Monday, November 8, 2010

Safely Afraid

“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” ~Arab Proverb

Tonight when I drove to the barn the sun was just setting behind the mountains. Little Love had been outside in the morning and I was planning to spend the evening hanging out with her in the arena, working on some collection at liberty. But when I got to the barn, the arenas were occupied with riders who were busy jumping and longing and practicing dressage tests.

“What should we do?” I asked Little Love while helping her with her daily stretches, a ritual she loves to do.

Little Love stuck her nose out of her stall window and sniffed the cold air, looking into the horizon, the way she always does when she wants to get away.

“Let’s go out,” she said. “On the trails.”

I looked out. Dusk was settling over the landscape and in just over a half an hour it would be completely dark. Many people from our barn ride in the dark, going for walks in the field with mere moonlight as their guide or wearing headlamps for better visibility. Little Love and I were not one of those people. Not until now. I ran to the tack room, picked up the saddle and bridle. I felt a nervous tingle at the pit of my stomach, but I told myself to trust Little Love. She wouldn’t suggest something as crazy as a ride in the darkening forest unless she knew we could handle it.

When Little Love and I met four years ago, she was one of the most fearful horses I had ever dealt with. Every time I rode her in any of the arenas she would bolt from the slightest stimulus; a crack of a branch, the sound of the wind whistling through the roof beams, a bird flying overhead, a stone bouncing off her own hoof, another horse snorting. Everything and anything could set her off and she would run from underneath her rider in a crazed panic. She would race to the gate or the door in terror, her heart pounding in her chest and her focus lost. And not only that; once she was frightened, it was impossible to calm her down; it was as if fear itself was her nemesis, eating away at her very soul.

Riding on trails was not much better. In fact, if you attempted to ride alone, it resulted in disaster. A leaf falling from its tree, a sudden gush of wind, a dog romping in the field a hundred yards away; all this could ignite a fleeing reflex. Within seconds Little Love would rear, turn around and head home at ever increasing speed.

Riding with other people was helpful, but not easy. In the arena Little Love would refuse to turn, trying to follow the other horses. On trails she would crowd her trail partner and jig nervously on his or her tail until the usually calm horse was also in a state of flux. Needless to say we weren’t very popular.

Before long I was at my wits end trying to help this horse find some kind of peace. I wanted to show her the world was not such a scary place. After struggling for months, I discovered the bitless bridle. It was a breakthrough. Or perhaps it would be best described as a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly Little Love, who would never ever willingly go to the far end of the indoor arena, would agree to passing by the back door. Granted, she was still on her toes, but there was a slight shift in her behavior.

Encouraged by the positive results of the new bridle, I started to experiment. I rode with no rein contact whatsoever. I took Little Love’s tack off at the “scary” end of the arena and let her loose. At first she would run away as fast as she could, but soon would start to linger and investigate. I would bring her into the arena in a halter and walk her around or longe her. If she bolted while haltered, I would simply let her go. Soon I abandoned all tack, letting her loose at the door to give her freedom to choose. I even tried riding with just a rope around her neck.

This all resulted in another shift in her behavior. She was still frightful, but rather than going completely out of her mind with fear, she would run for a short while and then slow down and stop, as if surprised by the outcome.

In the past, Little Love had been physically punished for spooking; the previous trainer had for years forced her deep and low with draw reins and harsh bits, she had kicked her with spurs, hit her with the whip in attempt to teach her to stop fleeing from scary things. She had also advised Little Love’s owner to behave this way.

It took me a while, but I finally realized something profound; Little Love’s biggest fear was not of the external stimulus, the imagined beast she thought would jump on her or the scary unknown creature possibly lurking in the shadows. What was far worse than anything else she could imagine was the forceful pain that for years had followed her “fright”.

She was afraid of being afraid. In other words, she was afraid of the state of fear itself, because in her mind fear equaled pain. It was almost like a mathematical equation, always true, never changing. In fact, the fear of pain was so etched into her nervous system that even when there no longer was pain, the fear of pain still lived strong in her mind. She couldn’t shake it away.

This in mind I took a whole new approach to the situation. The more Little Love was afraid, the less I tried to control her. This meant that when I rode her in the dreaded indoor arena and there was a loud noise at the far end of the arena, I threw the reins on Little Love’s neck and grabbed her mane, giving her free will to bolt off (obviously I had to ride alone). At first, she would run like always, but soon took off only to stop a few strides later. Once she stopped and turned her head so that I could see the white of her left eye. As she looked at me in surprise, I swore she saw me for the very first time for who I was: not her enemy, but someone who wanted to be on her side.

