Horse is afraid of things falling or swinging around him

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Horse is afraid of things falling or swinging around him

Post by Sunny Admin on Sat Feb 20, 2010 3:59 pm

Hi Cheryl- As you know, I have followed the progress of your horses for several years. I revisited your website a couple weeks ago in the hopes of learning how to "re-wire" my 2 1/2 year old colt to help him with his fear of things falling and things swinging around him.



I am a student of Natural Horsemanship, but find that when faced with these "monsters" that my otherwise brave and reasonable colt is hypersensitive to the pressure in the desensitization process.



I have successfully taught him that he doesn't need to flee the scene when faced with the scary object, but I have noticed that his fear of the objects during the desensitization is not much diminished, just an increased tolerance of them. In other situations at liberty, nothing we desensitized with carries over.



It has become clear to me that the most effective course of action would be to "re-wire" him so that he associates the falling or swinging objects with something pleasant. It doesn't make sense to me anymore to set a goal to try to get him accustomed to something scary when there is an option to simply teach him to think of that same object as something pleasant.



For my colt, who tends to get anxious with pressure, it makes more sense to me to set the tone of his learning program with an eagerness to explore potential scary things, having learned that to face them creates something fun and pleasurable for him rather than a learning atmosphere where I continually expose him to something unpleasant in the hopes that he eventually gets used to it.



There is certainly a time and place for that method. Being that horses are as individual as you and I are, their training needs to be tailored to their personalities.



For myself and my colt, your program seems to fit us very well. He and I already communicate via targeting. He knows "touch it" and we utilize it often. He also loves to direct me to any itchy spot on his body by pointing to it with his nose. The lines of communication are open, you see.



Can you help us formulate a plan to help him overcome his fear of things falling and swinging?



Thanks so much!



Tracey Buckalew, co-editor, Going Gaited Online Magazine
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Re: Horse is afraid of things falling or swinging around him

Post by Cheryl Ward on Sat Feb 20, 2010 6:23 pm

Hi Tracey,
What a great question with a really fun fix. And before I begin, I must give you a huge round of applause. You’re already doing the first part of the equation in order to help your horse overcome its fear of things that fall and swing and that is: Answering your horse when he has a question by reinforcing him with something that feels good.

I Hear You

You wrote of how your horse directs you to an itchy spot by pointing to it with his nose. He’s asking, “Will you help me?” You answer him with a scritchy scratch on his itchy spot. Important to note, this communication feels good to him. Then when you ask “Touch it” your horse answers by touching the object. I’m guessing you use a sound to tell your horse right answer such as a click or a specific word. The right answer sound is then immediately followed by something that feels good to the horse, either a food reward, another scritchy scratch or verbal praise.

Your horse’s hypersensitivy to things that fall and drop is his way of asking a question: “How the heck can I get away from these things that feel bad and get back to a place that feels good?”

Born To Work For Food

For a quick bit of background- When you ask a horse to do something, such as touch an object, or stand in place and then reward with a tiny morsel of food, you’ve told the horse: “I understand you are used to working for your food, and if you don’t eat small amounts of food often, it’s bad for your digestion. I hear this. When you are with me, I will honor your digestion.”

In my experience it takes horses sometimes less than 10 minutes to understand that click means treat, that something that it does earns it something that it wants.

Here’s why.

The horse first learns this lesson the moment it’s gangly little legs hit the ground. It has to get up, balance, coordinate it legs, identify its target (mama) and then move towards her. Upon reaching her it’s rewarded with food, warmth and security, all things that feel good.

Since food is such a powerful motivator, a horse will do all sorts of creative things like, barging, mugging, biting to recreate what it did to get the food. If they know that food only comes after they hear a click they work for the click. I never, ever, ever hand feed or feed out of a bucket unless my horses have first done something to earn a click. No click, no treat. In my opinion it’s unnatural for a horse to receive food willy-nilly. They are used to working for the food.

In short it’s my theory that horses feel good when they are moving towards something they want, such as a foal targeting its mama. The reward for reaching mama feels good. In contrast, it feels bad for a horse to have to duck a set of flying hooves coming at its head. Its reward for ducking is that the threat of pain is gone. To me, that’s not really a reward.

