Fear is no stranger to any of us; everyone feels worried or afraid sometimes. Most people who live in the so called Western culture, however, live their lives relatively fear free. Perhaps there are short moments of worry or panic here and there, but generally speaking our environment is safe and we don’t have to deal with intense terror or fright. Our lives are, in fact, so boring that we actually seek fear by watching scary movies, taking intense amusement park rides or performing extreme activities such as sky diving.
For example, last week I did something completely out of character: I went to an adventure climbing park set high in the trees. This doesn’t sound like an extraordinary event; after all, am I not a person who is always up for a challenge, especially if it involves a physical activity of some sorts? I certainly am confident of my own abilities. And the park was more than safe; between the harness and cables I was hooked to at all times, there was little danger of falling.
What made this experience extraordinary was that I am absolutely and utterly horrified of heights: I get vertigo.
I have to admit, during the first 30 minutes, I didn’t think I would be able to get through it. It is amazing how gripping fear can be. There I was, 40 feet up on a platform, literally hugging the tree as I stared at the task, a wobbly wooden bridge, which would get me to the next platform. My friend, who equally suffers from heart-stopping vertigo, smiled nervously, as I attempted to crack a joke. But the situation wasn’t funny; I was paralyzed with alarm, my mouth was dry from terror. I didn’t want to move.
Yet, with an encouraging friend on my side, I managed to push myself beyond my mental capacity and step on the bridge. And somehow, despite my terror-stricken legs and my white knuckles gripping on the safety wire, I managed to get to the other side to hug a new tree. And then another tree, and another.
After three hours of climbing and facing our fears over and over again, my friend and I were wiped out, and I don’t mean only physically. I could hardly think straight, let alone perform another complex task in the trees. When we called it a day and sat down in the shade to eat our well deserved ice creams, I could still feel my muscles twitching from the constant state of alertness I had been experiencing for the past three hours. My brain was equally fried; I was exhausted.
But what if we had to live with real fear on a daily basis? There certainly are people in this world who have to face the worst case scenario on a daily basis.
And then, of course, there are horses.
Recently, I have had the privilege to work with a little palomino pony called Prince. Prince is the cutest little thing, at barely 13 hands he looks more like a miniature horse than a real pony. He is very polite and sensitive, and apparently jumps beautifully. But Prince has one problem: he is very, very fearful of everyone who walks on two legs.
It is hard to say if he has been abused, but it is definitely clear that he has not been trained properly. He is afraid of human touch, of objects in your hand, quick movements, and sometimes just the presence of a person. If you try to pick up his hind feet, he nearly collapses and then tries to kick you. If you go into his box with the fly spray bottle, he spins around and hides in the corner shaking.
Despite all this, he allows kids to ride him, to brush him, to walk him around. If you cross tie him, adults can pick his front feet and brush him as well. You can catch him from the field if you have a carrot and some patience. You can lunge him at walk, trot and canter and although he tries to occasionally run off, he mostly tries to stay with you on the circle. You can coax him to the wash rack using gentle force and hose his legs down all the while as he trembles on the end of the lead rope.
The interesting thing is that most people find nothing wrong with these scenarios, after all, Prince is doing what he is told. “Sure, he is afraid, but he’ll get over it. Look how well he’s doing compared to last month! He is dealing with it, right?”
I agree, he is “dealing” with it. But the fact that he is allowing the daily activities to take place does not mean he is no longer afraid, it just means he has discovered that it is better to comply, rather than bolt and run since no matter what he does, the riding and grooming is not going to go away. Life is certainly easier if you obey, no matter how scared you are.
What does this mentality imply of our culture, our way of thinking? That it is alright to overwhelm another being without taking into consideration the emotional and mental health of that individual?
The difference between what I felt and what Prince feels on a daily basis is the fact that I had a choice: I could have stopped climbing those trees at any time; I could have walked away from the situation. Nobody was standing behind me, breathing down my neck, telling me to get over it and to get on with it. And certainly if someone had, I would have not been able to climb those trees, I would have quit before even the first attempt.
The positive environment and the fact that I was able to choose to continue made it possible for me to face my fear. And because it was my choice, because I took the initiative despite my fear, it was a highly empowering experience. I may have felt exhausted afterwards, but I also felt like the biggest winner. How, in comparison, does Prince feel at the end of each day? Does he feel only exhaustion and apprehension of the next day? He certainly has not had many choices in his life; so far he has had no other option but face his fear every time humans decide they want to handle him.
The big question now is: how can we help fearful horses feel confident, how can we give them the same feeling of empowerment I felt in those trees? How can we help them feel like they are in control of their emotions? How can we provide them an environment where they can choose to participate, choose to conquer their fears? How can we provide such a positive environment for horses that they feel compelled to try new things with confidence?
I will leave you with these vital questions in hopes of perhaps igniting something in your own thinking. At this moment I certainly do not have all the answers myself, but I without doubt have an urgent need to find solutions. When there is a will, there is also always a way.
Take care of your animals – and yourselves,