Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Anxious Horse

I was reading an article today in the New York Times Magazine about research that is ongoing on the subject of human temperament, and in particular on anxious temperaments. Apparently the propensity to be highly vigilant and over-reactive to stimuli is usually evident from the time a person is a baby. Many of these children grow up to be anxious adults, ranging from those who experience mild anxiety to those who have full-grown panic attacks - partly due to how they were raised and their life experiences and partly due to structural differences in their brains that affect how they cope with stimuli that can trigger anxiety. The inherently anxious people who function the best are often those who have developed the ability to self-calm when they feel anxiety, and/or who have found something to focus on and become really good at.

All of this made me think about horses - but then almost everything makes me think about horses! I'm always wary of applying human experiences to horses - I believe that some of this is really misguided - but when it comes to really basic brain structure (one of the main brain structures involved in anxiety is the amygdala, which is one of the oldest structures in the brain), I believe that horse too come with inborn temperaments that lead them to experience anxiety, and cope with it, in different ways.

Now all horses are inherently more vigilant and reactive than most humans - their prey status makes sure of that. But I think there are real variations in temperament, and some things in the article made me think about how I work with different horses. Dawn and Lily are both extremely vigilant horses - they're always on high alert and see and hear things other horses ignore, and they're both highly reactive to what they see and hear. For example, when I was turning out horses this morning, Dawn immediately locked onto a flapping plastic bag that was almost 50 yards away - none of the other horses even noticed it. Interestingly enough, although Lily was one of the most difficult horses to ride and work with I've ever known, she was capable of going into any jumper ring, no matter how scary or colorful the jumps, and getting right down to the business of turning in a superior jumping round. This was despite the fact that she was almost impossible to ride in the warmup ring a few minutes before. She performed so well, I am convinced, because she loved to jump and compete, was very good at it, and knew that she was good at it. This is an interesting example of one of the coping behaviors that some people use to deal with anxiety and worry. I'm convinced that she was hard to ride doing flatwork or in the warmup ring because she just didn't care enough about those things for them to distract her from her anxiety.

Anxious people often are more physically "fidgety" when they experience anxiety - in the case of people this shows up as being restless, foot tapping, knee jiggling or hair pulling or twirling. Once again, horses with more anxious temperaments, in my experience, often have more trouble standing still, and exhibit other fidgety behaviors, such as head tossing, tail swishing or bit chomping - of course some of these can be due to pain issues as well. One good thing about a horse with an anxious temperament is that you're never in doubt about what they're feeling! A horse that is less anxious by temperament may still worry or experience anxiety - my Maisie comes to mind - but sometimes it's harder to feel or see what they're experiencing inside - although the signs are there if we're able to read them - until they become so worried they can't contain themselves. In some ways, this makes horses that are naturally less anxious more difficult to work with. But then I'm a naturally anxious person myself, and I think that gives me an affinity with horses that tend to be more vigilant and reactive!

In my work with Dawn (see my post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . ." for an overview of what I'm up to with Dawn), I'm focussed on helping her learn self-calming behaviors, and helping her learn that she can worry and then successfully deal with the worry by accomplishing small tasks together with me. I hope that as she achieves success in overcoming her worries, time after time, that this will begin to build in some confidence. This foundation I'm trying to build sounds a lot like the successful coping strategies used by some naturally anxious people. It was an odd place to get some confirmation that I'm headed in approximately the right direction, but I'll take it!


  1. Yes it's interesting Kate the crossover human to horse on that theme. Like you I'm always wary of attaching human labels to horses but sometimes there is common ground.

  2. Interesting comparisons.

    One thing I find fascinating is comparing how a horse behaves under saddle or in-hand compared to how they behave in the pasture. Occasionally I'll meet a horse who is calm and under control when by himself or with other horses but anxious and reactive when interacting with humans. I think this signals a lot of tension (and often holes in basic training, even if the horse seems to be well trained).

    On another note, we recently got a middle aged green broke Arabian mare. Most of the horses I deal with theses days are quarter horses and it's been almost two years since I've had an Arab around. There are so many subtle (and not so subtle) differences between her and my QH horses. I believe anxiety/calmness levels can be heavily influenced by training. However, there is definitely a large component that is genetic/innate.

    By the way, I really like your blog. I just added it to my feed reader.


    Mary H.

  3. I try not to attach human emotions to horses, but human terms are often all we have to describe or compare, so I don't get too bent about it. And everyone does it to a certain extent, no matter how much they protest.

    Interesting post. I've had Poco for 3 years and I'm just now starting to realize what an anxious critter he is. I chalked a lot of his behavior up to being dominant and headstrong (which he is), but now that I know him better, I realize he is much more fearful than I ever would have thought. I'm interested to hear more of what you're doing to instill confidence.

  4. Some horses are also "anxious learners." When confronted with something new in a training program, they have a meltdown and simply cannot learn. The trick then becomes to break down the new task into pieces they can do easily, building up to the new task. Remarkably, it seems that once they master the new task the anxiety disappears.

    I think Dawn may be like that so your little steps at a time should have a good result in her overall training in the long run.

  5. I found the original article, which was a really interesting read. It's here if anyone else wants to see it.

    I am an anxious person who has learned a ton of coping strategies. I think the most important one for working with horses is to keep my physical body calm - breathe regularly, don't tense up my muscles, don't fidget. One's body affects one's mind, and keeping your body calm will help calm your mind. That's true for horses too, as you well know, Kate!

    I never thought of Dixie as being classically anxious, but it makes sense. It won't change my overall strategy - teach her to be calmer and braver - but I think I'll have more sympathy for her!

