Dealing with Fear...Horse & Human

Part 1: Horse Fear

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A leading North American sports psychologist recently called to tell me something he thought I would enjoy. He said in studying the importance of psychology in the performance of the human athlete for the past thirty years, he had discovered something totally unique in the sport of horseback riding. In over twenty-five different sports from football to hockey, horseback riding was the only sport where the athlete’s “equipment” could become nervous and therefore affect the athlete’s performance. Clever, yes. True, painfully.

In being humorous my psychologist friend nevertheless brought up a reality that is experienced by all of us who interact with horses. It is a subject the knowledge of which (or lack of) can mean the difference between life and death for both human and horse. This subject is FEAR.

Fear is one of the most common factors when humans and horses get together and the most dangerously misunderstood for the following reason - what frightens horses does not frighten humans and what frightens humans does not frighten horses. Unfortunately neither species knows this and cannot understand why the other is so afraid of such “harmless” objects or behaviors.

As a prey animal (food for predators) horses live their entire lives on alert. They must be ready to flee predators, or any sign that might indicate the presence of a predator, at any second in order to survive. However if they ran away every time they sensed something that might be a predator, something they’d never seen before (i.e. a dumpster), they would exhaust themselves, waste their strength and energy and become more vulnerable to a real threat. What saves them from this fatal vulnerability is their uncanny ability to remember and store information.

The nature of horses is such that not only are they hyper-vigilant; they have the greatest memories (save the elephant), of all animals. Their superior memory enables them to continually identify, remember, store and classify everything they see, hear, taste, and smell. All of this information is turned into a list with two categories they remember for their entire life. Simply put everything a horse encounters becomes either: “something that could eat me or something that could not eat me”.

For horses’ living in the wild this list becomes fairly complete in the first few years of life. Trees, grass, rocks…no worries - mountain lions, wolves, bears…run!

For any domestic horse living in the world of humans, hundreds of additional unfamiliar man-made things must be added to the list. To be in the “things that won’t eat me” category, they must be repeatedly investigated and tested before they first become tolerated, then accepted and eventually proven safe and forever ignored. This list not only includes saddles, horse trailers, bicycles and plastic bags but every conceivable unnatural manmade item imaginable. Helping a horse overcome his many fears and become more confident requires us to understand this evolutionary survival mechanism. It also takes time, patience and leadership.

The secret in helping our horse become “bomb proof” is either recognizing or being able to predict anything that might trigger an unnecessary fear of being eaten. Equally important is keeping ourselves calm and relaxed the moment he becomes bothered and anxious. Next we need to comfort, reassure and allow him time to personally investigate the situation until he is satisfied he is safe. Though we never force him to move toward the object of his fear we must nevertheless keep him facing it and not allow him to turn away. The moment a horse decides to turn away from something scary, he will usually run and often become dangerously difficult to stop. Following these steps reinforces our leadership position by gaining his trust and respect. We also keep both our horse and ourselves from getting hurt.

Being a good leader and helping our horse when he becomes afraid is similar to being a good parent and helping a fearful child. The following two scenarios are good examples.

In the first scenario a father tells his four-year-old child to go to his room and go to bed. The child says he doesn’t want to go alone because he’s afraid of the dark. The father says don’t be silly there’s nothing to be afraid of and stop wasting time. This makes the child even more fearful and he pleads with his father not to make him go to his dark room alone. His father raises his voice and yells if the child doesn’t go to his room, he will be punished. The child goes crying to his room and goes to bed not only afraid of the dark but of his father as well.

In the second scenario when the child tells his father he is afraid of the dark, his father tells him he understands because he knows other kids (and even adults) who are also afraid of the dark. He picks up the child, holds him tight and walks to the bedroom as he comforts and reassures him. In the bedroom, he asks the child to help him turn on the light together. He stays in the room until the child tells him he feels safe and it’s okay to go.

