Fear of Horses and Equinophobia

January 13, 2016 by Linda


By Linda Liestman, Jan 2016

There is an old saying that goes: “If you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on.” I used to hear people say, “if you don’t get right back on, you’ll lose your nerve and never get on a horse again.” The “get back on” idea might not always be good advice and might not be possible. If a person is injured from the fall, getting back on is not wise. If the horse truly bucked or is uncontrollable, or not well-trained, it might not be smart to get right back on either, depending upon the circumstances and the capability of the rider. Some horse issues need to be handled by a competent professional.

When I meet new people and what I do for a living comes up, I frequently hear them say that they are afraid of horses. They tell a childhood story of being on a horse that ran off with them and they couldn’t stop it; or that stopped short or turned sharply and they fell off. I also hear people say that horses are “so big and scary.” Most mammals wisely do size and posture comparisons with other animals they meet, so this is understandable. Sadly, though, the horse industry loses out on many potential participants because of one person’s bad childhood experience.

People can have fear of and phobias about almost anything. A healthy fear is important to our survival. But an unhealthy fear or phobia is another matter. I knew a sweet older British lady once who could ride horses, but had a terrific phobia for small birds. She said there was something about their beady eyes and the way they looked at her. A bird in a cage had scared her as a child, she explained. The amazing thing was that when she was outside, little birds would flock around her and land under her chair. Several times I observed her jumping up, letting out a scream, and running off 30 feet to where there were no birds. Did her fear of birds attract them to her? I always wondered about that, because we could be sitting 10 feet apart and birds didn’t surround me and start pecking under my chair. I do know from experience that if one feels fear when near a horse, a horse can sense it and it could change their behavior toward that person. I know too that those afraid of horses will find it easier to avoid horses than birds, dogs, snakes, mice or spiders, all of which are common causes of fear and phobias.

Strong fear of horses is called by two names, Equinophobia or Hippophobia.

Fear is different from phobia. Fear is a distressing emotion aroused by one’s own impending danger, evil, losses, pain, etc., or that of a loved one, whether the threat is real or imagined. Fears do not interfere with a person’s quality of life and ability to function. A phobia is a persistent, intense and irrational fear of a specific object, activity or situation that poses no real threat and leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. The following symptoms can develop rapidly in a phobic person who either thinks about a horse or is physically near one:

Feeling of terror that they will get hurt or die;
Anxiety (even if the horse is calm);
Panic (loss of rational thinking);
Rapid heart & pulse rate / palpitations;
Shortness of breath;
Screaming; and

Equinophobia is often caused by a negative horse experience during childhood that gives rise to a phobia, as with my British friend.

Healthy and Unhealthy Fear

Fear can fall into two categories: Healthy Fear and Unhealthy Fear. A website called Fitness Reloaded explains it this way:

Healthy Fear stems from an actual danger, and vanishes as soon as the danger is gone. For example, you may be afraid that a fast-approaching car will hit you while you cross the street, but you stop being afraid as soon as you reach the sidewalk. Healthy Fear requires you to take action, such as walking to the sidewalk faster. Healthy Fear does not make you feel ashamed of your fearful behavior. Healthy Fear has clear motives, such as you want to avoid the car so you don’t get hit.

Unhealthy Fear stems from an exaggerated danger and can go on forever. Unhealthy Fear tends to paralyze you. Unhealthy Fear makes you feel shameful or less of yourself. You may understand that always being fearful is “part of who you are” and “you cannot change”. You may think this is something you should hide from others, or contrary, that you should tell them to show what an unworthy miserable person you are. Unhealthy Fear has vague motives, as in being paralyzed because you want to avoid dealing with a hard situation.

When emotions rise in healthy fear, our brains have the ability to think through the danger level and take action or “dial” our emotions back down as our viewpoint about the danger subsides. With unhealthy fear, the brain seems to be stuck on the object or situation of fear and can’t think about it rationally.