The first part of the equation is what you’ve already done. Your horse knows the language of click/treat. It knows how to target. It knows that you hear him and honor his unique biology.

The second part of the equation addresses your horse’s need to decide.

Born To Run

The other thing that matters to a horse, besides its need to eat constantly, is its ability to flee if frightened. I have two concerns about common practices of desensitizing horses.

1) We’re asking the horse to deny its basic instinct to flee when scared.

2) This is often done in a place where the horse is restrained by a rope or a round pen.

In short the horse is scared and has no place to go. This can do one of two things. It can create learned helplessness, where the horse basically gives up and learns to “tolerate” the thing that is stirring up the need to flee. The problem with this is that it wasn’t the horse’s decision. I have a feeling this creates a big hole in the horse’s understanding. The horse could easily say:

“I thought this person was going to be my provider, to protect me. Why are you scaring the beejeezus out of me? I’m a prisoner, I have no where to run.”

In my opinion, this creates a situation that tells the horse. “I don’t hear you.” You can see how this could be really traumatic for some horses. It’s frightened, stuck and calling out for help (trying to run away) and no one is listening.

Being Scared Feels Bad

When you said your horse’s fear of the object has not diminished and is tolerated, I’d venture a guess to say he’s just learned to be helpless in that situation. Now, when a situation arises that reminds him of the time when he felt helpless, he becomes hypersensitive. He doesn’t want to be in that situation again, it didn’t feel good, in fact, it was down right scary, because he was stripped of the things he needed to be in control.

I think his anxiety with pressure is simply him saying “I’m going to do anything I can to avoid feeling scared and trapped.” He doesn’t want to feel bad. He’s searching for a place where he can feel good.

Your horse’s fear of things falling and swinging and moving obviously makes him feel bad. Your task is to make him feel better about things that move towards him or things that move unpredictably around him.

If this were my horse, my goal would be to help him want to move towards, rather than away from, the things that are currently scaring him. Since he feels he’s been in a situation where he’s had no control, I’d immediately work to create opportunities where he has control. I especially like to work at liberty, giving the horse the choice to stay with me or not. This works like magic, especially for the abused and super-sensitive horse.


Here’s the plan.

Since horses are born moving toward things, and have good feelings surrounding moving toward things, I would teach him to play ball. I like to use a slightly deflated, cheap plastic ball from the grocery store. Most horses have no previous association with balls. When the first see a ball it usually arouses their curiosity, putting them in a positive, relaxed, interested state of mind.

I’d teach your horse to target the ball with his nose (which you’ve already taught). I’d teach him to target the ball with his hooves. I’d teach him to chase the ball and then pick up the ball and bring it back to you. I’d even “brush” him with the ball. Soon the ball becomes a visual symbol of fun and good feelings.

Then, I’d purposely begin erratically dropping the ball, making certain to click-treat liberally-and-often for the ball dropping and hitting the ground. I’d drop the ball a few times then ask my horse to touch it or pick it up. I’d then take the ball and touch my horse’s neck, girth, back, legs etc. clicking each time the ball touches the horse.

By now my horse should be ‘happy’ with the ball dropping and with the ball touching it. If my horse looked ready, I’d start softly tossing the ball at my horse. By now my horse knows that this is a fun and rewarding game.

The next step is to do the same exercises that you did with the ball, with a scary object such as a lead rope. I’d have your horse target the lead rope, pick up the rope in its mouth, target it with its hooves, put the rope on its back and let it fall off. It’s my prediction that if you repeat this exercise with the offending objects, your horse will soon regain its confidence and will no longer have the hypersensitive reaction.

The purpose of this exercise is to demystify the scary object and show the horse that it has control in a situation where it previously felt powerless.

Have fun and play ball!

Cheryl
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update 11/2/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:29 am

Cheryl, you have changed our lives! Here's what has been happening: A few weeks ago, I could not do the simple task of taking off a sweatshirt and tying it around my waist while standing next to Magnum because he would snort and run away. Because of an unfortunate accident that I caused a few months ago, he has been afraid of things falling or swinging around him. This includes clothing, saddle pads, lead ropes, reins, etc. You can see how this would present a problem...