Both scenarios end with the same result, the father gets his child to go to bed. The method used in the second scenario not only creates a deeper bond of love and respect between father and child, it instills powerful knowledge in the child that will help him in the future. The next time he is frightened, he can look to his father as a trusted source of wisdom, protection and safety. This is the same principal upon which a herd of horses choose their leader. This method is the same whether it’s a herd of 100 or a herd of 2 -you and your horse.

Natural Horsemanship teaches us to always see our manmade world through the eyes of our horse. It is our responsibility to read our horses’ behavior and know when he is bothered or frightened. The key to helping fearful horses and becoming highly confident riders is knowing and remembering there is only one major fear that will cause our horse to react in a way that can cause serious injury to him and us - The fear of being eaten by a predator. Think for a moment about where you ride. Unless you ride where there are mountain lions, wolves or bears, you never need to become anxious or afraid when your horse acts spooky!

A helpful way to become more confident is to remember 5 things: PEOPLE – PLACES – THINGS – MOVEMENT – CHANGES. These are the 5 primary stimuli that could indicate the presence of a predator and trigger fear to emerge in our horse. Knowing and remembering them will allow us to comfort, reassure and help him look to us as his leader. We can help him to feel safe and protected the moment one of them triggers his fear.

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When any one of these stimuli occurs we must understand that our horse is genetically programmed to go on alert. In his mind any one of them could indicate the unseen presence of something that could eat him. It is at this moment that we must be there for him as his leader by using our horsemanship skills. We don’t have the physical power to control an out of control horse but we do have the knowledge to influence his thoughts. It is by controlling a horses mind that we are able to control his body.

Whether we’re on the ground or on his back one of the simplest and most effective ways to engage our horses mind is by giving him a job to do and directing him to move his feet. Horses like humans have brains with left and right sides that manage different functions. The right side manages instinct. Horses survive by instinctually fleeing when they sense danger. They don’t need to think in order to run. A frightened horse that takes off is operating with the right side of his brain.

The left side of the brain manages reason or thinking. Horses need to think to cross their hind legs in front of each other (disengage their hindquarters). When our horse becomes afraid we can immediately ask him to repeatedly move his hip over with our leg. This will disengage his hindquarters requiring him to use the left side of his brain to think. After he has directed his attention at us (his leader) we can help him investigate the scary stimuli and overcome his fear. Important - it is imperative to build his trust for us as his leader before we find ourselves in this situation. If not, he will feel safer relying on himself and his natural instincts. In that case he will run first and investigate later.  The most effective way to gain trust, respect and leadership from any horse is to engage them in groundwork before you get on their back.

Another way to say that horses are hyper-vigilant is to say they are masters of - knowing what happens before what happens happens - (read this a few times slowly to have it sink in). This ability has enabled them to survive in a world filled with predators for millions of years. When we see our horses’ ears and eyes quickly change their direction, their neck and head go up or feel their muscles tighten and brace they are telling us something important they want us to know. They have been alerted by something they truthfully believe might eat them.

Unless we’re riding in extremely rural areas that contain natural predators, like mountain lions or wolves, knowing the truth about our horses fear and it’s five triggers enables us to stay calm, relaxed and confident. We truly know we are both 100% safe. Then we are able to take the necessary time to reassure him and help him move his attention back to us. Becoming his leader enables him to trust us when we tell him he doesn’t need to run for his life. Understanding the nature of horse fear is what prevents humans and horses from getting hurt. If we expect our partner to change and become more confident, first we need to change and become more confident. Then we will both feel safe and truly have fun.

Although human fear is similar to horse fear in its end result (we’re afraid we could die or be seriously injured) it differs in two distinct ways. First, we fear death and injury will be caused by our actual partner - our horse - not some other predator. Second, the 5 stimuli that trigger our fear do not come from people, places, things, movement or changes. Our fear is triggered by our horses’ reaction to these five fear stimuli. In Part Two: Human Fear we will examine Human Fear, how it differs from horse fear and what we need to do to overcome it. 