Those who make a career of working with horses may provide riding services, lessons, and equine related therapy to students and other participants. All should consider the various levels of fear a participant might have during each session. As experienced horse persons, we often forget about the possibility for the dynamic of fear in those we serve. People often don’t like to admit fear, and it can bubble up sometimes and cause quite a problem. The participant may not even realize they are afraid till they put their foot in the stirrup or the horse starts moving. A fear of heights and motion sickness might even come into play when one sits on top of a horse. A person in this emotional state can cause some real problems for themselves, and the people and horses around them if they suddenly panic, scream, cry and mentally check out on the instructions they were given to control and direct the horse.

From 37 years of seeing insurance claims and incidents, we know the first reaction is often to scream, followed by either pulling back too hard on the reins or just dropping them.  People will often say the horse they were riding bucked when it simply moved sideways or started trotting. Many who lose their balance and fall off or jump off will say the horse bucked them off, the latter of which rarely happens with school, rental or therapy horses.

There is another side to this discussion about fear of horses. Many people today do not have enough Healthy Fear or Healthy Respect for what could happen when around horses. Since moving away from a rural farming economy, most people have spent little or no time observing or being around horses or other large livestock. Further, we live in an era when people think everything has been made safe for them.  So many think a horse is like a big puppy; slow-moving, slow-thinking, harmless, and doesn’t have teeth. Some people have automatic respect for any animal bigger than they are; but today I see many who do not. Those of us who have been around horses and cattle have seen things and we know better. The challenge is to help people become respectful without unhealthy fear.

The Wide River of Understanding

There is a “wide river” of understanding about horses by the general public, new horse owners, trainers and equine services providers. Some understanding is shallow, some deep, with quite a range in between. Some think a horse learns and functions best by keeping it fearful. On the other side are those who see the horse almost as a spiritual unicorn-like creature that is tamed and becomes useful to man through pure reverence. The truth generally lies in between.

Horses are very observant animals; that is how they’ve survived as a species. But it is also one of the characteristics that makes them trainable. They are most trainable when you have their attention; when they are alert that something is about to happen and appear to wonder what will happen next. That alertness involves a level of stress or tension. It is hard not to stress a horse a bit to teach it something new. But the big question is how far and how long does a horse handler or trainer go in the stimulation of stress in the horse during training. Herein lays the question on horse training and handling for the ages.

With plenty of rough stock and range horses about in the 1800’s up to about 1950, the “busters,” and “scientific horse tamers,” made their living by pushing horses to the edge of stress.  Horses died, were severely injured, some made meaner and some lost their spirit. I’d like to say this doesn’t happen anymore, but these days one can watch all sorts of videos on how horses are handled and “broke” from around the world, and clearly many people needlessly still go way too far…up to 98% further than I would go or see as necessary.

In relation to this, I am now going to spew out a series of quotes I think are important to keep in mind. Some I made up myself over the years, and some come from wise horsemen I’ve met along the way:

• Theories abound! They always have since man decided to tame and use the horse some 5,000 years ago. Some people see it as an art; some as a science to be proven; some as a utilitarian means to get work done; some as a sport by which to gain awards, money and prestige; some as a rare and special gift they alone have been granted; some as a spiritual endeavor; and some just want to have a calm, rewarding and humane relationship with horses.
• While the science is better, it is still light when it comes to our understanding of the horse and how he learns.
• Many concepts work with some horses, but not all.
• There is more than one way to have success in a horse – human relationship.
• Practical application of any theory or proposed scientific concept can turn out quite different from what is expected.
• Horses are the same and yet each horse is different.
• The only thing for certain with horses is that nothing is for certain.
• There is no shortcut to good horsemanship.
• Some people do have a natural gift of horse savvy and horse sense; others do not. Even when someone has a gift or talent with horses, education must be combined with lots of different successful experiences training and working with many different horses to make a good trainer. I hate to say this, but the unsuccessful experiences often teach as much as the other, but lots of horses have to suffer in this learning. A broad, open, curious and inquiring mind is essential.
• It is important to read books and articles, and to watch videos about riding, training and theory, yet there is great potential for misinterpretation from what the author intended or tried to explain.  Many excellent horsemen and women have a difficult time explaining their theories and ideas to people living in their own era.
• Any time a “horse person” thinks he or she knows enough or knows it all, they are really, really kidding themselves.
• Some amazing people in surprising places can be a wealth of knowledge about horses and horsemanship. The best experts don’t always have to come from afar.
• As with cooking and baking, when starting out with horses it is good to follow the “recipe” of an expert whose ideas ring true for you. But you don’t have to buy it all, and you should be open to considering new ideas. Little ideas can make a difference with specific horses, and there are times when one must make a major shift in an approach with a horse.
• The best riding instructors are also good horse trainers.
• The best trainers can and will teach owners how to ride horses they train.
• And for fun, I’ll say this: “There are two words you should never use; they are: Always and Never, because there are always exceptions to a rule.”

