Does your horse shut down when he gets stressed?

Nov 15, 2020


Do you have a (young) horse that responds a little slow when you ask something or seems a bit phlegmatic? Perhaps this article can help you understand why your horse reacts that way. 

Horses can deal with situations that are scary for them in 4 different ways: flight, fight, freeze and faint (loss of limb control). 

The flight and fight response are often clearly recognizable, because this reaction often causes the biggest problems for the rider. However, the freeze is often not recognized: “he seems so calm and sweet". This situation can persist for a longer period of time without escalating. But only when you don't increase the pressure any further. 

How can you recognize the freeze?  

* your horse seems very calm 

* He is slow in his movement 

* his eyes blink less and he seems to "stare" a bit 

* slow response to the relief 

How to deal with freeze?  

Realize that all the new things you teach your horse are impressions that your horse has to process. Give him that time! How much? That’s different for every horse. In a calm manner keep working on the same part of the exercise or take a step back in between to an exercise or part of the exercise that your horse feels comfortable in. 

Keep doing the same work until you notice that your horse 'wakes up' again. Only then is your horse ready to (consciously) continue with the next step. Sometimes this is achievable during the same training, other times it can take a few days or even several weeks.  

How can you tell that your horse is awake and has finished processing the previous excersise? There are a number of signs you can keep an eye on:  

* his eyes become more vibrant 

* his mouth becomes more lively and he chews and licks a little 

* he becomes more interested in the environment and the world around him 

* his movements become more active and he seems to walk more "by himself" 

What's not a good thing to do? 

* continuing offering new things and keep increasing the pressure. There is a chance that it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and he will be forced into another reaction from thereon. Like flight or fight. This creates more danger for you as the rider and plummet your horse's confidence. 

* Pushing him over and over again to move forward. With young horses it is important to only ask them forward into walk or trot and then letting them move at their own pace, the speed that is their initiative at that time. Only when they slow down or stop you ask them to move forward again.  

That last part is perhaps the biggest secret to not needing to keep endlessly pushing young horses forward every step. Believe me, as soon as they come out of the freeze they start walking at a normal working pace al on their own. Without having to aid them every step! And the best thing is, later on you don't have to unlearn your horse and yourself any annoying habits (having to aid every step). How good is that!  

Need some extra energy during the training? Open the gate of the arena and go around the yard and back into the riding arena with your horse. This can help you gain some extra energy without having to aid him constantly. It gives you some fun and variation too.