#1 Human Fear

#1 Human Fear

Part 2: Human Fear

In Part 1 of this article, Dealing With Fear: Part One: Horses, we learned that what frightens horses does not frighten humans and what frightens humans does not frighten horses. A horse’s one and only fear that will cause him to react in a way that can cause serious injury to himself and to us is the fear of being eaten by a predator. We also learned the 5 predictable stimuli that will trigger this fear in all horses are new or unfamiliar people (predators), places, things, movement and changes.

Humans are similarly afraid of death or serious injury. The difference is that we’re afraid that our horse will be the cause of our injury - fatal or otherwise. Therefore our fear can arise whether we’re on their back or on the ground. Our horse will always sense this immediately and our fear will always make his fear worse.

There are two primary responses we must learn and master when our horse’s behavior frightens us. The first is: Allow what is acceptable. The second is: Cause him to change what is dangerous. We must handle both passively without fear, anger or frustration. We must understand that punishment as a means of behavior modification is not only ineffective, it will often create a more dangerous outcome. And finally we must know and recognize the difference in whether our horse’s resistant behavior is being caused by fear, pain, confusion or disrespect because each one requires us to respond differently.


Natural Horsemanship teaches us how to see the world as if we were a horse. We learn what they consider acceptable behavior for themselves and other horses.  We watch them interact and play with each other. We see them bite, kick, run, rear, buck and chase each other. This is all carried out by them without any fear.

Physical contact is part of the language horses use to communicate with each other. It tells them who is stronger, faster, and braver. Who is the better horse and therefore who has earned the right to be the leader. This is true whether it is a herd of 100 horses or a herd of 2. Once the pecking order of the herd is established and accepted, physical contact is reduced primarily to play, affection, friendship and mutual grooming.  However if the herd of 2 is you and your horse, allowing him to treat you as he would another horse can be dangerous. In order to stay safe, you must cause him to change this behavior. This must be accomplished with communication and not force.

The nature of horses is such that even a number two horse will always return at some point in the future to re-challenge the number one. If your horse could speak he might say something to you like: “Are you sure you want to be the leader?” When this happens with one of my students I’ll often hear something like: “My horse is perfect but today when I was leading him out of his paddock, he stopped for no reason, looked at me and wouldn’t budge”.

Horses, unlike humans, will always warn each other with a gesture like pinning their ears or lifting a leg before they make physical contact. Then if their warning goes unheeded, they will make powerful physical contact. However because they are of equal size and weight, there is rarely serious injury and death is certainly never a result.

Humans are not of equal size and weight and therefore all physical contact unless safely initiated by us (i.e. we invite our horse to come in close to rub his nose) should be considered unacceptable, potentially dangerous and immediately eliminated. As the leader we must make all decisions for both ourselves and our horse in order for us both to be safe either riding or on the ground.

As a training tool and a means of communication, Groundwork establishes safe physical boundaries and gives us the opportunity to either passively allow our horse to continue his acceptable behavior (act like a horse as long as long he is not close enough to cause us injury) or initiate a change that eliminates his dangerous behavior. We learn groundwork techniques that cause his desirable behavior to be comfortable and his undesirable behavior to be uncomfortable.

When we’re on the ground with our horse and he runs, kicks, bucks or rears, as long as it’s not directed at us and we have established a safe physical boundary, we allow him to continue to be himself; a horse. This can either be at the end of a long line or at liberty in a corral. Keeping a safe distance and realizing he is just a horse acting naturally helps us to relax and become comfortable in his world. This in turn helps to eliminate our fear, build our confidence and improve our horsemanship.

When our horse kicks, bites or rears up at us, this too is natural and appropriate equine behavior, however he is inappropriately treating us like another horse. Because we are human and not of equal size and weight, it is very dangerous. If we become afraid we will often react aggressively. We will use force instead of communication. Our horse won’t understand why his partner has become aggressive and turned on him. We will loose his trust and respect. We will cause him to become fearful, even more reactive, damage our relationship and thus make the situation extremely dangerous for both. As his leader we must learn to be ASSERTIVE not AGGRESSIVE.