The Year of the Bucking Horses

One doesn’t have to be a beginner to have a strong fear of horses. A highly experienced horse person can develop excessive fear at any time after experiencing or even watching a bad horse accident. I am an example, and it is my personal experience which got me thinking about writing an article on this topic. I had never felt a true repulsion at getting on a horse in my entire life. Yet, three years ago an incident occurred which caused a surprise reaction in me. I bought a 7-year old horse that had been started and schooled over the previous seven month period. He was a smaller horse, and I planned on using him for youth riding and lessons. I had observed him being worked at the trainer’s and rode him before deciding to purchase him. The little horse and his training were impressive. He had been ridden during training by at least two people, and not just by one. The incident occurred on our fourth ride after he’d been delivered to my stable and it seemed to perplex and distress everyone involved.

Keep in mind that he had lived his entire life at the trainer’s place, being born and bred there. I used to think horses adjusted within a couple of weeks when they are placed in a new environment, but I’ve changed my mind on that in recent years. While some may, I think it can take more like three to six months. This little horse had a very tough time adjusting to life at my place. He was happy outside with his two mates, it seemed. He wasn’t used to being in a stall, and when stabled at night he would run in circles most of the time. If he heard a new or loud noise, he would climb the walls. He was wary of the people who fed him and let him out. Even with daily grooming and care, it took longer than usual for him to figure out that I was “his human.”

Looking back, there were only two odd things about the horse’s behavior I could pinpoint. He had been trained to yield sideways to pressure, but wobbled walking a straight line; something I began asking him to do on the first ride to try him out. I didn’t see this as a problem. The second thing I noticed took place after riding him each of first three times. On dismount he would step sideways a few steps when I dropped my stirrup and slowly slid off his body to the ground on the near side. The first time it was only two steps, but with each dismount the movement away was a few additional rapid steps till it was more like ten steps. Each time he would look back at me as if to say, ‘”Hey, what did ya do that for?” I thought this was something he was not used to and needed to work on, and that he may be moving sideways several feet and stopping to get a better look at me. I learned later the horse was not trained to a number of the things I was doing, such as sliding off instead of stepping down, and he must have thought I was weird! Some horses would not be so sensitive to such differences, but this horse was.

On that fourth ride, after sitting down gently in the saddle, I collected the reins and we stood still for a minute or so just for the discipline and to settle. There was no indication the horse would do what it did next. I asked him to turn in a 10 meter arc that would take us along the rail of the arena at a walk. When I applied rein pressure and a squeeze of my leg, he became unglued like he was leaping sideways out of a bucking chute. He bucked so violently and it happened so quickly, that I went off on the third lunge.

I would probably have been OK, had I not landed on a tall plastic marker cone which slid along my hip, up my rib cage, and into my arm pit. I could not breathe! The pain was so excruciating there was no way I could get back on. I crawled to the fence, sat up, and waited a long time to get some breath and assess my injuries. Meanwhile, the little horse came over to nuzzle me as if to say, “Well, what happened to you and why are you down there?” It was a Friday night and after 45 minutes I was able put up the horse, and drive myself two miles to ER. I was worried about a collapsed lung or that a rib might be poking into my lung. The first thing the doc asked me was, “Were you wearing a helmet.” He smiled when I said, “Yup, I always wear a helmet.” I told him it was not my head that was the problem; but that I could hardly take in a shallow breath and felt like I needed more oxygen than I was getting.

