No Force, No Fear, No Resistance

Fears and phobias. The Native Americans believe that the horse is the animal most like man because he fears the unknown. He might stand still for a diesel truck barreling down the highway, but he might jump out of his skin over something his rider does not see or hear. Horses flight or fight instinct leans toward the flight, but if they can not get away, they will fight. Most mature horses, however, if they put all 1200 pounds toward it, can escape from any restraining device when they are frightened. They rear up, fall over backwards, or sit down, pulling back so hard that usually a piece of equipment breaks. They jump out of or run through fences. Iíve seen horses try to climb through the windows of moving trailers. Other fears manifest themselves in extreme behavior, cribbing, biting, kicking, bolting, rearing, and even mystery colics.

I have found basically two types of horses: those who worry about the world outside, and those who worry about the rider on their backs. In the first case, the horse tunes out the rider and spooks at the smallest stimulióa bird coming out of a bush, the wheelbarrow, a dog in the grass. In the second case, the horse tunes out everything around him and worries about everything the rider does. He is anticipatory, tense and trigger-happy.

Panic attacks

When a horse is very afraid, he can have a panic attack just like people do. His heart races, his breathing accelerates, he might shiver and shake. He will do anything to escape the frightening situation and the next time he is place in the same situation, he is likely to be twice as afraid.


Many horses are claustrophic, and quickly develop a fear of trailers, especially after a bad ride. Often people complain, "heís always loaded well. Then one day he wouldnít get on at all." What they donít know is what happened on the last trailer ride. The horse could have bumped his head or stepped on himself without apparent injury.

Flash was a mustang brought off the range. 400 years of genetic wild life taught him that small dark places were a bad place to be. Once there was a horrible snowstorm, temperatures hitting 30 below. My father tried to bring him into the barn with the other horses, but his claustrophobic nature overrode even his herd instinct. Dad never did get Flash in the barn. Flash was fine in the open, but Dad about froze to death.

Fear of new places:

Hereís the same old dressage arena, just like at home, but dropped in a new place. Many horses become overstimulated when they are taken to a new place, no matter how like home it is. Sometimes it takes a few hours to adjust to a new situtations. Some horses are fearful for a few weeks when they are moved to a new barn. The more the horse is conditioned to respond correctly and obediently to the riderís aids, the more he will listen to the rider when dropped in a new place. And the more he is hauled out or ridden out, the more he learn that being new places can be fun. All that homework does pay off. The more you train your horse at home to respond INSTANTLY to go forward with a squeeze from both legs, the greater your success will be in new places.

Fear of new things:

Many horses react strongly when an old object is put in a new place. The rider should not be alarmed, surprised or frustrated when this happens; itís part of a horseís nature. Instead take the time to introduce the horse to the object as if it is something never seen before.

Fear of old things:

Horses have a strong sense of association. If a horse ever was injured over a fence, say an oxer, he may fear oxers for the rest of his life. It is much harder to reschool a horse like this than it is to train a green horse without the fear. But, starting over is the key. The rider must introduce the feared object one step at a time, as if the horse has never seen it, but with even more patience and forgiveness. Punishing the horse when he is afraid only reinforces the horseís belief that there is something to be afraid of.

Fear of the future:

This type of fear manifests itself in anticipation. The horse hears the clippers and knows they may be after him next. He sees the jumping course, and anticipating a pull on his mouth or a thump on his back, he rushes around the jumps trying to get it over with. In time he begins stopping because he anticipates more pain. If the rider beats him after a refusal, he fears the jump and anticipates the beating by wheeling away from the jump and bolting.

The double bind:

A rider can put the horse in a double bind when he presents two options and both of them are bad. In the case of the jumping horse, jumping is bad (a yank on the mouth) and stopping is bad (a whipping). This leaves the horse with no recourse and no say in the matter. He is trapped by the double bind. Often, he panics. Other double binds occur when the handler restrains the horse so he can not get away, then subjects him to something terrifying. Neither option is good for the horse For instance, take a horse who has never been clipped. The groom might cross tie the horse without safety knots and approach the horse with the clippers on. Standing still is bad (clippers forced on him) but moving is bad (canít escape, canít look). The horse is so afraid of the clippers, he panics. The ropes hold, so he falls on his knees and yanks the halter on his head. The horse tears down the crossties. The horse may even begin to fear crosstying and a bad habit of setting back is formed.

Sensory overload:

Horses have survived for thousands of years because their acute senses warn them of danger ahead of time. There are times that the horse is subjected to so much sensory information that he canít cope, and shows his fear by shying, bolting, rearing or a host of violent actions.

Touch: One of the horseís strongest senses, the one that makes him so sensitive, but that can also make him so skittish. They have such a large surface area of skin, skin so sensitive it can feel a fly land. Many horses, after one bad experience, come to fear whips. Most young horses are afraid of the first spray of water from a hose, or from a fly sprayer. Horses often donít want to step into unsure footing such as ponds or puddles, because it gives beneath their feet.