I followed your advice and began targeting a ball at the end of a long crop, clicking and treating with a couple Cheerios each time he touched it. Magnum understood the concept within just a few moments. A few days later, I repeated the exercise, escalating the difficulty level by taking the ball off the stick and kicking it a few feet away from him and then asking him to walk to it to touch it. A few days after that, I repeated the exercise with the ball, then bouncing it around him, off of him, under him, all much to his joy as he scrambled around trying to touch it for the coveted treat. At NO time was he stressed or tense.

Yesterday I came out of the tack room with my fannie pack of Cheerios and the ball, and Magnum came running over. As always, we started with the ball and then added more elements. After about 10 minutes, my handful of cheerios was gone, as my little filly has been watching this whole process with Magnum and has decided she'd like to "touch" things as well. Both horses were very disappointed that the exercise was over (treats were gone), so I refueled and went back into the paddock with an armful of "scary things". These included items that I have "desensitized" with before - saddle blankets, a sweatshirt, bags, ropes, a chair cover..., only to have to repeat the exercise over and over, day after day, week after week, never seeing any real decrease in his sensitivity to them.

By the end of another 10 minutes, I was throwing a [previously scary] sweatshirt up in the air to land on Magnums head. Not only did he NOT panic, he didn't flinch, back or otherwise make any move other than to lift his head until he could see me from underneath the sweatshirt, looking for the treat he knew followed the click he'd heard. You just don't understand how monumental this was! And only on the 4th day of clicker work! I had done seemingly countless days of the desensitization with him, getting nowhere. Magnum is completely enamoured with this new method, and I and am...SO grateful. Thank you.

Tracey Buckalew
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update 11/10/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:29 am

I wanted to do a followup for you and the readers one more time after the breakthrough I had with Magnum to report about what his level of "carryover" is when we're not actively working with the clicker. So often he and I would work with desensitizing to a scary thing until he'd show some tolerance with it only to witness him exhibit absolutely no tolerance to it outside of our practice time. I wanted to give the attraction-based method some time "under saddle" so-to-speak to see what difference it truly made afterwards at liberty and just in general. I can happily report that I can take off my sweatshirt and wrap it around my waist while standing directly beside Magnum and all he does is watch. No snorting, no stink-eye, no tension. I can lay that same sweatshirt across his back with the same non-reaction. I can take that sweatshirt and throw it over the top of the fence, swing his lead rope or a halter around him, place the lead rope over the fence post, drop absolutely anything (including noisy plastic bags) on the ground under him or behind him at any time, even with no warning and all he does is turn to see what it was, all with a very calm, curious demeanor, EACH AND EVERY time. Beautiful. Just beautiful!

Tracey
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update 11/25/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:30 am

So last week my husband, being so proud of my accomplishments with Magnum and the clicker training, was standing with a friend by the paddock fence when Magnum came trotting over. He says, "watch this!" to his friend, and when Magnum got right up to him, my husband throws his sweatshirt RIGHT INTO MAGNUM'S FACE!!! Magnum was so surprised he had a meltdown and ran away. He's been a spooky mess ever since about everything! I'm so mad. He's even afraid of things he wasn't afraid of before!
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update 11/30/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:31 am

Cheryl was right- he's getting over it but we are having to backtrack a bit to rebuild his confidence. Such a shame. MEN. GRR.
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update 12/4/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:31 am