Two hours later the prognosis was four tiny fractures of my ribs on the left side. The rib cage is so pliable, I was told, that it had flattened with impact of blunt force trauma and was basically “sprained.” The connective tissue and muscles between the ribs had torn and stretched. After one week of absolute misery and another five weeks of physical recovery, I was able to resume normal activities and ride horses again. But the mental healing took longer.

I do not care for riding horses that buck. In fact, I do not start them in that way, and have sent confirmed buckers back where they came from after I figured out the hard way that they would buck crazily right out of the blue. (It is amazing what facts horse owners will hold back from a trainer about the habits of a horse.) I never got back on my horse again. I gave him back to the previous owner as I felt this would be his best hope for a future. A horse that occasionally crow-hops when fresh is one thing, but I couldn’t keep a horse around for youth that had a propensity to buck.

I didn’t blame the horse or the people who spent many months on his training. I always think when something goes wrong with a horse I am working, that I need to look at myself first….what did I do to contribute to the problem; what did I not ask about the horse; and what can be learned from this. When a student has a bad experience with a horse, I ask, “What did you learn from this?” So it was a question I asked myself with this horse. I had certainly misjudged him, which didn’t often happen to me.

I kept him for several months, however, as I hoped I could still use him. I did a lot of ground work with him. In trying to figure out what triggered his bucking, I urged him into it twice so I could see how he did it. There were simply moments when something above and behind his head, or a moment of discomfort would freak him out. Most horses buck with their heads down almost to the ground. This horse had the most amazing ability to buck for long periods with his neck raised high and stiff. He would leap in that position, twist and kick out behind with both barrels with one canter stride in between each buck. He was unique and a horse to study.

I had a veterinarian-chiropractor examine him. She pointed out that he was short and stiff in the back, which might cut down on his flexibility and cause him discomfort. The chiropractor confirmed my suspicion that his tail bone and tail head were sore, for unknown reason. This was improved by gently stretching the tail in all directions. The vet also thought he was a bit OCD for a horse, in that he was OK when he knew what to expect, but new ways of doing things scared him. We noticed that when worried, he would suck in a big gulp of air and hold his breath. What followed could be a strong reaction of running off or preparing to buck. I never saw him simply kick, bite, rear or strike.

The little “bucking horse” was different in how he learned. He had not been trained in vocal commands, so I started him on those at age 7. Most horses will respond to and learn word commands “walk” and “whoa” within three 20 minute sessions on the lunge line or lead, involving the issuance of the word commands ten times in each session. Many horses learn it in one session and only need to perfect it in the next two lessons. This little horse didn’t respond at all until the 10th session and until the word commands were given almost 100 times. He didn’t seem to have a hearing problem. So he either had a different learning style or word commands were so foreign to him that neural paths had not been built in his brain to respond to them, as in “Oh, are you talking to me?” Once finally established, he responded immediately and consistently to word commands. [I know there is some controversy now about talking to horses, and I will address this in another article.] 

I once heard that horses have two learning styles and they fall into either of these categories: “Reasoners” and “Memorizers.” I think about this idea with every horse I train and believe there is some truth in it. I find that Reasoners will pick up on and learn something quite fast, but they are thinkers and so sometimes untrain themselves too. Arabians are often Reasoners. Memorizers pick up on things slowly and need more repetition of a lesson than Reasoners; but once established you can depend on the response being there and quite permanent. Old style Quarter Horses are often Memorizers.

My horse showed more tendencies as a memorizer. I had been so confident in the horse and his training that I failed to ask an important question about how he was started; that is if he was encouraged to or allowed to buck when saddled the first time. I was told he had done an impressive job of bucking at first saddling, when I asked about it later. I am not saying at all that this was a normal routine at this stable, but it apparently happened with this horse. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but I believe it should not be a common practice to “break” or start a horse by this “old standard” American method.

