Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Equine Anxiety, From a Psychiatric Perspective

After the last blog my mind has been racing around with words like these, as they relate to horses:

Anxiety, Insecurity, Panic, 
Refusal, Fear, Stress, Reactive Mind

I'm sure we could all think of more along that line, but those are a pretty decent list of completely UNWANTED responses in our horses...and ourselves.  It actually causes me a little pain in my neck just reading them.

After my ride yesterday, I sat with my husband, at home, and processed my thoughts with him.

Me: So, Cowboy has always hated going into water, right?  And, we came up to Fishtrap Lake during our ride.  And a couple of the other horses went in and started splashing around.  And, usually I'd pressure him in to going in, too, right?  But today I stood back and let him watch the other horses and waited for him to show interest, relaxation, and curiosity and, sure enough, he did.  He really enjoyed watching them.  After a little bit, he wanted to get closer and stepped closer on his own.

Husband: Did he go into the water?

Me: No, but he went up voluntarily, about 2 feet away, and showed no signs of panic.  So, I got off and walked down to the water myself and he followed me, very relaxed, and we just stood there as I petted him and praised him for being so calm.

(Photo: Me standing by the water at Fish Lake, petting Cowboy.)

Husband: That's perfect.  You want him to have new, positive experiences in situations that he usually fears.  [Picks up his book to read.]

(Photo: Cowboy looking at Fish Lake after we left it.)

Me: [Not satisfied to stop there.]  Because, usually, I'd make him go to the water, but it's always unpleasant and his heart is pounding and it's a fight.  But then, when he gets in, he sees it's okay and eventually relaxes.  But today I told Cowboy, I know it's crazy to talk to your horse, but I told Cowboy that the ride was about him...and me...and building trust.

Husband: Yep. [Thinks to himself, as eyes glaze over, "Oh no, she's starting to talk about talking to her horses.  I really need to read my book."]

Me: [Realizing I sound like a parent who might come to our clinic to get help for their anxious child, or themselves, I finally see the correlation.  Maybe, just maybe, there's something to learn from human anxiety and its treatment that could be applied to horse anxiety and its treatment.  And, sitting across from me is my husband, a psychiatrist, who specializes in helping people past their anxieties.]  Do you think horse anxieties are like people's?

Husband:  I don't know.

Me:  Can you explain what happens in a human panic attack?

Husband:  Sure.  [Seems to be eager to talk about one of his favorite topics.]  There are cells, deep inside the brain that release norepinephrine, it's adrenaline, and that is released throughout the brain and affects all the major structures of the brain such as the cortex, which is where thinking goes on, so people have scary thoughts.  It affects the hypothalamus, which is what controls heartbeat, breathing and, of course, those go up in a panic attack.  And then, norepinephrine stimulates nerves that go to the peripheral nervous system, which creates the shaking, sweating, and all those sorts of things, as well as the gut which can go into spasms and become part of it.  That can go on from anywhere between ten minutes to two hours, and then, those people experiencing a panic attack will be drained, but it will replenish itself in a few hours.

The interesting thing is, while panic attacks usually start in some kind of situation of fear and anxiety, after a while, the thing that's really painful is that people fear having a panic attack itself--they fear the feeling of anxiety, and then they can become housebound.

Me: How do you stop a panic attack once it's started?

Husband: You have to start with a top down approach, so you go to the thinking part of the brain and start to rethink what's going on, re-frame what's going on, learn new ways to relax, learn to control at least one physiological parameter, because in a panic attack physiology is out of control.  This tells the brain, I might be partly out of control, but I'm not totally out of control.  And, eventually, you have to begin to expose yourself to feared situations, in small doses, so you can begin to re-experience them as more pleasurable now.

Me: So, for instance with Cowboy, panicking about water or anything else, how would that apply if they're already at the feared object?

Husband: If they're already there, try to get them to relax without having them go further.  Don't let them run away.  For humans, you have to get them to recapture some bodily function that they can control.  Eventually, you want them to experience the feared situation as a pleasurable situation.

I'll stop here because I haven't formulated a post about what this means for horses from my own, personal observations working with them.  My husband did add that when a person (or horse) is panicked or in flight mode, you cannot accomplish anything positive.  It's over.  The work always has to be done in small doses, and small accomplishments, that build on each other.

