The 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.