The concept of “bucking-a-horse-out” is still alive and well, I am sad to say. There are those who will say, “Well horses buck….that is what they do…..so you have to deal with it.” To that I say, “Not so fast! People can become seriously injured and permanently maimed when bucked from a horse, and they can die ‘with it’ or have a permanent brain injury. The arthritis that develops later in life from being busted up can shorten a career and end the joy of living much earlier than necessary too. There is a better way to start most horses so that the propensity to buck with a saddle and rider is not developed and confirmed, but it might take three or four weeks instead of 30 minutes to three days to start and back (get on) a horse.

I say “most horses” because I know there is the rare horse or bloodline with rank characteristics, and once in a while there should be a question as to whether a specific horse is too intractable or dangerous to use. If so, they should also be considered too dangerous to breed and pass on their temperaments and propensities. “Pretty is as Pretty Does;” good behavior and a good mind are as important as physical beauty.

On the other side of this is the fact that a narrow percentage of horses will not buck at all at first saddling even when pushed to do it.

My Period of Repulsion Toward Riding

I am usually pretty gutsy and courageous around horses, and in the rest of my life. Yet, in the year that followed, I had a strong repulsion at the thought of getting on a horse….any horse.…even the calmest and oldest ones. Every time I got on and sat softly down in the saddle, there was that two minute window of fear. I would hold my breath and have a sharp, hyper-keen awareness and anticipation that the horse might just buck as we settled and I asked it to move off. Once the horse moved off without episode, all was fine. I could breath normally, relax and go right to work. Nothing bad ever happened, but I feared the horse would “know” and might react to my fear and stiffness. The following spring after seven months of not riding (due to a second accident), I walked out to the stable on that first perfect riding day of spring and realized I had no more fear of getting on a horse. I even started a couple horses that spring, and felt complete confidence. But it took nearly a year to get there.

A Bit About My Experience and Training

I should explain before going on that with my duties at Ark International Group, I “dabble” in the front lines of the horse business these days. I feel that to do a good job at Ark, it is important to run a small stable, teach some lessons and train a few horses in addition to riding my own pleasure horses. As insurance underwriters we have to pass judgments on horses and horse operations every day, so continued practical experience is most helpful. But, I also just love schooling horses and teaching them more. Studying each horse, its talents, and how it learns is endlessly fascinating and a great source of pure joy to me.  My horses would tell you if they could talk that “she is never done training us.”

I started riding at age 8. I began buying horses and training them in my teens.  I “cut my teeth” on John Richard Young’s books, Schooling of the Western Horse and Schooling of the Young Rider, which formed my early training and riding theories. I attended seminars, studied magazines, books and everything I could get my hands on about training horses. I took every opportunity to ride different horses, to watch high caliber riders work high caliber horses, and I had several wonderful teachers and coaches along the way.  I estimate that I’ve started over 150 horses (my favorite thing to do) and ridden and / or trained over 500 that were started and trained to some degree. I wrote and had magazine articles published; I developed riding and training programs for and taught in a college light horse management program.

My career and experiences took many varied and interesting turns till in my late 20’s I studied dressage and jumping in Europe for nearly six months.  I was privileged to get most of the dressage schooling on high level Lippizanners trained at the Spanish Riding School.

I count it a “golden experience” that I got this training prior to the 1990’s.  The reason being that much changed in the world of horses and training that in my opinion “dumbed-it-down.”  I will acknowledge that in one respect, things have improved.  Today because of people like Linda Tellington Jones, and also theories of natural horsemanship concepts promoted by others, more people take a benevolent  and mentally kind approach with horses, which I appreciate.

