Anxious Horse? Here's Where to Begin
Do you have an anxious horse? While fear occurs in the presence of a real or perceived threat, anxiety is an apprehensive state of anticipation about future threats. Horses can become anxious about any number of things, for example: loading in the trailer, seeing the vet, being bathed, ridden work, having a companion removed etc. Anxiety can develop after a horse has an unpleasant or scary experience; they may start to anticipate the experience happening as the owner prepares to engage in the activity:
the truck is hooked up to the trailer
the vet's truck drives onto the property
the horse is brought towards the wash rack
the horse is caught to be groomed and saddled
the companion horse's halter is pulled down off the hook
Picking up on clues that the unpleasant or scary thing is about to happen, the horse becomes anxious. Left unresolved, the anxiety may start to occur long before the feared event itself. Anxiety can be detrimental to a horse’s physical and mental health. It can decrease the horse's quality of a life, impact the bond the horse has with their owner, and can also affect performance and learning.
Understanding how to help your anxious horse To better appreciate how to resolve anxiety it's important to understand where to begin. If you have experienced anxiety yourself about a particular event, you may be aware how soon in advance the anxiety starts. Anyone who has a fear of the dentist knows that the anxiety manifests long before they sit in the dentist's chair. It can begin miles away and weeks before, when they are required to just pick up the phone and book an appointment. Years of research into resolving anxiety in people has shown that the moment before the phone call needs to be made is the perfect starting point to begin addressing the anxiety. This same approach of identifying the starting point is used to help anxious horses overcome their anxiety. Once a starting point has been identified, anxiety in horses is best addressed using techniques such as systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. These two powerful, proven techniques can change a horse's emotional response to the feared event. The end result after using the techniques is that the horse can be exposed to the trigger and not be afraid. Unlike other approaches, it carries very little risk of making the anxiety worse or creating new problems. Additional pleasant side-effects include enhancing the horse's quality of life, and developing the trust between horse and human.
Help for anxious horses
When choosing an equine professional do your homework: ask the trainer how they will identify your horses' starting point, and what techniques they will use to address your horse's anxiety. Horse training is an unregulated industry, and anyone can claim to be able to solve issues like anxiety in horses. But many popular techniques, such as punishment or flooding, can make the anxiety worse or create new problems. For example, if a therapist yelled at you to phone the dentist or forced you into the chair your anxiety wouldn't get better, and it would likely increase. You may do what the therapist wanted simply because you feared them more - but you wouldn't overcome your anxiety this way. The same approaches are often seen in horse training - getting after the horse or aggressively moving the horse around when they are anxious, or forcing the horse to engage in the event that frightens them. Such approaches are not recommended by animal behavior professionals, nor are they even necessary to successfully resolve issues. Anxiety in horses can be successfully resolved using the humane techniques discussed above. In light of this, I encourage horse owners to interview prospective trainers, and ask how they will address the issue. You are your horse's champion. If you don't like the answers you receive, keep looking.