It seems like it would be easy enough to tell the difference between a relaxed, accepting horse and a terrified horse, doesn’t it?
Meet Sundance (circa 2015). It’s often assumed that if a horse is standing quietly with their head lower than their neck they are relaxed, even accepting of what we’re doing. If those are my criteria than Sundance, in the above photo, is relaxed and accepting or at least tolerating my presence.
But if we go just a little deeper we’ll find that in reality Sundance is anything but relaxed. He had so much distrust for people that when anyone approached he would go stick his head in a corner, hunker down and withdraw into himself. This was his way of hiding from the world in hopes he won’t be interesting enough for me to bother him.
It’s a survival strategy for prey animals to freeze when they feel sufficiently threatened. We hear a lot about fight and flight as a response to stress or threat but we rarely talk about freeze. Freeze is what an animal does when they have been caught by the predator and realize they may die. It’s a survival strategy in that sometimes a predator will lose interest when their prey stops moving. The predator will leave and give the animal a chance to escape.
Aside from the obvious desire not to scare our horses stiff, it’s important to recognize the signs of this level of shut down for safety as well. When an animal comes out of freeze mode it often happens explosively. I can’t tell you how many people I know who’ve been injured by a horse because they thought they were calm and accepting when in reality they were in freeze mode.
Here are a few more images illustrating how this level of stress might show up in a horse who is interacting with a human:
This is Sundance again. I knew very little about his history and put a surcingle on to test a theory I had. He stood like a rock the entire time. Is he accepting or tolerating what I’m doing? What do you see in his body language that clues you in that he’s actually scared stiff? Notice the tension in his body. Notice the position of his ears. And when I stood next to him I could literally feel him humming with anxiety. It was so clear that if I tightened that girth thoughtlessly he would come unglued.
We often feel the fear and anxiety our horses are experiencing and brush it off.
“Why am I nervous? I’m not afraid of this horse. ”
But it’s not your fear you’re feeling, it’s your horse’s. When visual clues aren’t reliable your feelings usually are!
Huey, for example, looks like he’s taking a nap, in reality he’s processing a great deal of worry from past bad experiences with a bridle. Again, though outwardly he looks relaxed, what I felt was enormous tension in his jaw and waves of anxiety pouring off of him. Had I picked up contact or pushed him to go he would have gotten increasingly stressed. Note Sundance in the back there – showing a lot of interest in what we’re doing as he’s coming out of his shell and learning to trust again.
Here is Sundance now. Can you see the difference?
When horses are accepting of what we are doing with them they are actively engaged with you and their environment, curious and interested in what’s going on around them. Be sure you know the signs of freeze or shut down versus relaxation and enjoyment. It makes a big difference in the quality of your horse’s life and your safety.