Taste: The horseís sense of taste is fairly acute because in the wild they had to pick out poison plants from edible grasses. This same ability allows them to pick around the bute tablets in their feed. It sends them out of the stall when the paste wormer comes in. And while the horse may simply dislike the taste of medicine, it is his innate fear of poisioning that teaches him to avoid it.

Smell: Horses often smell things before they clearly see them. Their sense of smell is better than ours. Many horses dislike the smell of fire, of dead things, of pesticides like fly spray. Sometimes itís the sense of smell that causes them to spook at apparently nothing.

Hearing: the horse can turn his ears in every direction. Horses often fear loud, sharp noises and can become excessively afraid of the sound of the whip popping if they have ever been abused by one. Strange sounds in familiar places, such as hay bales being moved in a loft above, can also cause fear. Usually once the horse can put sound and sight together, the fear abates. For instance, he may hear the sudden flapping of a tarp and shy, but once he sees it, he is calm.

Sight: the horseís eyes are on both sides of his head. When they focus forward, the two images come together, sometimes with a jump. That visual illusion will cause some horses to start. If a horse seems abnormally afraid of visual objects, light colored things, dark things, lines, holes or shadows on the ground or movement such as another horse coming toward him, his eyesight should be checked.

Fear of failure:

Horses have an innate understanding of reward and punishment. They are fair, and they understand fairness in a handler. In addition, they understand success which they associate with reward and failure which they associate with punishment. Once in a lifetime you may be so lucky as to ride a horse with so much grit and such a big heart that he will run himself into the ground for you. He tries too hard. This horse will offer more than he is asked for, and when he is confused about what the rider wants, he becomes fearful. He may stand in the cross ties and paw, or grind his teeth in anticipation. If this type of horse thinks the rider is being unfair, he may uncharacteristically explode. A horse who tries so hard that he fears failure is usually best as a one person horse. His loyalty is strong and he learns to trust that his rider wonít let him fail. He is the horse who stands in the crossties and watches every move "his" person makes, while excluding all else.

A failure: Moby

Moby came to our barn to be tried as a lesson horse. She was a lovely white thoroughbred mare. I should have known something was off when she was ridden 20 miles to the stable instead of trailered in. She was a little freaky, would raise her head snort and blow, but thatís not unusual for a horse in a new place. She lunged well, and went fine walk and trot in the arena. Leading her back to her stall, I thought she might be fine as a lesson horse UNTILÖ

she saw the hot walker. There were no horses on it, but she acted like sheíd seen the end of the world.

Never did a horse panic so quickly. No amount of soothing would calm her, no amount of treats would get her closer. She just became lighter and lighter in front, snorting and pawing with a crazed look in her eye. I knew that to try to force her closer would result in an explosion, one I probably couldnít handle from the ground. So, I decided not to make an issue and turned her to walk the long way across the arena.

Unfortunately, the equestrian center had two hot walkers on each side of the arena, so this was a fear we had to conquer if she was going to be ridden safely there. In the middle of each set of hotwalkers was a roundpen. I thought I could put her in the roundpen and let her live there for a few hours to desensitize her to the walkers. I thought if she could work it out on her own, she wouldnít associate me with the fear.

I had to blindfold her to get her to the roundpen. Once inside, I took the blindfold off. She almost killed me. She ran me down when I tried to get to the gate. I ended up climbing over the rails in order to escape. For 3 or 4 hours she rampaged around the pen, never touching her hay or water. She was completely out of her mind. I began to worry about how I was going to get her out. I had to leave her there all day until I could get some help.

Then, I climbed on the rail and when she ran to me in her haste to get out, I fastened a longe line to her. She was still too frantic to get a blindfold on. My helper opened the gate and Moby raced out, back to the barn, while I ran with the lunge line, like trying to bring a mustang to a stop at the end of the lasso.

I knew that method was too dangerous for me, and did not seem to help the mare at all. I thought that maybe if she could live within constant site of the hotwalkers, day in, day out, she would get used to it. I made it to one of the outside stalls and put her in. She wheeled and stuck her head in the far corner, where she couldnít see anything, let alone the hot walkers. For 2 days she stood with her head in the corner, neither eating nor drinking.

It was too much for me. I had never seen a fear so ingrained that the horse stayed irrational for so long. I felt sorry for her, took her out of her stall, and took a long look at her. Her whole body was asymetrical. One side of her poll was round, the other flat. One shoulder was convex, the other concave, one hip was up, one was down. The muscles on the right side were developed, the muscles on her left were atrophied. All I could imagine was an accident on the hot walker that was so catastrophic that it had created a neurological problem, as well as a phobia that was manic. I turned her back to owner and said she was not suitable for a lesson horse.

One of the other trainers wanted to give it another try. She put Moby in a tight martingale, theoretically to keep her from rearing. When she rode within 50 feet of the hot walkers, Moby freaked. She reared up, and hit the tight martingale. When she felt that much restraint, she panicked. She had nowhere else to go, so she went up and over, on top of the trainer. The trainer escaped with broken ribs and internal injuries. Moby went on down the road.

