Horseblog Q&A: Fear Factor

russellrodeocowgirlonabuckinghorse_bvcThe last Horseblog attracted a great deal of commentary from the horse community, and as always happens when people are talking about scary things, the horror stories waxed horrific.

Amid all this, author Pamela Dean commented,

I had a question about a character who is afraid of horses, and what would be a reasonable way (if any) for a horse person to attempt to get her over this fear, but after reading these comments I’m starting to think she’s quite right. She doesn’t have the horse-loving quality, alas, but in her situation it’s difficult to be unable to deal with horses.

This is an unfortunate side effect of horror stories. Pregnant women know it all too well, too. Suddenly they really don’t want to keep on with this project, but with a wanted baby, they kind of don’t have a choice.

In a period or society in which the horse is essential for transportation or war or prestige, the person who is afraid of horses is rather severely limited in how she can travel and even how she can function from day to day, since horses will be all around her, filling the streets of her city and, if she’s appropriately well off, occupying her stable or pulling her plow or farm wagon.

What’s a person to do?

First of all, despite the rather too real dangers associated with a large flight animal in contact with a much smaller and weaker primate, horses by nature are remarkably gentle and accommodating animals. Their herd structure predisposes them to be cooperative, and their social hierarchy inclines them toward deferring to individuals of higher status. They’re also much more sensitive than their size might indicate, both to touch and movement and to emotional input.

The human who understands this can put aside her natural fear of their size and strength, and she can use horses’ own instincts and inclinations for her own purposes. Most horses will not voluntarily step on or run down anyone; they’re more likely to veer off unless they’re blocked from doing so, or unless they’re provoked. They can also be diverted, often by as simple an expedient as waving one’s arms and stepping sharply toward them. Flight instinct sends them off and away.

But that doesn’t take care of the basic fear, or the consequences of acting afraid around horses. They’ll pick up that fear, and it will either make them fearful themselves, or (especially in the case of stallions) cause them to attack.

Here’s a very open secret. It’s possible to be afraid and still be safe around horses. The trick is not to let the horse know you’re afraid.

Because horses are so sensitive to body language and physical cues, the human who is afraid–stiff, jerky, breathing fast, making rapid defensive movements–is effectively screaming her fear. What she can and indeed must do if she has to interact with them is control her physical signals. Deep breaths and slow. Smooth, unhasty movements. If she speaks, voice should be calm and quiet. Calm alertness, quiet affect.Let the fear recede to the back of the mind. (This is called the “two minds.” One can be as freaked out as it wants to be, but the other, the one in front, is calm, focused, ommmm.)

There’s a thing too that humans aren’t aware of when they’re tense: their bodies stiffen up and their balance tends to shift upward. It can work wonders to take a breath, and lower one’s sense of one’s weight and self toward the ground. Let it pour downward. Center one’s balance down low, around the solar plexus or hips.

Think centering in yoga or in martial arts, if you’re familiar with those and if your story has some analogue to refer to. The more quiet and centered you are, the calmer the horse will be. Even a hormonal stallion or a badly spooked horse of any gender is quite likely to respond in kind.

What you’re doing is taking the lead in the interaction without getting all aggressive and dominant. You’re saying you’re calm, you’re in charge, all’s well. The horse can trust you.You will make decisions and those will be good decisions, which won’t harm either the horse or you.

Horses love that. They’re wired for it. They like a leader. Even the dominant ones will relax a little and let you lead, because it’s so much less stressful for them. Once you’re making the decisions, you can arrange matters to keep the horse calm and yourself safe.

And that often leads to a great reduction in fear. The more you trust your own leadership, the more calmly in control you are, the less chance there is of something going bad. A vanishingly small number of horses really want to hurt you, and it’s possible in most cases to avoid those. If you can’t, staying calm and centered still protects you to an extent, and lets you figure out how to get yourself out of there in one piece.

The rest of the equine species is perfectly happy to interact with you in positive ways. Sure, they’re big, but they’re not nearly as reactive as cats and dogs. I would far rather approach a horse I don’t know than a strange dog. The horse is much less likely to react badly, and if he does, he’s more inclined to run away than to come at me.

So yes, some fear is always justified, but if you can master that fear, your chances of being hurt are much, much less.




Horseblog Q&A: Fear Factor — 8 Comments

  1. For a character who *wants* to learn, I recommend a babysitter horse – a truly gentle, maybe somewhat ridiculous-looking, elderly individual that is just NICE. (They exist). I also recommend a mentor: someone who will teach the character the safest way of handling a horse (when you keep to all of those pony club rules, you can still have accidents – but far, far fewer ‘accidents-waiting-to-happen’) and who will translate the horse’s expression/body language as well as teaching her what an appropriate response is.