I also spent hours with her in the arena, observing her in liberty. It didn’t take long for her to understand the control she had when there were no humans aboard. Soon she was strolling down to the far end and rolling, as if there never had been a thing to fear down there. I was astounded.

It was obvious that the less tack Little Love had on her head to ensure human control and the further away the humans were, the less fearful she was. The amount of human contact was directly connected to the amount of fear she experienced.

This observation was sobering. I realized that deep down Little Love was more confident than I had ever imagined, but humans, in their attempts to control her, had somehow managed to create this terrified animal. Perhaps in the beginning, as a young horse, she had merely been alert, but after being punished for this trait she had developed what I now called “the fear syndrome”. Many horses get punished for fearful, insecure behavior and a good percent of them have known to go into a state of learned helplessness to protect themselves from the pain. Of course this is exactly what most humans are looking for; a dull, desensitized animal who will not budge even if a bomb exploded next to them. But Little Love was not one of those horses. Instead she had created her own way of dissociating from a scary situation: running away.

I felt relieved to have found an answer, but completely overwhelmed with my findings. Matters were not made easier by another observation, which was that Little Love really wanted nothing to do with me (or any other human for that matter) if she had a choice. When I let her loose in the arena, she would move to the other side and turn her bottom at me. By default. The only way I could get her attention was with food, but there was no real trust there. Without food, I was nothing. And who could blame her?

Today I am filled with wonder for my friend who has come such a long way from those days of complete and utter panic. Or is it I who has come a long way? This change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a plethora of things: Hours of liberty work and spending time with Little Love doing nothing; long walks in the fields; letting go of my own ideals and goals, letting go of traditional methods and understanding the true meaning of freedom, letting Little Love have choices, opinions, emotions; educating her owner, and making sure Little Love gets out of her stall as much as possible even if it means standing with her in the pasture in pouring rain to keep her company when all the other horses are kept in. The list goes on.

The horse I met four years ago is still there, but there is also another horse present, a strong and opinionated and bold animal who may always remain cautious, but who is also so intelligent, so amazingly perceptive and calm. Only when I read back on my blog do I realize how far we have come. I wish I had started writing about my experiences years earlier, to truly see the miles that have been traveled.

Little Love can now be ridden into the far end of the indoor arena without a problem, but it no longer matters to me, for I no longer ride her in the arena. I spend more time with her on the ground than anywhere else. When we ride, we ride trails and tonight we are doing it in the dark.

We take off on our trail ride in the setting sun. Little Love is alert, curious. I walk her in hand for the first ten minutes. She stops once and stands very still. I ask her if she wants to go back, if the falling darkness is too much for her to bear, but she decides to continue walking. Finally, I climb on her back so we can do a short trot. She trots calmly, but with her head up and eyes scanning the dark fields. I don’t touch the rein and keep my legs off her sides. She looks to the left and registers the cows in the field; she looks right at the pile of wood that looks different in the shadows of the approaching night. We walk and I get off to walk with her. She is alert, she is alive, she is brave. I get on again, we canter and do some more trot. She wants to trot more than usual and I let her. Her eyes are on sticks when we pass the small, abandoned cottage with dark, ominous windows. We turn right at the fork and head home. The streetlights reach us half way down the last field. I get off to walk again, Little Love is now relaxed. It is almost pitch dark when we get back to the barn, but we stop to graze for a moment, feeling safe in the all-enveloping darkness.

Fear no longer equals pain and this has made all the difference in Little Love’s life. Through several trials and errors she now knows that she can be what I call safely afraid. We still run into unexpected situations, but so far our mutual trust has helped us conquer even the scariest events (like ten black and white calves with bells around their necks running after us or trailriding in the dark!) Fear is no longer a disaster, an abyss from which there is no return.

I can’t tell you how much I have learned about the pathology of fear in the past few years. Fear must never be overlooked or belittled, neither in humans nor in animals. Who knew that one fearful horse could teach one person so much about life; empathy, patience, perseverance, faith, love – and change? And it’s far from over; my education continues. And while I am liberating myself from my past, I hope Little Love continues to liberate herself from hers. 


“We see our horses as frightened animals prone to flight, but often it is we humans who have laid the foundation for this behavior by the totally unnatural way we keep and interact with them.  Could it be that the loss of their own world has made our horses so easily startled and fearful?” - Imke Spilker in Empowered Horses

I touch the subject of fear in some of my previous blogs as well, if interested please visit “Bombproof” from Oct.4, “Letting go” from Dec 28, 2009 and “Prince of Fear” from Aug 21, 2009


  1. I don't know if I mentioned it in my other comment, but you are a beautiful writer.

    I give you tons of credit for sticking with such a fearful horse. No doubt her improvements came about because of the trust she developed in you. It takes a lot of courage to stay aboard a frigtened horse without touching the reins.

