The Value of a Healthy Fear of Horses

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo When is Fear of a Horse a Good thing ? . Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton.
© copyrighted horse article.
As a premise for discussion, I would like to propose that there are two types of fear that can be encountered while teaching and training. One type of fear is unhealthy and its ramifications are risk management nightmares. The second type could be called healthy, but as an instructor, I would rather characterize it as helpful and it complements risk management teaching.

In some cases I feel that unhealthy fear can be transformed into helpful fear. What is fear? By definition it is "a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc." Fear produces the qualities of timidity, dread, fright or apprehension. How does fear manifest itself with you in particular? Have you ever experienced it during your work with equines? Do you have students that are overly fearful? Why are they?

As a young instructor I had an older client who got physically sick, actually nauseated and incapacitated at the prospect of expected performance. What I naively thought was "stage fright", turned out to be a whole different problem, when they finally told me what had happened to them in the past while working with an equine. They had been hurt and the memory of that hurt produced an unhealthy fear for them. How was it a problem and what can you do as an instructor or trainer to help a client deal with it? Is helpful fear something you can develop in your students, do you want to and how do you approach teaching it?

I think it is imperative for instructors to teach as much as they can about the nature of the horse and methods to use to prevent injury. I see far too much controlled and packaged type instruction without any work being done outside of the ridership box. What do I mean? As usual, I'm talking about horsemanship instruction.

Teaching students to think and to know how to react when the unexpected does happen, which will happen at some point for just about everyone who handles a horse. I personally don't feel that there is anything wrong with teaching a helpful fear of the horse. Yes, they are domesticated animals, but they still can be unpredictable. Personally, as a professional, I will readily admit that I experience fear, as apprehension and caution, each time I start a new training project, especially when I know I will be dealing with problematic behavior. Helpful fear is part of a trainer's edge.

You spend years learning how to deal with behavior, so as not to be surprised and have something occur that will result in injury and the possible development of an unhealthy fear. I don't think we need to scare our young students, but we need to stress what can occur in the day to day routine and we need to develop horsemanship sense so that they can make good judgment calls when they are outside the normal routine. We need to teach the what ifs and how to contend with them to keep our students safe. I think we all want to produce individuals who think and make safe decisions when they start working on their own, when they start riding outside of containment walls, when they become owners or actually have their own facility. How well you were taught to contend with the unexpected, will dictate whether or not you will have success dealing with it, when it occurs.

Many of us know of the tragic loss of someone in the horse world due to a clearly defined accident. Some of us also know of a death or serious injury that was not due to accident, although it may have been reported as such. It may have happened due to the disregard, which is a choice, of that helpful fear that would have kept the person safe. It may also have happened due to the fact that the person was never taught to have a helpful fear, about just how dangerous, in a split second, an equine could be. For all trainers and instructors we should cringe when we hear someone under our tutelage say, "I never knew that a horse could do that." Why didn't they know? What are we teaching? Do we still teach how to handle a rear, a buck or the dreaded bolt? Knowing that these things can happen doesn't necessarily make a rider more fearful. They give a rider part of the solid foundation, that if these things happen unexpectedly, they know how to deal with them. True accidents will happen in our sport and no amount of risk management will prevent them.

Recently I was queried about the emergency dismount and if I thought it was important to teach, since fear of falling off is a major issue at times. I definitely feel that all riders should have a firm grasp of their own physical limitations and manage risk accordingly. Simply put, you should be fit to ride at the level of your performance. I personally expect my students to understand the emergency vault, but I temper the application. Should I not allow an experienced adult to ride with me, who has to use a mounting block to get on because of hip issues and who has to use a step down dismount to get off and probably, even if their life depended on it, could not do an emergency dismount.

For children in the formative stages of our sport, confidence and skill can be developed with the introduction of all sorts of mounted games and experiences. As is known, I feel that children and ponies belong together and that overmounting in a contained venue produces a false sense of security. The Horsemanship Safety Association produced various manuals back in the '80s, written by Betty M. Bennet who operated Hoofbeat Ridge School of Horsemanship in Mazomanie, Wisc. In the manual on mounted games, different types were explained that an instructor could use to develop better skills and confidence in their students. One game was known as the "squirrel", which introduced the instruction of the emergency dismount in a group format.

