By Temple Grandin, Dept. of Animal Science, Colorado State University
A question people often ask is – Why does my horse suddenly spook in a place he is familiar with, such as a riding arena or its own corral? It is likely that something has changed such as a new banner hanging from the ceiling of the arena. In another case, the horse’s feed manger had been stood up on its end for cleaning. In both cases, there were changes that made the familiar environment look different.
To understand animals, you need to get away from verbal language. Horses do not think in words. Their world is sensory based and they react to and remember visual images, sounds, smells, and touch sensations. One of my graduate students, Megan Corgan, conducted an experiment that shows very clearly how horses may react to a new novel object. She used a child’s colorful plastic playset that has a slide and swing. Halter trained young horses were slowly led past the playset multiple times until they no longer reacted. Since the horses were slowly led, the reactions were mild, such as stopping, suddenly raising their heads or nostrils flaring. After they were completely familiar with the playset, it was rotated ninety degrees. The horses reacted to it as if it was something new. These reactions were milder than the initial reaction but if you had been riding the horse at a gallop, it is likely that the horse would have slammed on the brakes and the rider would have been dumped off.
Try to think about this visually. The playset slide would look totally different when viewed head-on or viewed sideways. If you are having difficulty visualizing this, take an object such as a stapler, a pair of scissors or a tape dispenser and look at each object from its side and then rotate it ninety degrees. It will look totally different. Since people think in words, we would have verbalized to ourselves that it’s a “child’s playset.” The take home message is that when something new is first introduced, the horse should be acclimated by allowing it to be viewed from all sides. Sometimes an object the horse is very familiar with can be scary if it is put in a new place. One of my students had a big domed hatbox for storing her cowboy hat. Her horse had seen this hatbox many times on the ground, in her hand while mounted riding and being carried. One day she placed it on a picnic table and the horse jumped away from it and got scared. It was as if the hatbox turned into something new when it was placed on the table.
Prevent Fear Memories
Horses may associate something they were seeing or hearing with either a painful or frightening event. In my book Animals in Translation, I discuss the “black hat” horse. He was terrified of black cowboy hats. White cowboy hats caused no reaction. During a veterinary procedure, he had been abused by a person who wore a black hat. When I placed the hat on the ground, it became less scary, but as I raised it up closer to my head, the horse tensed up and got ready to rear. I immediately removed the black hat. These fear memories can be difficult to eliminate. The emphasis has to be on preventing them.
Horses can also have touch based fear memories. A common problem is bucking when the horse changes gaits. Think about it. A saddle will feel different at a walk, trot, and a canter. To help you understand this, put on a heavy backpack and then think about how it feels differently when you walk, run, or jump. The problem of bucking when the gait is changed is due to the effect of a sudden novel new feeling when the horse goes from a walk to a trot to a canter. This is most likely to occur in the young horse during training if it is not allowed to acclimate gradually to the new sensations. If the horse starts to switch his tail, poop, or raise up his head when the gait is changed, it is time to stop BEFORE it bucks. These are the behavioral warning signs that the horse is starting to become fearful. Sometimes bucking when a horse changes gaits can be cured by totally changing the saddle and pad to something that will feel completely different. It is important to familiarize the horse slowly to the new novel tactile sensations of the new saddle at a walk changing to a trot or a trot changing to a canter. In the beginning of training, maybe go only a few steps at the trot and then go back to a walk.
The thing that is weird about novelty is that it is attractive when a horse can voluntarily approach it, but scary when it suddenly appears. If a child’s playset was placed in the middle of a pasture, the horses would likely be attracted to it and cautiously approach. On the other hand, if the playset suddenly appeared when the horse was galloping, its reaction may be just the opposite. It may either stop or jump suddenly sideways away from the playset.
The emotion is fear. Sudden novelty is frightening. Larger objects will often be more frightening than smaller objects. A new coffee cup will probably provoke no reaction but a new large hat or a flag may be scary. Objects that move either suddenly or in an erratic manner are often more scary. Flags, bikes, and balloons are some of the worst. The best way to acclimate horses to new things is to let the horse approach and investigate them. If you get a new saddle, allow your horse to see, smell it, and touch before you put it on his back. Animals really do have emotions.
The neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp has studied emotions in animals. There are seven major emotional systems. They are fear, anger, separation distress, the urge to explore, sex, mother young nurturing, and play. Both genetic factors and breeding can influence the strength of these emotions. A horse that has high fear genetic level is more likely to become fearful of sudden novelty than a horse with breeding for lower reactivity. A horse with more reactive genetics is more likely to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like symptoms if it has been abused.
Separation distress and fear are two totally different emotions. High pitched loud whinnies are likely to occur when a mare is separated from her baby or when a horse gets separated from its herd mates. Seeking is the urge to approach and investigate new things. Some animals have a high drive to explore new things and others do not.
Knowledge of the horse’s emotional systems will help you understand why it reacts in certain ways. A common mistake made by many people is to punish fear based behavior. This will just make it worse. In closing, I have another tip. Make sure that your horse’s first experience with anything new is positive. This includes any new thing such as a horse trailer, a new person, or a new riding arena.
Biography: Temple Grandin, Ph.D
Dr. Grandin is a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Facilities she has designed are located in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. In North America, almost half of the cattle are handled in a center track restrainer system that she designed for meat plants. Curved chute and race systems she has designed for cattle are used worldwide and her writings on the flight zone and other principles of grazing animal behavior have helped many people to reduce stress on their animals during handling.
She has also developed an objective scoring system for assessing handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants; currently being used by many large corporations to improve animal welfare. Other areas of research include cattle temperament, environmental enrichment for pigs, reducing dark cutters and bruises, bull fertility, training procedures, and effective stunning methods for cattle and pigs at meat plants.
She obtained her B.A. at Franklin Pierce College and her M.S. in Animal Science at Arizona State University. Dr. Grandin received her Ph.D in Animal Science from the University of Illinois in 1989. Today she teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University and consults with the livestock industry on facility design, livestock handling, and animal welfare. She has appeared on television shows such as 20/20, 48 Hours, CNN Larry King Live, PrimeTime Live, 60 Minutes, the Today Show, and many shows in other countries.