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Dealing with anxiety

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest digital issue, please click here.

An anxious horse.


Dealing with anxiety

By Dr Kerry Mack

It is a normal emotion – don’t panic, learn to deal with the issues in a calm, confident manner.

Anxiety affects us all, human and horse. We all recognise the feeling. Butterflies take residence in the stomach, you are a bit tremulous, sweaty, maybe short of breath, and palpitations, your heart races. This feeling comes on at times of stress and can be experienced as fear, or anxiety, or even being ‘redhot’ and ready to win. The sports psychologists help athletes find and stay in this zone to prepare their best for competition, and manage nerves and the psychological stress of competition.

Anxiety, when well managed, is the ally of great performance, because all the physical changes of anxiety help us function better at times of stress. Horse and human share the same physiology of stress. The physiological changes are switched on when primitive parts of the brain recognise danger. Deep structures in the rnidbrain, the amygdala, fire off the electrical message to the central hormone control centre, the hypothalamus, and a message goes out to the body – ‘fight or flight’ coming up. The adrenal glands pour out adrenaline, giving the surge we all recognise, and continuing the cascade of hormone (chemical messages) and neural (electrical messages) changes (which are mediated by the autonomic nervous system responsible for taking care of those automatic functions such as breathing, blood pressure, etc). The physiological changes are fine-tuning of these automatic functions so that we (horse and human) can fight or run away more effectively.

The heart pumps faster and each heart beat pumps a larger volume of blood, the breathing is faster and of larger volume so more blood and oxygen is available for fighting or running away (although a horse being a prey animal is more likely to run away than fight). There is change in the distribution of blood so more blood goes to the periphery, i.e. the big muscles you need to run, etc., and so to the skin, resulting in the nervous sweating which is a reliable sign that your horse is stressed. Heart rate is one of the best ways to monitor stress in your horse. It doesn’t take much effort to check his pulse in different circumstances. You can check it behind the left elbow, manually or with a cheap stethoscope, or inside the jaw bone. Get your vet to show you how. Of course, if he is doing strenuous work his pulse will go up too.

Individual factors will vary the sensitivity of the arousal response. This is best documented and researched in humans, but I believe it is appropriate to apply this knowledge to horses. Certainly temperament is important. We all know that the ‘hot’ breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Arabs are more flighty. They respond to stress faster and in a more extreme way than ‘cold’ breeds such as warmbloods and ponies. Previous experience is a big factor. A history of trauma sensitises the stress response both in a general and specific way. Trauma leads to a more acute response to any lower stress stimulus and obviously re-exposure to a previous trauma is more stressful.

For example, a horse that has been harshly handled in a way that he didn’t understand why he was being hit, that punishment seemed random and unpredictable is going to be more touchy and sensitive. A horse that has had a traumatic experience at a show will be more afraid when he goes out again. A horse that has lost his footing in a horse float, driven too fast around a comer, will become afraid when the float turns when driven that way again. This is how the awful habit of scrambling develops.

It is extremely important to understand that once a horse is aroused it will take time for him to relax again. Once the adrenaline is in his bloodstream it takes time for it to go away. Adrenaline is removed from the blood by metabolism, the chemical process of breaking it into little bits, so it can be recycled for next time and excreted, as appropriate.

You must allow for this in how you work with him. Get to the show early enough to allow him to chill out after the excitement of arriving at the show. If you need to discipline him, try to back off for a few moments to allow the adrenaline to circulate and then be metabolised and removed from the bloodstream, so he can think clearly again. The more excited or stressed he is the longer it will take him to calm down again. The more practice (repetitions) he has had at relaxing in any setting, the faster he is likely to relax.

An anxious human can think about what is happening in words, having a little dialogue in their head along the lines of ‘oh that seems scary (anxiety provoking) but I have done something similar before and it was OK, and my coach thinks I can do it, and I respect her judgment, and the worst thing that can happen is I’ll get a bad score, so I’ll just have a go’. So the dialogue in their head helps them to calm down. We call this cognition, thinking. Also humans can recognise anxiety and do something active to regulate the physical arousal. The racing heart and sweatiness starts and a human can deliberately and voluntarily, consciously, slow the breathing down, let go of the tension in the muscles and even with training and practice slow the heart rate.

