“Don’t pet your horse when he’s afraid. You’ll just reinforce his fear!”
A classic! This myth is also said about dogs and kids, and applying this myth to a fearful animal (or child) results in continual work for animal behavior professionals and psychologists alike.
Fear is an involuntary emotion, not a behavior. While behaviors can be reinforced, and made more likely to happen again in the future, emotions cannot. As such, no matter how hard you try, soothing or stroking (seemingly things a horse would desire) will not make an emotion such as fear more likely to happen again in the future. It. Just. Can’t.
Nope, it can’t.
Still don’t believe me? I’m sorry, but it’s still true.
If you and I entered a haunted house together and you were afraid, saying soothing things, holding your hand, or rubbing your shoulder would NOT make your fear more likely to happen again in future haunted house visits. Your emotion is involuntary, and no matter how hard I try with my soothing words, and gentle touch, I can’t increase the likelihood of that emotion occurring again.
Depending on a few factors, my actions could have other effects: you may find my words and touch comforting and your fear may lessen, or my actions may have no effect on your fear. What my actions can’t do is make you feel more fear (unless you were afraid of me to start with), or make your fear more likely to happen again in the future.
And so it goes with the horse. Just like us, horses are animals too, and the same rules of learning also apply to them. Stroke your horse when he’s afraid, and his fear may lessen, or it may not. What it won’t do is make the fear more likely to occur again in the future.
Unless the horse fears your touch, the worst thing stroking and soothing can do is cause no change in the horse’s emotional state. At best, stroking and soothing may help your horse feel a little less frightened– and that’s a good thing!
Ultimately though, while stroking or soothing may provide some net benefit, it is not the most effective way to resolve serious fear or anxiety issues in horses. Those problems are best addressed using proven behavior modification techniques such as counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. If you have a fearful horse, seek the help of a trained horse behavior professional who is proficient in those techniques, and who understands the differences between how emotions and behaviors can be addressed.
Horse Myth, Busted.