Recently I have been working with a fellow boarder’s horse since she is limited on time. The horse, D, spent some time alone before moving to this barn and at some point, in his past, a pasture mate passed away as well, a recent story of a mother orca carrying her dead infant has been cited as evidence that animals may grieve. Since he is new to the barn and there is construction happening near one of the pastures he has also been moved around a bit in his first few months on the farm. His separation anxiety from his current herd mates can be fairly severe, if one of the other horses are moved to another field he becomes visibly distressed as seen by him pacing, calling, cribbing, and not eating the majority of the time they are gone. All of this past baggage and the current state of uncertainty have compounded into a horse that does not seem to have much confidence right now. I realized when working with him that I had a choice. I could make plans that would satisfy what I wanted and what I felt like his owner wanted out of a ‘training’ session or I could pause, listen, and meet him where he was by creating a plan that allowed him to succeed. I am relieved to say that D’s owner and I are on the same page and taking his reintroduction to work and play slowly since he is already a bit ‘stressed out.’
Stress or Fear Thresholds and Flooding
Stress or fear is not inherently bad, small amounts of incremental stress at a reasonable level allow us to stretch ourselves past what we perceive we can do this is, also known as eustress. However, there is a threshold of how much stress an individual, horse or human, can withstand in a certain situation. Stress and responding to it is an evolutionary response of all living beings. A heightened level of stress produces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in the body. When stress becomes overwhelming the horse’s sympathetic nervous system activates and they can move into what is known as the Flight or Fight response, first coined by M.D. Walter B. Cannon. In this state, the horse is not reasoning because that part of their brain has been dialed back while the immediate threat and the response to it take center stage.
Going over this stress or fear threshold is also known as flooding and Adele Shaw of The Willing Equine does a wonderful job of explaining this concept in depth on her blog, there is also a video to go along with it. Working with this horse when he was already in a highly aroused state due to separation anxiety needed to be approached with caution to keep from flooding his system and creating a situation that would damage our very new and fragile relationship.
Starting in the Field
Knowing that leaving the field was likely to increase his stress level higher than I wanted to, I decided that my first ask of him would be to ask for engagement in the field where I knew he felt safe with his friends. Using positive reinforcement he was able to engage at liberty as a willing participant and caught on to what I was asking over our first few sessions in the field.
Whenever a herd member was taken by their owner while I was out with him, it became an opportunity to help him understand that he could learn to cope without his friend. During these times I practiced just being, breathing and making myself calm and inviting. Anytime he chose to engage he was rewarded with a low-value treat or scratches. If he was able to focus on me without looking back to where his herd mate had gone I asked if he could walk with me, sometimes he could and sometimes the stress maintained his attention. When the stress became too much and he couldn’t focus on my request I backed off and gave him some time and asked again.
Our most recent session on Friday made all of this going slow feel so worth it. When I went out to the pasture he greeted me at the fence, we walked and trotted at liberty in his pasture together, he made beautiful halts when asked, we practiced backing up on a voice cue, picking up feet on a voice cue and different stretches.
Moving Forward in Small Increments
Working with D reminds me of when Bucket moved to Raleigh. Prior to the move, I had not spent much time with him for the past 4 years while I was in college two and a half hours away. It felt like our relationship was completely starting over. There were times when I would ask him something that in the past was a normal part of our relationship but without a recent history of positive interactions, he wasn’t willing to cooperate. I spent a lot of time in that first year we were back together frustrated. Looking back on it I realize that I was comparing our relationship to where we had been before and not seeing it for what it was now. What I failed to remember in that first year was that back before I went to school we spent every day together learning and growing one step at a time. I was trying to pick up where we left off when I needed to meet us where we both were. It wasn’t only Bucket who wasn’t where I expected him to be, during that time I didn’t realize how rusty my own understanding and ability to communicate with horses had gotten. It would have been wise to reach out for help at that time but going through this process has helped me to understand that every relationship has a different starting point and I have learned so much in the process.
With D, I am taking my time and trying to see our time together through his eyes. When the time comes to take him out of the field I will bring a buddy or find another way to make it less stressful for him, once he gains confidence there we can move on to more separation but I don’t see a need to rush. Creating a strong foundation is the most important thing I can do for our relationship. I look forward to giving you all more updates on our progress together.