Horses are quite different. A relaxed grazing horse has his head down, of course, and if you can get a tense horse to put his head down with a long neck and stand still (all four feet), and even get him to eat, he will relax physiologically. His heart will slow down and he will sweat less, etc. And of course you can train him to stand still, and to put his head down, at home where he is relaxed, so the response is automatic. When he is tense at a show put his head down and it will help him to relax. This works in hand and under saddle. Teach him to stretch down into a soft contact and use this when he is tense. A stallion I ride likes to roar and let everyone know he is there and can make himself tense doing this, but if I send his head down into a soft contact, with a long neck he will relax.

If your horse is tense and you respond by grabbing the rein and making the neck short he will get more tense. Ride slower, longer steps to calm him. The opposite of this is true as well. If you allow him to run around, move fast with his head up and his neck short, or allow him to buck, etc. he will be more tense. Allowing him to race around on the lunge ‘running off steam’ is a mistake, in my view. Lunging is best used in a sophisticated way, to develop rhythm and a long low frame to relax him, with lots of transitions to keep his attention on you. Send him to work and give him clear boundaries (rules) and he will relax better than if you just aim to make him tired. If you keep lunging him to tire him out he will just get fitter, so you will have to spend more time lunging him! Train him well and give him good experiences and you will spend less time on this.

Encouraging him to eat will sometimes help calm him down too, if you are not riding him. You can use a soothing tone of voice to help calm him, but remember he doesn’t speak English.

We can use this knowledge in handling and training our horses. If you want your horse to learn, you must keep him as calm as possible. You can ensure that he has good experiences when he goes out, and is calm and confident. Try not to pick a fight with him when he is stressed as he will try a lot harder to run away. He may learn serious evasions such as rearing and bolting as he struggles to run away from the stress you have placed him under. It is best not to put him and you in this situation. Once these vices are learned they can’t easily be unlearned. We try to plan a competition schedule which allows a horse to cope gradually with more stressful situations.

Initially, make a visit to a neighbour. Maybe we will take him to a show and not ride him. We will lead them around the competition arena, allow grazing. A grazing horse is a relaxed horse and we want them to have as many repetitions of being relaxed around the competition arenas as we can. Ensure that your horse is obedient to lead correctly, from the shoulder. He must stop and go easily. Teach him to yield to pressure and put his head down low when asked. If he can be strong you do have be prepared. Use gloves to protect yourself and a whip to indicate to him where you want him, and possibly to get his attention if he gets too distracted. Lead him in a bridle, or use a chain connected to your halter lead.

You must be prepared for some tension and must avoid allowing him to have a bad experience. If he gets a fright and runs away and carries on (because you have allowed it by not gearing up) he will have a bad experience and this will set him back. The first competition or two the main goal is for the young horse to have as nice an experience as possible. If he is tense in the ring we will ask for a lower frame. A horse with its head down is a relaxed horse. So when you ride his head down he will relax. Of course you must teach him this at home first. And you must be prepared for lower marks from the judges. It is definitely worth it in the long run. Keep in mind that the main long-term goal for your horse isn’t the little competition you start him at. It is to develop into a reliable competition horse that can cope with the bigger shows where the pressure is on.

As he becomes more experienced and you develop confidence in each other you can use the excitement and adrenaline to enhance your performance. In dressage, a little adrenaline can be controlled to make the movement more expressive with more cadence and lift. You can both learn to ride the knife edge of adrenaline to make the extensions flasher, the collection more off the ground, but you risk falling off the knife edge and breaking in the extensions or making him so excited that he won’t come back to you at the end of the extension. A jumping horse will be adrenalised when he goes hard against the clock, but progressive training will help him cope with that and not lose it. You will see the well-trained horses go hard and pull up at the end and walk out because they understand the task.

You will see people who indulge their egos through horse riding. Some of these riders (who are not horsemen) like to be seen to be managing highly-strung, stressed horses. However, the true horseman trains his partner to be calm and relaxed while doing his work. How much nicer is life for a horse managed by a horseman (horsewoman).






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