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Dealing with a startled horse

From: Lenore

Hello Jessica, It is my sincere hope that you can give me the right direction on this. Your newsletter is wonderful and I trust your judgement. I am a novice horse owner--of a mature age--with a six year old mare. My horse is boarded at a nearby stable. She is frightened by loud noises and recently, while grooming her a very loud noise frightened her and she pulled back violently. My reaction was to calmly bring her forward with a command of "easy", and continue with our grooming. Fellow horse owners at the barn said that I should have moved behind her and given a swat with my whip. I am totally confused, but these people have more "horse sense" than I but it would seem to me that their reaction to this would only enforce the fear. Please tell me which is the best way to handle these spooks. It is important to me to do the right thing with my beautiful friend. Many thanks. Sincerely, Lenore

Hi Lenore! I hope you'll read this even though the subject line has been changed - I did that because the original one was likely to get the message caught in all sorts of spam filters... it sounds silly, but that's what would have happened. ;-)

Your actions when your mare became startled were absolutely appropriate - well done you! Her fear caused her to pull back - a very normal horse reaction - and you had your priorities clear: You wanted her to relax, calm down, and return to her original position. If you had asked me "What should I do if my mare startles at a sudden loud noise whilst I'm grooming her?" I would have advised you to remain calm, talk to her quietly, bring her forward again (which would both bring her back into position AND remove the tension on the lead rope, tie, or crossties), and continue with your grooming.

Don't be confused. The people who told you that you needed to go behind your mare and hit her are, very simply, WRONG, for many reasons.

Jumping behind a nervous horse that is still vibrating after reacting to a sudden, loud noise would be a very silly thing to do. For one thing, it would make the horse MORE nervous, not less. Being quiet and calm and reassuring tells the horse that all is well, that you are not afraid, and that there is no reason for her to be afraid. Making a sudden, fast movement would give her the message that you ARE afraid, jumping BEHIND her would both frighten her and cause you to disappear from her view, which would frighten her even more.

Jumping behind her - even without hitting her - would also have put YOU in danger. Even the tiniest Pony Club children and the youngest 4-H members, and indeed all riding students of ANY size and age will invariably be taught NEVER to approach a horse from directly in front or directly behind, because those are the horse's two "blind spots"! Anything approaching a horse from those two directions will be invisible until the horse turns its head OR the person (or machine, or dog, or whatever it is) shifts its position and comes into the horse's field of vision, and when that happens, it gives the horse the impression that the person (or whatever) has just appeared on the scene very suddenly, literally out of nowhere. That is enough to startle a horse, and a startled horse may jump backward or forward or sideways - or rear or kick out. A horse that hasn't realized that anyone is approaching until it suddenly sees a person "jump into view" or suddenly feels a hand touch it with no warning is quite likely to kick.

Approaching a horse obliquely - moving towards its shoulder or hip - is basic to all good horsemanship. Approaching a horse obliquely WHILST TALKING TO IT, so that it sees AND hears you, and knows exactly where you are at all times, is one of the very first lessons taught to every beginner, because horse nature, instincts, reactions, and reflexes MUST be respected by humans of those humans are to be safe around horses. So, once again, you did everything right even if you weren't entirely sure WHY it was right.

You were obviously interested in helping your mare calm down and relax, and you did a very good job. The next time she hears a sudden, loud noise whilst she's being groomed, she may startle again (remember, this is a NORMAL horse reaction) but she may just lift her head or take one small step back - her reaction is likely to be less emphatic than it was the first time, because, thanks to YOU and your sensible behaviour, she had no reason to associate fear and pain with the noise. If you had done as those other people suggested, the next loud noise might cause your mare to panic, because she would have learned a completely different lesson: that the loud noise frightened you, too, AND caused you to disappear, AND caused pain. Imagine a small child - a toddler - in that situation. The parent is standing brushing the child's hair, and there's a sudden loud noise. The child jumps and takes a step back. The parent can do one of two things: (a) Say "That was a big noise, wasn't it? and continue brushing the child's hair, or (b) Leap up, jump behind the child's back, and hit the child while yelling "Don't you DARE jump and take a step back!" Which reaction do you think is more sensible? Which reaction do you think is more likely to teach the child that the parent is a source of reassurance and can be trusted?

I would be wary of accepting any advice from anyone who thinks that horses (or other animals, or children, dogs, cats, or other adults) should be punished for experiencing fear. It's a way of thinking that should have no place around animals or humans, and it's an absolutely inappropriate way for any trainer to think. If your horse is afraid of something, your goal should be to reduce the horse's fear and minimize its reaction to the fear. Creating MORE fear and adding pain to the mix will have the opposite effect. I'm trying to imagine what those people's reaction would be if someone popped a balloon near them and then hit them when they had a startle reaction. I'm guessing that at the very least, the incident wouldn't inspire them to relax and trust the person who hit them - and in all probability, being hit would NOT prevent them from having another startle reaction the next time a balloon popped or a car backfired suddenly. Horses aren't so terribly different from humans in some ways, and the way to combat fear and create calm and relaxation in both species has to involve reassurance and calm, business-as-usual behaviour, NOT punishment and pain.

You may be a novice horse owner, but you've already demonstrated a good instinctive understanding of horses, horse training, and horsemanship. Horsemen are always asking themselves "Is this good for my horse NOW, will this be good for my horse LATER, and what will my horse LEARN from this?" It sounds as though you're already doing this. Your mare is lucky to have you for an owner.


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