When I was fortunate enough to be teaching groups of young people, mounted on appropriate sized equines and I didn't have a litigious thought in the back of my mind making me a control freak, a game of vaulting off, getting back on (sometimes the off side) and getting back to the starting point, was fun and often hilarious. I don't see many games being played at the facilities I frequent. Blue ribbons are the business at hand. It also may shock some readersto realize that any outside of the ringriding is not done, but I have to admit that limited land usage is making that difficult. There are still some open land facilities and I teach in the open which in itself is enough to produce fear in an instructor. I have to think about bolting and the issue of the true runaway, which can happen when you are out in the open and the unexpected happens.

I presently have several very lithe students, from younger to older adult, who can execute an emergency vault and have done so when the equine they were riding showed signs of not remaining on the planet, when the unexpected occurred while they were outside of a confined area.

Personally, I think part of dealing with fear is developing a list of options, options that can be used during all aspects of ground handling to under saddle work. I test my students at various times in their riding to review the tools they have at their disposal, especially clients who are riding out in the open, by suddenly calling for the halt. They have learned how to put their feet "home" in the stirrups, how to buttress and drive an equine up into halt. Often, it isn't a pretty picture, but the result is usually an equine who has halted.

While riding, I feel the emergency vault is a "back of the mind" option. This approach develops the thinking horseperson, from timid to seemingly fearless, but all will have been taught the tools and given the knowledge on how to use them if they make that choice. (This may ruffle some instructors' feathers, but as a professional I encounter ring trained riders who don't have any open skills because they were never taught them. If as a rider you decide that you want to leave the ring and start riding out on trails and cross country you need to evaluate your foundation, as well as that of your horse. Seek instruction for yourself and training for your equine that will focus on this transition in your riding.)

Developing helpful fear can be approached in group instruction, as well as one on one in private lesson programs. Set up scenarios that will induce some thought. Take the time to use the stop, look and listen approach to managing risk. This may make some people around your facility tighten up their risk management techniques, which they have been getting lax about. At least you will know that you taught it and it will make your barn a safer environment for both human and equine.

For a really simple example, how often do we teach equipment check and have our students really versed in the importance of correct fit and application? Know your equipment! Do we teach a helpful fear of what could happen if equipment failed? I was lucky a few days ago in that just before I mounted one of my training charges, I noticed that the offside rein was not locked in the hook stud. The bridle was mine and I had bridled the horse myself but had not noticed the potential dangerous condition of the rein because I had not done a safety equipment check myself.

What about positional awareness and putting ourselves out of harms way while handling? Can we teach a helpful fear about this horsemanship basic? What about something very common like being stepped on by the horse ? How do I approach teaching this lesson to children and young adults? I tell them I want to demonstrate something and I take them aside and step on their foot during the first lessons on handling! I lean softly at first and then I start leaning down with more of my weight and ask if they are feeling it yet. I ask how they would feel if 1000 lbs., or more came down on their foot?

As instructors and trainers are we taking the opportunity to teach not only the nature of the horse but how important it is to appreciate the rapport and confidence gained in really knowing an equine? Obviously this is not going to be directed toward beginner students just starting out, but it will in later years as they continue in the sport. Know your enemy? That may seem a very harsh way of presenting the subject, but when the unexpected happens, the horse will not always react in a typical way and be our "warm and fuzzy pet"!

Do we teach our students to think outside of the box and problem solve? I have written about "sacking out" an equine, but we also need to condition our students as well. How much confidence can be produced on the end of a lead rope? Take that one step further, how much training can be produced on the end of a lead rope, or properly applied shank if needed? Why not take the time to produce the mini clinic for just your students, approach a handling basic and explain some areas where you see they need to develop a more helpful fear.

Myself included, we get so lax about out positional safety while handling. Like being stepped on, once a handler is kicked or struck, they develop a better awareness, that helpful fear is in the back of your mind. However, the first kick or strike may be the uneducated handler's last.

What about unhealthy fear, that which I am sure some readers are far more interested in? Why is it a risk management nightmare? What are the physical and mental ramifications and how can you help someone deal with them? I presently know a beginner rider who was seriously hurt during initial instruction. They have not been on a horse since. They have voiced an interest in trying to get past their unhealthy fear by working with me. What happened to them, in my professional opinion, was avoidable, but the result will not be nullified by a lawsuit. This person really wants to get past this and I think that is the first priority that has to be addressed.

Once the physical healing has taken place where do we start? The mind is the first place I want to go. Does this person really want to change the unhealthy fear into a helpful fear and how do we go about it?

Bonnie Hilton's discussion on unhealthy fear of horses is included in another companion article.

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