But, there is a serious lack of understanding about: 1) How to train and work a horse in a snaffle bit and how to develop sensitive, educated hands and apply critically important rein effects; 2) The purity of movement in the gaits of horses, which is the basis of all work with horses whatever they are being trained in and used for.  3) How to methodically school a horse so one exercise or series of exercises prepares it mentally and gymnastically to graduate to the next more difficult ones; the result of which should make it possible for a horse to be a willing partner, keep the horse sound, and the best it can be in whatever type of performance it is talented for; 4) The mistaken and mislead promotion of unnatural forced positions of horse’s bodies and ways-of-going. Some of this involves the mistaken idea that the horse’s head and neck are supposed to stay in one contracted “frame” or position, no matter what the horse is doing;  5) How to “chunk down” a lesson into “smaller-bit” lessons which can lead a horse more easily to a sense of understanding without excessive stress.

Sadly, these trends in lack of understanding seem to be running through most breeds and disciplines today.  Both horses and people are suffering more than they should because of these trends.

Synchronicity of Events – Another Horse Starts Bucking

That year of the “bucking horse” was a crazy year. I have up to five boarders at my eight-horse stable and even with that small number, interesting things happen every week and it seems like a problem horse comes my way every year. Coincidentally, a few weeks before I was bucked off, one of my boarders got her new horse home from 60 days at the trainer’s and began preparing him for the show season. The pretty chestnut gelding violently bucked her off twice. She was in pain and had some doctor visits, but didn’t get seriously hurt. This horse was bucking for a different reason than my “little bucker.” The effect was the same, as we both developed an intimidating fear of mounting up again at the same time. We confided a lot about our fears to each other over that summer, and about our responsibilities to the horses.

The owner, and perhaps the previous trainer too, had been following a practice I abhor and see no need for in the schooling of horses. They would tie the horse’s head down so his nose was knee level and trot him full out on the lunge line to wear him down and confirm a “head-set”. Then draw reins or low set running martingale were applied by the rider, when in the saddle, to pull the horse’s neck and head low into a forced low-set swan-like position. This horse had such a “rubber neck” that one could pull his nose all the way back to his chest and he could keep moving forward. He didn’t know how to reach for the bit and was not allowed to stretch his neck to accommodate the range of his paces and gaits as nature intended. This caused a disconnect between front-end and back-end, and it was damaging this unfortunate horse’s mind and body.

The owner and trainer wondered why the gelding would not extend and lengthen his trot stride. I knew he had his reasons. I tried to talk the owner out of doing this as the practice is abusive in my opinion and doesn’t achieve anything close to true collection and extension…..or anything truly good. This horse had a naturally rounded top line from poll to croup, so he didn’t even need such a contraption anyway, if any horse ever needs such a thing. This is a fairly common concept and practice, so I don’t blame the owner – she just didn’t know.

Upon examination after the bucking episodes, the horse’s back was so sore from this torture that when I ran my hand slowly down the length of his back with a feather-light touch, he would drop his back instantly. He was just miserable, and showed it by head and neck bobbing, grinding his teeth, wringing his tail, and by weaving and dancing nervously when in his stall. Yet, there was a sweetness about him and a strong desire to please, even though he was so scared most of the time he couldn’t concentrate on working according to his handler’s pleasure. My heart went out to him. As I worked with him that summer, there were times when it brought tears to see how hard he tried to please. Made me think of the quote by Captain Vladimir S Littauer:  “A perfect book on riding could be written only by a horse.”

I give the owner tremendous credit because she felt a strong responsibility to the horse even though her summer show plans were shattered. After being bucked off, the owner thought seriously about having the horse put down because she didn’t want anyone to get hurt with him, and she couldn’t sell him the way he was. She also didn’t want the horse to be abused in the future. I told her that he was too good a horse for that, and if she would help me some, we could in a reasonable time-frame give him a chance to become a useful horse. I even offered that if things didn’t work out, he could live at my farm rent free for the rest of his life.

Committed to getting him better, the owner spared no expense. A dentist found painful ulcers in his mouth caused by a messed up bite and sharp teeth caused by the nervous tooth grinding. He was put on expensive stomach ulcer treatment. She bought expensive feed for him to increase his weight. A veterinarian-chiropractor was hired to examine him and the prognosis confirmed what I suspected. The chiropractor said he had problems in various parts of his spine, including the neck vertebrae affected by the forced over-flexed position. She also said he had unusually poor development and muscling over the back and hind quarters. This was not a surprise considering how he had been worked, but it was good to have this validated by a vet. This put an end to the tying-down and draw-rein madness for this horse.

