Whether it’s balloons, tarps, sheep or tight spaces, I think horses have phobias just like us. So what do we do if desensitizing them doesn’t calm their fears?
We had a hot air balloon festival in town recently, and I marveled at the ingenuity of the colorful contraptions. To float above Texas in springtime, to waft and meander in the breeze while I look down to see my house as a tiny speck in a sea of green grass sounds absolutely…
So yes, I have an aversion to heights. I’ve never been the kid to jump off tall rocks into a swimming hole, and I hate being at the top of a haystack. And when it comes to being up high – no matter how many experiences I’ve had that end positively—I’m never going to like it.
Sometimes I wonder if horses are any different.
Luke and I spend a lot of time getting our mares, geldings and colts more comfortable with scary things. We use plastic tarps and flags, drag sacks of hay around, swing ropes and ride up and through and over all sorts of obstacles with the hopes that they gain confidence. For the most part, they get “sacked out” or “desensitized” or just gentler to things, which makes the world safer for themselves and their riders. However, I’ve seen occasional horses who truly have phobias, and I often wonder if they ever get through their fears entirely.
Where do these phobias stem from? For some horses, perhaps a bad experience. Others seem to just see the world as a place of alarm, and sometimes it just seems to be a deep-rooted issue that can’t really be explained. It’s not a simple matter of being feely, either. I have known sensitive horses who were very gentle, and I’ve known dull, numb horses who spooked at almost anything and everything. As humans, we try to rationalize why a horse would behave in such a terrified manner at different things, but I’m not sure it can always be justified. I’ve never fallen and hurt myself from being up high, but I’m scared just the same.
I had one gelding that was pretty feely about cattle but could get through it well enough to function. But he met a band of sheep at my in-laws one time. I spent the next two weeks trying to get him to accept the fact that he has to share a planet with them. We worked around sheep in a pen, and sheep outside. I even grabbed the shorn wool and tried to get him comfortable with that. He was so scared of the possibility of running into a sheep that he was absolutely un-usable around them. And he never really got over it.
And on the flip side, I had another gelding years ago with which I competed in the AQHA Ranch Versatility classes a little. One time in Nevada, I went to the log drag portion of the ranch trail class and he had stepped over my rope without my knowledge while I dallied. It dragged between his legs and surprised him terribly, which cost me my trail points (meager as they were to begin with, as I am woeful at navigating through those obstacles). But there was no residual reaction the next time we went to drag a log and it never seemed to bother him again.
I’ve seen horses who were terrified of llamas, pigs, buffalo, donkeys, ponies and fence banners. I had one gelding who couldn’t bear to be around a fallen panel. I’ve been to events on Paint Horses and POAs (Pony of the Americas Club), and other horses were afraid of me and my spotted animals. Sometimes, when someone goes to work on a specific phobia with their horse, I have seen it get worse before it gets better. But often, they can and do get better. I suppose, depending on the methods used and the horse’s personality, some can be completely cured of their phobias. And some may always be a little scared.
But what choice do we have as horsemen? We must approach phobias, stress and obstacles with feel, understanding, knowledge and patience. My quest as a rider is a journey, not a destination. A horse with a deep-rooted phobia is another opportunity for me to either learn or find a better fit for the animal. It’s important to keep safe and recognize the right kind of help when it presents itself.
I know that’s what I’ll be doing on my spooky horses.
And no, not a one of them is taller than 15 hands.