Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Anxiety Free Riding: A Tale of Two Horses


Yesterday, as I was saddling my horses, I started to think that anxiety is a little different than fear.  Anxiety can be this nagging--something's wrong, but I don't know what--kind of feeling.  Fear seems more focused on an actual thing to be feared.  And, it struck me, all of my horse training has gravitated to an overwhelming desire that my horses be as anxiety-free as possible.  I even prefer acute fear to smoldering anxiety.  You can get past a fear, but anxiety cuts paths through the brain that are hard to fill back up.

Because of that, some horses will only get so far beyond anxiety, and that's okay.  

Cowboy is a phenomenal trail horse, but he's insecure around large groups of horses.  I've decided he doesn't need to be around large groups of horses.  He's 22, and I'm not changing his basic personality.  He had a ton of training when he was young, but something didn't go right.  Maybe it's because he's an orphan foal.  Not sure.  But, in any case, he can be an anxious horse.  I love Cowboy deeply, and we have had a wonderful journey together--despite his anxiety.  Who knows, maybe I love him more for it.  I know how hard he has to work to get past it.

I want all my horses to get as far as they can get, but not to push them over that fine line of too much.  
It's hard.

In my desire to keep Beautiful Girl anxiety-free, I know I didn't take her far enough, but I'm making up for it now with the help of a trainer I trust.  It took me a long time to find that trainer.  On the bright side, Beautiful has had all good experiences and is full of trust.  Leah got a late start, too, probably for the same reason, but she is also full of trust.

Yesterday, I rode Cowboy and Leah to the next door barn.  Our neighbors baled hay on our fields, so we cut the fences in between our properties.  Generally speaking, I prefer to ride away from home--more trails and less barn sour.  Since I'd never ridden Leah from home, I didn't know what to expect.

She was rock solid.  She alerted a few times, like in the picture at the top, but it was normal new place, new thing stuff.


Cowboy, on the other hand, took a lot of reassuring, so we did things he likes to do--run, play, and eat. When we got to the neighbor's barn, he was worried about the other horses, so I dismounted and walked him through the grounds. 

That is a big change for me.

My thinking used to be--push them through their fears.  Now, I sometimes just get off.  I don't care.  It's easy to get back on.  I wish I'd done that with Cowboy years ago, but ah, well, I did my best with what I had at the time.  And, sometimes, your best bet is to stay in the saddle.  

Today, we'll do the same thing as yesterday.  Positive repetition is the cure for anxiety.


The jumping class was fun. Leah will never be a good jumper, but she was a trooper.  I took the class because I wanted her to work on foot placement and my own seat to help her get that proper placement. At one point, she tried to put her foot between the jump poles and knocked them off their post.  Rebecca told me to praise the heck out of her.  I did.  She said the last thing you want to do is make her think she did something wrong and develop anxiety about the jump.  We circled back around and she walked over the poles perfectly, without a nick--and without anxiety.

Rebecca promotes a "THIS IS FUN!" mentality in her students--and she wants us to do the same for our horses.  "So, you knocked down a pole...so what!?!  Poles can be picked back up.  Thank you for trying so hard.  Good girl.  I love you!"

Tonight, we have our bi-weekly trail clinic.  I'm going to ride Leah to the clinic from home.  Yay!  And, since she will have already done it twice--she'll be anxiety-free.  I'd call that perfect.

The jump.


12 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more about the anxiety being worse than fear. Slowly I'm pecking at Carmen's anxiety. What I have found that if there is general anxitey when there is a fearful event then all reason is lost and you are on pure survival. I have admired the work you have done with Leah and all your horses, really.

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    1. Good point--smoldering anxiety plus true fear equals closed mind. I have been there with Cowboy many times. Thanks for the compliment, I feel the same about the work you're doing with Carmen.

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  2. Interesting take on anxiety: "anxiety cuts paths through the brain that are hard to fill back up." It really is undermining. It robs confidence just as much as fear does. And can last longer. I think I'm going to try StressAway oil on Rosalee before I ride her next time and see if it can help. Heck I should put it on me! Might help both of us!
    I love a horse that tries. My colt was really trying today. With good results!

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    1. Yeah, the repetition, with positive results, eases anxiety in that particular situation, but a smoldering, underlying anxiety, like Cowboy carries, is tough to fill up. We are always training their brains, but it's toughest to retrain the brain, since the old pathways are always there--near the old ones. This isn't just a metaphor. The cells in the brain do actually make pathways and the old pathways do remain dormant. Cowboy, being an orphan, lacked the reassurance a mother would have given him in those formative years. They did studies on monkeys where the soothing of a mother, in the formative years, was withheld. Those monkeys, when grown, couldn't self-soothe. I'm curious about the oil. I do think certain smells stimulate certain areas of our brains that stimulating soothing.

      I love a horse that tries, too! You've got a seriously cute colt on your hands!

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  3. Hmmm. I've never thought of horse anxiety and fear as two different things, when clearly they are - as they are with riders. Food for thought. Must be fun to have your own place, with an active barn so close-by. It's the best of both worlds.

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    1. Yes, the active barn is only a year new. I always dreamed someone would buy that place and turn it into a horse barn, and they finally did--9 years later! I'm taking advantage of it!

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  4. I'm always interested in what people learn about helping horses with anxiety. Anxiety can be a persistent, persnickety problem this is draining for everyone.

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    1. What I've learned is to 1) work in small increments 2) Keep it positive 3) reinforce the positive with repetition 4) Give them room to make errors as long as they're trying because that's the only way they can learn 5) Don't overreact to their errors 6) Breathe 7) Sit deep in the saddle and avoid the fetal position of pulling back or sitting forward or both. 8) Repeat, repeat, repeat 9) Have fun! 10) Make sure your horse is having fun!

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  5. You're having so much fun this summer - with everything!! Makes me want to quit my job, downsize our home (and everything else), retire and get on with my life. Now. After being off work for 11 days in a row, it just reinforces how much of my life is spent in this small room, alone and usually on my butt. Not good, physically or mentally. I am SO ready for a change! I'm proud of all that you're accomplishing with your horses. You know that brain stuff is the same thing with our brains too. Repetition creates neuron pathways which makes it easier to form habits, so bad stuff makes it easier to have more bad stuff happen, and good habits pave the pathway for more good habits. We're really not very different from animals at all. In many, many ways. I think I might like to try that oil Shirley mentioned for me when I ride Eagle. :)

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  6. Smiling in agreement. Even the part about getting off now -- cuz I do the same thing. I'm about building confidence and having fun now; not so much about pushing and shoving to get through something.

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  7. You are accomplishing so much with less effort this summer - how wonderful!

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  8. I agree that anxiety and fear are different emotions. Personally, I think anxiety is worse.

    Liked the jumping. For a minute I thought you were heading for the big jump until you turned. Looks like fun. I miss jumping a course, it was always one of my favorite times with my horses Erik and Lifeguard.

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Please feel welcome to join our discussion--tell us about your own thoughts and experiences.