Natural Horsemanship teaches us how to use our superior human intelligence to be a better horse. We know that in horseville the horse that causes the other horse to move its feet is the better horse and therefore becomes the leader. We know that we can control horses by admineristing comfort and discomfort. Therefore we take the energy our horse has been using for his idea of fun (kicking, bucking, rearing) and redirect it into something that is our idea of fun (moving his hip over, backing up etc.) and will also eliminate the danger of injury. We use groundwork to cause our idea to become his idea without force.

Understanding the nature of our horse, staying calm and relaxed, demonstrating our leadership by causing our ideas to become their ideas without force or pain is the key to keeping everyone safe by working through our fears both on the ground and on their back.

Human fear increases horse fear.

Human fear increases horse fear.


Human fear that develops when we’re on our horses back is caused by the thought of falling off or being thrown off. Part of learning to ride includes how to stay on the horse while we ask them to execute a multitude of different athletic maneuvers.

Unless you’ve elected to get involved in racing or rodeo, sitting on your horse and allowing him to rear, buck or run away is not advisable.

Hopefully by the time we get on their back to ride, we have already created a partnership with our horse on the ground which has established us as his leader. We have taught him that even if he feels like rearing and bucking because he is happy ( and sometimes that is what happy horses do ) he is not allowed to do it when we, his leader, are sitting on his back.

Unfortunately there are some riders who have not worked out their herd pecking order on the ground prior to getting on their horses back. If our horse is being disrespectful (not acknowledging us as the leader) or playful (starting to buck), we must remember the instant we feel anxious or fearful…OUR HORSE IS NOT TRYING TO HURT US, HE IS JUST BEHAVING LIKE A HORSE. This will help to eliminate our fear, stay relaxed and respond with confidence. To be our horse’s leader and remain in control we can utilize the same principles when riding that have already worked successfully for us on the ground.  We need to be the better horse.

We need to redirect his disrespectful or playful energy. We calmly give him a job to do without expressing anger, frustration or fear i.e. we have him turn circles to the right or disengage his hindquarters to the left. We turn his attention away from what he wants to do and back on to us. We cause him to move his feet. We reestablish our leadership and regain his respect. We continue this until we are both calm and relaxed.

As we discussed in Part One –“Horse Fear”, horses live their entire lives on alert. They must always be ready to flee or else be eaten by a predator. The one and only reason our domestic horses “spook” is because something has triggered their genetic sense of survival. Knowing this and knowing there are no wolves or mountain lions where we are riding, allows us to remain confident, calm and relaxed.  In turn we can continue to be our horse’s leader, reassure him and if we like, allow him to investigate whatever he needs in order to feel safe.

Human fear that is caused by horse fear, which is caused by non-existent predators, is one of the most common and most dangerous situations in horseback riding. Our horse “spooks” (senses something that could be a predator). We become afraid. Our body tightens, our legs and hands grip our horse. Our horse feels us becoming afraid which convinces him that he is correct in being afraid. He is genetically programmed to run for his life and he knows he can run faster and further without us on his back. We get thrown off and our horse runs back to the safety of the barn. It is only by understanding the true nature of our horse that we see it was not his fear but our fear and lack of leadership that was responsible for making the above situation as bad as it was.

If we expect our horse to learn how to live confidently in our world we must not only take the time to “sack” him out with clippers, horse trailers, raincoats, and bicycles, we must in turn “sack’ ourselves out. We must take the time and use our superior intelligence to thoroughly understand the horses mind and use that knowledge in conquering our horse fears.

There is nothing more important than safety. If I’m not comfortable at the canter, I’ll drop to the trot. If that doesn’t work, then to the walk. If I still don’t feel like I’m in control, I’ll ask my horse to stop. If he won’t stay stopped, I’ll pick my moment, get off and do some more ground work. If it stops being fun, I’ll quit and start my day over tomorrow.

Fear in humans and horses come from different places. Some are real some are imagined. Natural Horsemanship is about knowing and understanding the difference. It is about using this understanding to create a true partnership between horse and human based on love, trust and respect. It is how we are able to turn fear into confidence. ©Tim Hayes 2014