situation- creek crossing, dogs barking, trailer loading, whatever it is.

One of the big reasons horses can do well in training away from their owners is they can get away from the fears of the owner and into an environment where they can explore, get curious, and expand their comfort zones – that is, assuming the trainer is good at such things. The hard part is putting the horse and rider back together – a horse who maybe developed confidence going through creeks and what have you can quickly get Unconfident again with a clutching, gasping, fearful owner.

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