The horse had another problem too. He had what I would classify at a Level 10 Nervous System. He had the hottest nervous system I’d seen in a horse in many years. I pointed out to the owner that the hot nervous system was going to make schooling this horse much longer and harder, and increase his chances of hurting himself. At first she commented that he was just a high energy horse, but eventually she understood what I was getting at. He had little respect for his body and rammed into pipe rail fences as he ran the fence line at a continual gallop or side-angled trot when outside. We determined that the horse had likely been whip-trained when shown in halter as a young horse a couple years earlier, and this did not help the frenzied state of his established neural paths. When he saw a human, his biggest question was, “What will they do to me now that will hurt me?” He was not enjoying his life as a horse and we needed to change this for him if he was to have a future.

I have an incredible amount of curiosity about almost everything. Over the previous five years, I had done a layman’s study of the human brain, neuroscience and neuroplasty. This horse was my inspiration to see what science had come up with recently about the brain of the horse. There was some new information, some helpful and some theories that didn’t ring true. I began to wonder if sensory work and a different training method could over time drop the function of the gelding’s hot nervous system from a level 10 down to a 5 or 6. I’ve always known that horses are far smarter than most people give them credit for. But I learned from my studies that, as in humans, the more positive things a horse learns and is trained to, the more he can learn. In theory, the more positive things the horse learns from and with people, the greater potential is created for him to be habituated away from negative learned behaviors. It is through this process that the brain can be changed for the better.

A plan was formed and set in motion. Most sessions lasted less than an hour, although I did two flooding sessions that lasted four hours with breaks every hour for relaxation, food and water. Sometimes the work was dangerous, but progress was being made. Over four months, I and the owner devoted 100 hours to sensory work along with a Classical Dressage approach to building the horse’s mind and body in a new and improved direction. In the end, the horse’s nervous system had eased down to a “Heat” Level 6.


Side-bar, I believe most messed up horses can be re-mediated, but it can take concentrated planning and effort involving 100 to 200 hours of work to make them trustworthy and useful. Once it is believed the horse is over its bad habits, there is a long period of testing to be sure it is true. It could take a year of work, and few people have the patience, time or resources for it. Many people will “dump” the horse and move on to possibly ruining another one. Some remedies are not kind, especially for a confirmed runaway, bucker or rearer that flips over backward. It is much easier and better for everyone if training mistakes are not made in the first place. The first 90 to 120 days of a horse’s foundation schooling are so important, as those lessons will be the most vividly remembered and recalled.  Extra time, patience, and consistency in the beginning is so important to developing a happy and dependable horse. Mistakes made in this phase can cause a lot of problems for a horse for its entire lifetime.


It helped that this horse loved to trot, the best gait in which to gymnastically train a horse. He enjoyed having control and freedom of his head, neck and back again, and began reaching for the bit in his stretches, extensions and accelerations as we transitioned him up and down “the scale.” It can be very difficult to train a “behind-the-bit” horse to reach for the bit as reins and bit pressures are modified, but he was doing it. He was becoming happy and highly proficient at his lessons. The veterinarian–chiropractor came after twelve weeks of work to see him again, and she complimented us on how beautifully his back and hind quarters had built. It was obvious just to look at him, but nice to know the plan had worked. By then, this beautiful horse had stopped running the fences, bobbing his head, stopped weaving, and the teeth grinding was a very rare occurrence. He worried 80% less about the bit in his mouth, and responded to each gentle tug.

