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Myth Busting: Reinforcing Fear

A myth that is frequently perpetuated in the horseworld is that you can make your horse more spooky or "disrespectful" by allowing them to react fearfully, or by responding with gentleness when they do so.

A common approach you will see people take to deal with their horses reaction to a scary situation is to punish or correct a horse for their reaction.

For example: A jerk on the lead rope, a loud or growling “ah!”, making them run in circles, or even just pushing them on via kicking or pulling to face the scary stimulus.

Generally, Petting your horse, getting off the horse, turning away, giving them a treat etc. is often discouraged, because “you’ll teach them to be scared” or "you'll teach them what to do to get out of work"

A common misconception, coming from a well-meaning place, but does more harm than good.

Why? Because, We cannot Reinforce fear!

Fear is a emotion and we cannot train a emotion, we can only train behaviour

Fear is a involuntary response that the animal has no control over. Jigging, rearing, backing, spinning, spooking, refusing to move are fight or flight responses that occur when a horse experiences Fear.

On the other hand, behaviours that are not based in fight or flight, the animal does have control over, and such, we can train it.

Thanks to what we know as Pavlovian/Classical Conditioning, we CAN change the animal’s emotional response TO the stimulus by counter-conditioning the stimulus. Along with that, we can reinforce behaviours that are more appropriate.

But we can only do this when the horse is under threshold, once they are in fight or flight mode, learning will cease.

In other words,

It’s ok to comfort your horse when they are nervous or scared!

It’s ok to soothe them with your voice & pets.

It’s ok to get off and guide them from the ground and It's okay to bring distance to them and the fear inducing stimulus.

Those things will not cause your horse to "take advantage" or "learn to fear things"

Ideally we don't want to push our horses so far that they go into fight or flight, or avoid situations where they can panic until they're more comfortable with such situations. However, it can still happen. And if those situations do occur, it is much better to respond as mentioned above, in order to allow them to settle and come back down from the fight or flight response, so that we can work on the issue. - Rather than trying to push them on, which can escalate their reaction, make it more dangerous, create more fear and frustration and doesn't help them in the future.

Once out of fight or flight we can then utilize approaches such as counter conditioning, approach and retreat, systematic desensitization etc. to help our horse through the situation and change their response for the next time they encounter the situation.

Once we stop worrying about potentially reinforcing our horses fear, and instead start seeing these situations as moments where our horses need assurance, safety, and someone who acts in a trustworthy manner, they can become opportunities of building trust & a stronger relationship to us, as well as grow our horses confidence in themselves too!


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