"Magnum vs The Blanket" Typical of me, I push and push until I over-do something. The other night, it was going to be close to freezing temperatures with heavy rain and wind. Blanketing my Arabian was a no-brainer as she nearly topples over with shivering in 30 degree weather alone. Magnum is a tad porky, so I wasn't going to put a blanket on him (something I've never been able to do with him- blanket = the devil in his mind). Last year I was regretful under the same weather conditions when I didn't blanket and my two geldings were nearly frozen and shivering violently in the paddock. I felt horrible. It was almost dark and I knew the bad weather was coming, so given what happened last time with two previous horses of mine, I decided I'd try to blanket Magnum for the first time. Amazingly enough, he stood stock still when I put it on him. Thinking I had lucked out, I buckled him up and figured that if I got it on him, I may as well leave it on him. He was outside the paddock at this time since I had just ridden and I did have enough foresight to put a halter on him that could be left on in case he took off and I couldn't catch him again. I opened the gate, pulled his head towards it, and as soon as he took one step and felt the blanket moving, he took off like a bat out of hell. He jumped the wire partition between the two paddocks, snapping the wire, running full out now between the two paddocks, fearing for his life. He finally realized he wasn't going to outrun the blanket so he skidded to a stop and refused to move another inch. After 30 minutes and full dark set in, I still couldn't entice him to move, even with promise of grain in his bucket.

This is where Cheryl's training came in. With treats , and a click when he even thought about moving, I got him one step at a time to his feed bucket. Another 10 minutes and he was walking around calm as you please as if he'd been blanketed regularly all his life. In the morning I was nervous about taking it off of him. All went well until I pulled it from his back and the clasps swung down and behind me, hitting the feed tub there. He snorted and took off like a shot. <sigh> It's still progress... This weekend is coming freezing rain. With no shelter in my paddocks, I know my bleeding heart will force me to try to blanket Magnum again. Lord help me.
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update 12/10/09

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:31 am

Good stuff all around here. Magnum is pretty much over the scare with the sweatshirt, although he gives things a moment more scrutiny than he did before. It's all good though. This attraction training is WHERE IT'S AT!
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update 1/15/10

Post by Admin on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:32 am

I am happy to report that there is not much with this original problem that we have not overcome. Normal activities like dropping things around him or taking off a jacket around him are no longer causes for concern. I even tied a jacket to his saddle yesterday and he was unconcerned. We will continue to work on it every so often though, so he can keep in that mindset. It is really wonderful though. This has changed our lives!
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Re: Horse is afraid of things falling or swinging around him

Post by Cheryl Ward on Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:34 am

Admin wrote:So last week my husband, being so proud of my accomplishments with Magnum and the clicker training, was standing with a friend by the paddock fence when Magnum came trotting over. He says, "watch this!" to his friend, and when Magnum got right up to him, my husband throws his sweatshirt RIGHT INTO MAGNUM'S FACE!!! Magnum was so surprised he had a meltdown and ran away. He's been a spooky mess ever since about everything! I'm so mad. He's even afraid of things he wasn't afraid of before!

Awww. Poor Magnum. I'm sure that having a sweatshirt thrown in his face was not what he expected upon greeting his dad. No doubt he's a bit confused about the context of when a sweatshirt gets tossed about.

I can completely understand your frustration. I feel for you and Magnum. It's got to be hard to be a horse sometimes trying to figure out the bizarre ways of humans. And equally hard for humans to convey to the horse our intentions.

My guess is that he'll be fine. He has such a great understanding of clicker work that he'll be back to his brave self in no time. Is there anyway Dan would want to help reprogram Magnum's memory of the event? If he could repeat the event at the paddock fence (without the sweatshirt) and simply call him over and click/treat a few times, I think that a great experience may override the shock of the sweatshirt in the face. I'd definitely make sure the treats were super dooper wonderful, so the super happy association of the delicious treats would have more of an impact than the meltdown.

I guess this is why the saying isn't not about an "man's intuition". Is there any way you can ban Dan from sweatshirts? Smile I have a similar list of all the bizarre things that happen with non-horse men around horses. Usually mine occur while I'm under a horse trimming hooves and a soccer ball goes whizzing by.

The other thing I just thought for Magnum is to take a few days to restore his confidence by doing only things that are easy that restores his sense of power or control...like picking up your gloves, or lots of targeting friendly things. How is he with being touched? I know with DaVinci, I found that I can sometimes help him 'ground' himself by light equine massage type work. I think certain types of touch helps put them back into their body rather and settle their flight instinct.

Never a dull moment, huh? I can't help but think Magnum is one of those super special horses that is not only an amazing horse but a very thorough teacher with doctoral level lesson plans.

Keep me posted.

Cheryl
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