  6. Leah Fry - your comment about your Poco is interesting - I've found that the most vigilant, reactive horses are often also the most dominant - they are just like people who are anxious and therefore have to take control to make sure they are comfortable in a situation. A dominant/anxious horse is also one that, if mishandled, can become defensive and aggressive. A less dominant horse, if mishandled, can become dull and shut down. I've seen cases of both.

  7. You might be interested in checking out the Parelli Horsenality chart. Your post reminds me of observations I had about horses. When the horsenality chart came out a couple years ago, it blew my mind. It is such a great tool for understanding how certain horses learn and why. Why some are more reactive, some more playful, etc. Check it out. I would love to hear what you think about it. My mare is a right brain extrovert with glimpses of a left brain introvert when really confident in what she is doing.

  8. My horse Brie is an anxious horse. Last November when an expert in her breed (Paso Fino) came up to our stables, he observed her and told me that in order to calm her down and work with her past her anxiety, I would have to do a lot of walking and, depending on how much I trusted her, the walking should be done bareback. I just got on her and walked her walked her walked her from November until February and started working her in March for show season and she is a different horse. She always would freeze up in the show ring and this year she got through all of her classes except for one. It's amazing on how much a little thing like that can do. Depending on how you feel with your horses, maybe you should try it.

  9. Kate, I love reading about your revelations. As usual, I think you are right on target. :o)

    As I was reading this I was thinking that Panama really doesn't seem to be an anxious horse. Interestingly, though, I think the opposite was true a couple of years ago, when my trainer and I first started working with him. He was extremely fidgety and reactive then. It's definitely an argument for the impact traumatic experiences can have on a horse's anxiety levels.

  10. I agree with your ideas and anxiety in horses. I am lucky with Sam - he does not have high anxiety levels until he doesn't understand what you are asking. Even then once you take the pressure off or give him a moment to take it all in he is able to calm himself down and come back on track. I don;t know where he learned that from maybe he has always been like that but I am glad he is wired that way! :o)

  11. What an interesting post Kate .Its made me think back to previous horses I have owned and how they have reacted to certain situations and how I dealt with them at the time.Hope the rain has stopped there. We have been having gale force winds and snow all through the central north island much for spring

  12. Hmmm. So what's the difference between anxious and high-energy? Is there one? It seems like the traits are similar.

    I don't know if Jasper is anxious or high-energy, or both. He has times where he is head and neck bobbing, furiously swishing his tail, and chomping on the bit, yet being quite obedient at the same time. If that makes sense. He was doing some really nice, easy, soft leg yielding while doing the traits listed above. Hmmm. Something to think about.

  13. Funder - thanks for including the link to the article - I should have thought of that!

  14. Good post. I definately agree that horses (as well as all other animals) have distinct personalities and need to be worked with differently.
    I think many more horses experience 'anxiety' than we realize. Because it can be so challenging for many riders/handlers to read their behaviour, 'anxiety' can often be mistaken for misbehaviour, anger, resentment or a host of other emotions - many which horses don't even have.
    And, as many have already mentioned, I also believe that this can be minimized through a deeper understanding of horses in general and the needs of each particular horse.

  15. As always, you've given me something to think about! I've never connected that Mosco is so dominant in the field because of his high anxiety levels. He's so calm out there because he's in charge! He's a high anxiety vigilant horse. The more we're working on groundwork the better his anxiety has gotten. Lately he's started looking to me for direction when things spook him, which makes me feel good! He usually calms down pretty quickly because I'm laughing at the funny expressions he gets when he's spooked!

  16. Very insightful! These types of topics are near and dear to me, I studied neuroscience and behavior in school. The brain is a fascinating organ. Behaviors like fear, aggression and reproduction are highly conserved among species, so research done in humans does apply to other mammals. Humans often forget that we are animals, too. *lol*

    Spider is one of the most anxious horses I've ever worked with, but as you noted, that also makes him one of the easiest horses I've ever worked with. He never hides anything, when he's upset everyone on the property knows about it! Since it's easy to tell when something's bothering him, it's easy to help him get over it.

    However, I have noticed that many anxious horses (Spider included) tend to reflect the rider's state of mind. If a rider gives the cues clearly and confidently, Spider never hesitates. But if the rider is apprehensive or nervous, he has a complete meltdown. The same goes for handling him on the ground. I think you're definitely on the right track with Dawn. You're building up a foundation of trust and clear communication with her that will serve you both well.

  17. I had a very anxious spooky Thoroughbred as a young adult/teenager who was super hyperactive and spooky all the way up until you entered the time box of an event. When he left it to compete he was a completely different horse. Calm, focused, controllable and content. There was not a jump put in front of him he would not jump. I always found that peculiar though I chalked it up to the fact that he always felt so nervous and scared. Jumping was something that made him feel like he was doing something about his stress. On top

  18. I have always thought along the lines of what Golden the Pony Girl said in her post. A lot of really hot, tense, and spooky horses do well in the jumper ring or out on cross country even though they melt down in other situations. I have always felt it was because it gives them a place to channel all of that nervous energy and also because they are on course by themselves and not giving themselves a panic attack trying to keep up with what all of the horses in the schooling/warm-up areas are doing. As GTPG said the running and jumping gives them outlet and lets them feel like they are doing something about their stress. Of course it helps a lot if they enjoy jumping like you mentioned!

    I do think as you do that every horse has a level of anxiety to some degree. As you have pointed out so well spooking and being aware of every little thing in their environment is what kept them alive as prey animals.


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