Flight or Fight

Glenn Stewart Natural Horsemanship


Are we strengthening or weakening the natural impulse of our horses?  Horses prefer to take flight when anxious, worried, bothered, and/or confused. If they can’t take flight they will fight.  A horse only has one brain.  We all realize this, but what does that really mean?  Many people feel that if a horse has a problem area, they can just step around it, leave it, or avoid it and it won’t be a problem. Whatever we teach that brain is something the horse will use as a go to reaction whenever needed.  

If we teach a horse to think in all situations, that’s what they will do. If we leave them reacting to a certain situation or situations and then avoid those situations because of the way the horse reacted; then reacting instead of thinking will be or can become the horse’s go to behavior.  This reacting can show up when something new comes along as well as whatever they were reacting to earlier. This will not serve them or us well.

I describe a thinking horse as one that is calm and thinks. For example, the horse steps slowly out of the trailer rather than rushing out backwards or calmly accepts a back cinch rather than bucks at the feel of one. They calmly think their way through things rather than panicking, bolting, pulling back, spooking and so on.

All too often trainers or owners don’t know how to fix a problem. Even if it’s one they have created. Then often the plan they come up with is, he doesn’t like this or that so I just won’t do it. The only way they know there is a problem is because they have seen it happen.  So they avoid the problem.  Let me try to give an example. “Let’s say a horse bucks if they use a back cinch” or “their horse will get upset if they ask it to canter.” So, hopefully the trainer or owner won’t, but often says; “let’s just not use a back cinch anymore or ask them to canter anymore.”  The horse has learned to react in a situation and now everyone is avoiding that situation. So the horse has learned or has been taught (whatever you want to call it) that reacting is an option if they feel the need.

As I mentioned earlier, the owner or trainer wouldn’t know there was a problem unless they had tried something a time or two or many, then given up because the reaction was getting worse. If this happens, then the horse has learned/been taught that the bad behavior can be used at a later date for any type of situation because it works. Examples could be bucking, bolting or kicking. The horse’s natural instinct to flight or fight has been strengthened instead of weakened.

The opposite would happen if the cowboy/cowgirl is handy enough, reads the horse and uses the right feel and timing for the problem they are having. The issue would become less and in this scenario the horse gets taught to use the one brain it has to think.

Let’s say the horse is relatively good with things, but you “can’t” use a back cinch because the time/times you tried in the past, the horse ran off or bucked out of the pressure or feel of the back cinch. If left that way the horse knows there is always the option of acting out if something they don’t like or understand happens in the future. This behavior is not just limited to the back cinch.

As a trainer and teacher, I really don’t give myself the luxury of saying this horse doesn’t like this or that. For me, it is just another way of blaming the horse and giving myself an excuse for not having the skill, ability or understanding to get the job done. If I don’t give myself that option, then I have to figure it out, improve, and learn so I can get it done. I’ve dealt with plenty of horses over the years that I didn’t think I was going to be able to make a change in. But because I didn’t give myself the option, I had to think harder, stay with it longer, ask myself more questions and question every move I made until I could make the change(s) I wanted.

Be wary of allowing yourself and others to avoid, make excuses and teach horses to react and strengthen their natural instincts. I believe it is my responsibility as a horse owner to give them all that they deserve and more. In the end I’m the one that benefits the most for learning what I need to do to be able to help the horse become more with my help, rather than less, because of me. 

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