Overcoming fear in a young horse

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There are various approaches and techniques to help and teach a horse to overcome fear. For the purpose of this article I shall focus on one approach. There are other ways to approach it, which are directly opposite to this.

The principle which we apply here is to let the horse turn to you for protection and security. The technique we apply is to turn the horse loose in a round pen about 2 meter (6 feet) high and 50 feet (16 meters) in diameter. Spread 4 or 5 people evenly spaced around the outside of the pen, each with a tin or plastic bottle with a few stones in it, making as much noise as possible, while walking at a normal pace around the ring. These people walk at the same pace, thereby staying the same distance from each other.

Initially the horse will freak out. After 5 to 10 minutes it will be drenched with perspiration. No matter which way it turns, it runs into this awful noise.

In general it takes 15 to 20 minutes for the horse to decide it needs a companion, someone to bond with, who can offer security and protection against this “dangerous threat”. It will first start chewing and playing with its tongue and lips – a sign of willingness to co-operate and negotiate. Then it will select one of the group around the pen, staying close to and following that person. During this period all the people continue walking and shaking the bottles.

Once it becomes obvious that the horse has selected its companion, the selected person enters the pen, still shaking the bottle, but walking in circles towards the horse. At this stage you keep your gaze towards the ground, avoiding eye contact. Eye contact is seen as a sign that you want to chase the horse away from you (aggression). You also turn your shoulder towards the horse as you approach it. Turning your shoulder and lowering your gaze are signs that you are prepared to allow it into your area.

At this stage the horse will normally desire to stay close to you and see you as a form of security and protection against the “danger” on the outside.

You can now walk in circles, serpentines and in all directions, and it should follow you. This is also the time to let the rest of the company enter the pen slowly, moving around inside the pen while they continue to shake the bottles, moving closer all the time.

At this stage you should stand still in the middle of the pen, rubbing the horse all over its body, from the head to the hind quarters, over its back and croup, its ribs and belly, while the others keep on shaking the bottles more softly and walking around the horse. Pay lots of attention to carefully rubbing its most sensitive parts (and its most valuable): the eyes and ears.

You have now bonded. The horse has selected you as leader and as its protection against the things it feared. It has also become accustomed to noise, and realizes

  1. That noise will not hurt it, so it need not fear noise
  2. That it can depend upon you when it feels insecured