    My boy Grif also came to me as a frigtened horse....not so much from people, but from not knowing what to expect. The only life he had ever known was living in a stall at the racetrack in the city. When I adopted him and brought him to the country, even some of the most simple things scared him. A squirrel in a tree would send him spinning. Funny looking rocks....strange noises....all of them a challenge. I had to remind myself that my poor guy had NEVER seen some of these things. I spent several months just taking him for walks and showing him things before I ever started teaching him to ride. Even noe when he is afraid, I let him have a long look and sometimes dismount to reassure him.

    It still angers me to this day when I see people "punish" their horses for being afraid without trying to understand how they are feeling.

    It's amazing how going bitless improves confidence. Grif and I have been bitless for over a month now and his confidence has grown. I tell him every day how proud I am of him. ....If only more people would catch on instead of buying another gadget.

    Great post! With your permission, I would like to add you to my blogroll :-)

  2. Thank you Carol,
    What a great story you have, Grif is one lucky horse to have found a new life with you! Horses should never be kept like he was, isolated from nature, but sadly this is the life of many, many horses. And then to punish them when they are afraid... nothing makes me more angry!
    Love the bitless bridle, have ridden so many horses in it along the way and have never been disappointed. I'm happy to hear Grif and you have found it, too! We have to keep believing that some day the whole world will be using a bitless.
    And of course you can add me to your blogroll, I would be honored.
    Virtual hugs to you and Grif :-),

  3. Thanks Katariina!

    There have been many times that I have doubted myself - or wondered if Grif would have been better off with a different person. I am not a particularly talented rider nor the most experienced out there -BUT- Grif and I have been together for about 13 years now and I like to think he is a happy horse. His happiness means more to me than any "accomplishment."

    Unfortunately, he still does not have pasture access 24/7 as the barn I board at would rather have the horses stalled at night. He also gets a good joint supplement for his mild arthritis and coming in at night ensures he will get all of his supplement (rather than having another horse "switch" food with him).

    Still....he is out all day and gets the best grass pasture during the summer months (which his "human" mom loves)! He is also allowed to stay out overnight when the weather is nice during the summer months. He only shares his pasture with one other horse in the summer, so someone taking his supplements isn't as big of a concern.

    Oh- how I wish I could have my own place! It would definitely include 24/7 turnout with a NICE run in stall!

    I will say though, I do like where he lives. The people are friendly and are respectful of each other's differences (in training) which is rare to find at many boarding places.

    I also concur with your sentiments regarding barefoot. It has been several years since Grif has worn shoes. I have a pair of hoof boots I will put on him if I think we will ride somewhere where the footing is rough. Sadly, he has low, contracted heels from his years at the racetrack. Since I have done the research I have, he will never wear shoes again.

    The thing I can't quite get passed yet- is letting him make ALL the decisions on how we spend our time toghether. I've been reading a lot of sites by people that do this and I am very fascinated and interested.

    Grif and I took a little ride outside on Saturday and I let him decide where we would go...just to see what would happen. He did great! Maybe it's just me, but he took me some places where I never thought he would be brave enough to go on his own! (the absence of fear is curiosity!) I also let him eat around the farm (where he wanted) while I groomed him. He loved it! I joked with everyone afterwards about his "grass hangover." It was definitely time well spent! ...and much more relaxing for is (often overworked and underpaid) human mom!

    Carol & Grif

  4. Oh Carol, don't we all wish to have our own place one day! But in the meanwhile it sounds like Grif has it pretty good where he is at right now. It is certainly a lot better than most horses here in Europe! And happy to hear he is barefoot, makes all the difference.

    Your trailride sounded like fun :-) Kudos to you for seeking new paths. Once you start letting your horse make decisions, many things can change between the two of you, mostly to the better. I'm still learning more about that myself, but I'm convinced it's the way to go. Good luck to you and Grif!


  5. Applause, Woot woot whistle, Bravo. Love this one too. I agree with the safely afraid ideology. I think that idea was pretty natural for me. Once I got my own horse and didn't have to work for trainers anymore to get a horse fix I let my own ideas about how to handle horse take over. I don't punish for fear. I encourage them to figure out themselves that the scary is really ok. I don't want to have a bomb go off next to me and not be running away as fast as we could go. If something is going to eat me and my horse, I'm sure she would know about it before I do and I'm not interested in being eaten either. Just my opinion.