A Success Story: Navajo

Navajo was an Appaloosa stallion, coming two years old. Brightly colored and well conformed, he was still a stallion because his owner had hopes of breeding him. His owner, however, was a very timid horse handler, with no real business owning a young stallion. Like many people, her fear and timidity came across as aggressiveness. She would whip and yank the colt, screaming at him for the least infraction. In this way, he developed a morbid fear of the halter and lead rope.

Nothing could be worse. When anyone approached him with a halter, he would race to the back of his stall. If they kept coming, he would attack, biting at the halter or the handler. Sometimes he grabbed the halter in his teeth, shaking it and pawing at it. If, somehow, after much screaming and fussing, the owner got the halter on, it was even worse.

Navajo would set back, leaning against the halter like a young foal never been halter broke. If she pulled him forward, he would jet ahead. She always carried a whip and would slash him across the chest with it. Then he would turn his fear on her, pawing or lunging at her, occasionally taking a bite out of her. The situation was intolerable when I entered it.

She asked me if I wanted him in the stall or round pen to work with him. I honestly didnít want to be that close, unless he wanted to be with me. So, we opened his stall door and let him run out to the field.

I let him go just as far as he wanted then I walked out with the halter and lead rope. The second he raised his head to look at me, I turned my back to him and started messing with the halter. He was so shocked that I wasnít coming after him, he walked right up to me.

When he got into my space, I held the halter right up at him, offering him to put it on. He backed right off and went a few yards away, but he was already hooked. I played with the halter, looking straight ahead. He raised his head, but did not advance nor retreat.

I played with blades of grass. When I lost his attention or he started to wander away, I spoke to him and showed him the halter.

Then I started walking. He waited. I called him. He came. If he walked off, I walked beside him and stopped when he stopped. Pretty soon, he was following me all over the field, right at my shoulder, no nipping or biting or pawing.

We played in the field for an hour or so, just grazing, following each other, talking to each other. When he showed signs of boredom, I just let him eat, but he never left my side.

Finally, I held the halter out to him. He put his nose in and I fastened it. I left the lead rope long in my hand, and we continued to follow each other around he field. He never trotted off, he never set back. I gave him his space, and he gave me mine.

By the end of the afternoon, he walked in beside me on the end of the lead rope. I didnít make him stay perfect like a halter horse; I let him keep a little distance. We got back to his stall and I took the halter off and put it on about 15 times. Navajo had learned to accept his fear and to trust me.

An example: Quiet horse has irrational fear of fly sprayer
(but substitute whip, clippers, halter, saddle, anything).

Put the horse in a roundpen or very small corral, but not a stall (too small). Go in the

pen with a sprayer. Completely ignore the horse. Totally, no matter what it does. Turn your back to it, in fact. Stand there and play with the sprayer. Keep an eye on the horse without meeting its eye, so it doesnít rampage or run you over. You might not want to spray at first. Let the horse do whatever it wants, but you are trying to get its curiosity.

They are very curious animals, especially young friendly ones. If the animal starts to totally ignore you then spray (not the horse), just to get its attention, then turn away. Keep playing with the sprayer, so the horse begins to think itís a neat toy.

Eventually the horse will come up and look over your shoulder to see what youíve got. Let him look. If he runs away, ignore him again. If he wants to look, praise him.

Do this a few days, even using sugar when he comes up and sniffs the sprayer, but wait a few days before you spray the horse himself. This method takes time and patience, but the horse is always free to leave and that helps alleviate his fear.

After a few days, start rubbing him with the spray bottle (or even take it apart and use the parts)while he is free in the round pen. Use it like a brush, even scratch him with the other hand so he begins to find pleasure from the sprayer. Always use tact so you donít unnecessarily frighten him.

When he will let you spray the bottle away from him without starting, and when he will let you rub him with the bottle, then you can start the actual spraying. Put your hand open on the horse, put the sprayer very close to your hand, and spray your hand, then rub it on the horse--don't spray the horse directly at first. Step by step you are working closer to the goal.

I think you probably get the idea. No force, no fear, no resistance. Play on the horse's jealousy, curiosity, and friendliness. Totally ignore the horse for undesirable behavior. I mean turn your back and walk away and pretend that the sprayer is WAY more interesting than he is.

I have used this method with portable clippers as well. If you can do it often, for short periods, it is better than trying to do it all in one long marathon. Think of it like a game--you will learn a lot about how horses think.


Break down each training session into smaller steps, each one easily mastered. Always end on a good note, even if it doesnít follow your lesson plan. Working short periods each day is much more effective than one long marathon session. Working in a familiar, low key, controlled environment is much better than working out in an open space where other distractions add to the fear.

Horsesí memories are excellent, and itís said they remember the bad much longer than they remember the good. Old habits die hard. Trust is paramount, but takes a long time to build and is easy to destroy. Once a bad habit is established, you have to teach the horse a new way to respond to the fear. Good work will carry over onto other fears, it is worth the time and effort.