    I’ve seen a lot of wrecks and would-be wrecks happen because both horses and people can get into ‘forward defence’ mode: ‘I know he’s gonna hurt me, so I’ll attack first’. In that case, you need an experienced person to give the horse some breathing room, and then handle it calmly. Frequently that involves ignoring posturing (but still correcting bad behaviour). Beginners don’t know where to start; they either see every attempt at communication as ‘disrespect’ or miss signs of a horse getting seriously fed up with you and about to do you serious damage.

    • I still remember my “babysitter horse” so fondly and that was a couple decades and change ago. He was just a good-hearted slightly lazy in your pocket gelding, patient and sweet and willing to do almost anything for a peppermint or a couple minutes rubbing his face!

  2. My therapist is fascinated by my relationship with my horse, how much mindfulness and being present is required and rewarded with horses. I was explaining to her that, when reacting to or proactively preparing for a sudden undesired movement, I sit back in the saddle. This puts me over the center of the horse and also signals to him that I am Right Here And Ready. She was tremendously interested to see that whenever she raised an issue in therapy, I would first Sit Back in the chair, thus responding from a position of security and control. And convincing myself of my security.

    (I also have found myself exhausted after a difficult meeting, because I would be trying to cue direction using my leg muscles under the table, with no effect on the person seated across from me. WHY AREN’T YOU GOING THE WAY I AM ASKING YOU TO MOVE? Oh, because we are simply talking. And you are not properly schooled, are you?)

    Body language is very important in interacting with horses, and awareness of it can spill into working effectively with humans. In some circumstances.

  3. Despite being a pretty much incurable horse lover, I’ve been to the depths of fear of riding. After a series of actually quite minor wrecks on horseback, I was – well, a wreck. (My least-proud equestrian moment is probably the day where I had a complete meltdown because the horse I was on was standing calmly and occasionally stomping at flies.)

    What helped me more than anything else was time and proximity. I still went to the barn every week, but I spent my time with my feet firmly on the ground, brushing horses, cleaning stalls, feeding hay, and chasing after kids at my instructor’s summer camps. In the process, I bonded with one of the calmer, more level-headed lesson horses.

    When I was ready to start trying to ride again, that was the horse I rode. We got into the round pen – a small pen, where you have the illusion that the horse isn’t going anywhere – and we walked for an hour at a time for a few months, eventually graduating to the big arena. And then we did the same thing with the trot. And then we did the same thing with the canter (although 10+ years on, I haven’t ridden as much as I’d like and I know my ability to canter is shot all to hell again).

    It took YEARS of being at the barn one day a week (and a few full weeks during the summers) to get me even close to the level of not-fear where I’d been before. It could have taken longer, but my pride eventually got involved – I was in college and surrounded by teenagers having way more fun on horseback than I was, and I got a little competitive about it…

    • My sympathies. I have been afraid many times; I’m not sure how – after a longish break – my ability to canter is at the moment, and I’ve had a bonafide panic attack on horseback, during which I – curiously – did not feel afraid.

      Taking it slow and staying inside my comfort zone seem to be the key for me. With my horse, that often meant getting off and walking; he was ‘unsafe’ by every measurement, but in ten years I’ve only come off one-and-a-half times. (The other time was spooked by horses crashing through the undergrowth and spun while I was mounting).

      One thing that helps me is being an anxious rider. I’ve been there before. I *know* that if I proceed slowly and stay safe, the fear will go away again. I’ve known people who had never been afraid, who encountered something genuinely scary and just could not deal with being afraid and who gave up riding altogether because they did not know how to cope.

  4. Thank you so much. This is incredibly helpful. Thanks too to every single commenter.
    I’ve sometimes thought, reading about people dealing with their horses, that in many ways it’s quite difficult to be a horse. If that can be gotten across to my character, I think she’ll do much better and cease to be so trammeled in her daily existence.

    Thanks again. This is both informative and creatively energizing.


  5. I’m sure just spending a lot of time sitting in a safe place and watching other people work with horses and horses interact with each other would help. I’m vastly more comfortable approaching a dog I don’t know than a horse, because I “see” dogs much better. When people say a dog bit without warning, I categorically disbelieve it — they just didn’t see the warning signs that would be obvious to me, nor did they know how to diffuse the situation, nor did they know how to protect themselves. I would need to be around horses a lot more before I could “see” them as well.

    Of course your typical protagonist probably doesn’t have the leisure to hang out and watch horses since she needs to get on with saving the world.