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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

'Scared Horses are Pretty Horses'

My friend Katie and I share a love of horses, good discussions, and, as you'll come to learn, photo opportunities.

A few months back, my geriatric cattle dog needed to wear a 'cone of shame' after having a small surgery. Not thinking too much about this, I let Fiver out to accompany me up to the arena to work with my horses. Fiver wandered off while I caught my mare Viveza. As you may have guessed by the picture above, Fiver wandered back into view just as I was bringing Viveza into the arena. Viveza, to the best of my knowledge, had until this day never seen a dog wearing a bucket collar. As could easily be predicted, Viveza appraised this new, and rapidly moving towards her item as a potential threat: her sympathetic nervous system, the 'flight or fight' response, was triggered, preparing her body to escape what her brain had just perceived to be a potentially dangerous situation.

When this happened, inside Viveza's body physiological changes quickly happened to prepare her to best survive this encounter. For example:

  • adrenaline was released, allowing for an increase in blood flow and nutrients to her muscles so that she could flee or fight as needed

  • her pupils dilated to allow more light to enter her eye so that she could better see the threat

  • her heart rate and breathing increased to better allow for the delivery of energy and oxygen to her body during this encounter

While we couldn't readily see these physiological changes occurring inside of Viveza's body, we could see some changes in her body language, and you can see them too in the above picture. For example, her muscles became taught, she stood squarely, her neck arched, her head became elevated, and her gaze became fixed on the dog. I managed the situation (I had accidentally created) as best as I could. I called out for my mother to bring Fiver into her house while handling Viveza so as to minimize the chances she suffered either a physical or behavioural injury resulting from any fear-based escape behaviours. At the start of this incident, Katie wisely snapped a picture of Viveza the moment she first saw Fiver. After the metaphoric dust had settled, Katie and I looked at the picture together, and one of us said something we have discussed previously, 'Scared horses are pretty horses'. This wasn't said in a way that diminished the fear Viveza felt during this encounter: neither one of us wanted this encounter to happen, nor do we think frightened horses are prettier than calm horses. Rather, we have talked at length before about images shared on social media where the person sharing feels the image shows a 'pretty' horse, but all we can see are the signs of stress or fear.

Misunderstood images of stressed or frightened 'pretty' horses aren't a new, social media phenomenon. Wander around a foreign city, and you may see their statue of a long-dead general on a stressed horse. Visit the museum, and view some of the centuries-old artistic depictions of frightened horses. For hundreds of years, people have been desensitized to images of stressed or frightened horses. It's totally normal, and accepted, for such images to be seen as pretty. When we learn more about horse behaviour and begin to train our eye to recognize signs of fear or stress, such images begin to lose their pretty status. Your eye begins to change, and the images that now draw you in may no longer be the popularly shared, pretty ones. And that's OK. #ToughTopicTuesday #horsebehaviour #horsetraining



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