I had gotten on this horse a few times after his back healed  and before my accident. He was very nervous about it and the owner was afraid she would not be able to hold him while I was on his back. All things considered, we agreed someone else should start riding him when the time came.  This time he was contracted with a trainer who understood his special needs. I felt euphoric when the trainer told me he was rideable once more. The owner was able to safely ride him again and it must have been a big and important moment for her. She felt she needed a more seasoned show horse, so he was sold to people who do lots of things with him, including trail riding, a bit of showing under saddle, and working cattle. It was a huge combined effort to get this horse to a functional and happy place. The trainer told me she felt our boy was finally happy. A lot was learned and this horse was one of my greatest equine teachers.

Another Bad Horse Accident in the Same Year

I’ve had a lifetime without any serious horse accidents happening to me up until that peculiarly bad year. Five months after recovery from the bucking incident, I had another serious accident that caused me to burn up the rest of my big health insurance deductible. While holding a newly purchased, large, older quarter horse gelding for the farrier, the horse panicked due to a painful shoulder when his leg was lifted. He started rapidly throwing his knee upward and dragged me, his handler, down the aisle. It all happened in a flash. I was just about to say, “We need to stop because someone is going to get hurt and I am afraid it will be me.” I was two seconds too late. The big guy brought his knee up and smashed my dominant hand (my thumb and middle finger) against a wrought iron blanket rack screwed to a stall door. The impact sprung the heavy gauge steel frame on the stall door one inch. My thumb exploded! The farrier rushed me to ER. I was back in ER for the second time in six months. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me…. again! My thumb pad took almost 40 stitches and my middle finger 12. It took five months to heal this time. That put an end to my riding and horse handling for awhile because the doc was concerned about infection and saving my thumb.

I was astonished when a week later I started having PTSD flash-thoughts every five minutes or so. I would have the sudden and violent impression that I was being kicked in the head by a horse over and over again. It even hurt and it felt like lights exploded in my head. I wondered how that could be as it was not my head that had been whacked. Then I realized that the traumatic attack to my hand also happened in my brain. As luck would have it, the previous year I had been invited to attend a VA seminar on methods used to help soldiers with PTSD and anxiety disorders. I didn’t seek treatment for it, but started doing my own cognitive therapy that involved thought-modification, EFT, and meditation once per day. Over the next six months, the impressions came further and further apart until they no longer assaulted me anymore. By the following spring I was just fine with no unhealthy fear remaining or phobia having developed. I had learned, though, about another aspect of fear. And I got a minor glimpse of what PTSD might be like for our returning soldiers.

I have talked to other seasoned horse people who experienced horse accidents in their lives that began the need for mental and physical healing. Even though we are tough, courageous and gutsy, an abnormal period of fear and even a phobia can happen to us too.

I’ve never been asked to help someone in their struggle with fear of horses. Yet, I sometimes see people at the stable who avoid their horses for a while after a negative experience. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Often, they just don’t know what to do. When I observe this, I try to assist in a respectful way. A horse owner doesn’t like to admit he or she is afraid of their horse.

On occasion, I would guess that a riding instructor, equine therapy or equine services provider could be asked to help a person who wants to overcome an unhealthy fear. If it were a phobia, and not just a mild fear, I would recommend professional counseling to start. A therapist would likely try to determine the initial cause behind the fear, and try to modify the thought processes. Eventually though treatment would likely lead to encounters with a real horse, pony, or mini, and that is where our services could come into play.


The next two articles planned will be:

“To Buck-Out or not to Buck-Out, That is the Question” This article will delve into the history of bucking-out, its current applications, and why and how it causes so many serious problems for so many horses. “Building the Bridge” will expand on
how a horse learns, why it is so important to first develop a language between horse and handler, and how to do that. This article will be based upon a favorite quote: “A horse will cross any bridge you ask as long as the first bridge is from you to him.”


When researching this article, I came across a website with a lot of helpful material and links to several studies on this topic presented by Rick Gore Horsemanship. The author approaches this topic from a different angle, writing insightfully about fear in both horse and human. Mr. Gore brings unique perspective to this topic because of his military and police training. I refer readers of this blog to Mr Gore’s site and the page entitled: Discussing Horse and Rider Fear – Think Like a Horse The link to this page is: http://www.thinklikeahorse.org/horse_fear.html

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