As always, I welcome your thoughts about the correlation between human and horse panic attacks. Thanks!

(Photo: The falls at Hog Lake, our destination on yesterday's ride.)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Insecure Horses and the Power of Praise

My horse has a fundamentally insecure base personality.  He was a very young bottle-fed orphan who loved humans, but isn't human, and never really adapted well in the herd.  No matter which herd you place him in, he'll always be the omega.

And yet, I love him and love working with him. It's always a challenge between discipline and praise, and he's quick to need both.  Because of this, he's sharpened me.  I have to be more aware of when he's challenging me and when he's feeling trapped, and I have to be able to respond immediately with little time to analyze which it is.  

When to wean a horse is always a debatable topic.  The first horse I ever purchased was a weanling, and I bought him before he was weaned.  I was so excited to have him, I'd go visit him with his mama as much as I could without being a pest to the owners.  On the day of weaning (it's been so long I can't remember how old he was, but I think he was about 5 or 6 months) there was a lot of calling back and forth between he and his dam.  I boarded him on the same property and his owner wanted to start using his mom for team penning and trail riding, so she was happy to get them separated, but it was a stressful day on the two of them.  He turned out to be a solid, trusting, brave trail horse, and I think it's in part because he was with his mom for so long.  Cowboy didn't get that option.

Almost 20 years after the weanling, I brought Cowboy to the same barn, same stall, where I'd had my former horse.  In his stall, Cowboy was the bully of bullies.  If a horse was walked down the aisle in front of him, he'd raise his head up as high as it would go and lunge out like he was going to bite them.  He seemed like an alpha.

Then we brought him home and let him go with the herd.  What a difference.  He became the most docile, submissive horse you've ever seen, and soon, the omega, where he's been ever since then.

Cowboy and I have worked together for twelve years now and he still keeps me on my toes.  I have horses in my herd that you can depend on to be brave and unshakable in almost every situation, but Cowboy is not that horse.  He's brave and unshakable in most situations, but will choose the strangest things to be scared of.

Two weeks ago I took him to the despooking clinic and it was once again revealed to me that, at his core, he is insecure.  For him, challenges have to be met one by one, mastering each one.  

Which brings me to the topic of praise.  One of the things they told us to do at the clinic was praise our horses...BIG TIME, as in, make a BIG deal over every success.  "GOOD job, Cowboy.  Good job, boy!!"

That really isn't my way.  I'm more of a quiet praiser.  But to make them happy, I exaggerated the praise--took it up a few notches, and I've continued doing it to see if it helps.  As of now, it's new for him and he's trying to figure it out.  Like, "What's this all about?  Is she faking?"  

I've had a few trail rides since that clinic and in some ways he's doing better, and in some other ways, worse.  The area where he's doing worse is trust.  He seems to anticipate that I'm going to ask him to do something he's afraid of now, like I did at the clinic.  He's a bit more adversarial with me.

Today I went out with him before I had to leave to work.  I wanted to spend some time just being with him and giving him some easy tasks he could accomplish so that I had more opportunity to praise him.  He seems to like it.  The heart of a horse wants to please.  I really think they take pride in doing things right and are even competitive with one another.

Tomorrow I have a long ride planned with him, about five hours, and I'm hoping to work on trust throughout it.  I want to break down the tasks I've come to expect and make a bigger deal over them.  I want him to know how proud of his accomplishments I am.  He's twenty years old and we've been partners for twelve years, but you can never have enough trust.  If anything, my desire to see him confidant and brave has only increased with time.

Please share your own thoughts on praise and how your horses respond to it.  Do you think they need it?  How BIG is your praise?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Teeter-Totter Bridge, Car Wash, & Fire Pits, In Other words, Hell for Horses

What looked like an easy course, as we arrived with our trailers to the De-Spooking Trail Clinic, turned out to be not so much.  A teeter-totter bridge, side-passing across a long, fat log, burning flares, revving chain saw, opening and closing gates, popping balloons, various animal skins, car wash, and, oh, so much more.  Cowboy thought he'd died and gone to hell for horses.

But what a great opportunity to help them through their fears. 

I took my grand-daughter with me who has been riding since she was 3 years old and has a gentle strength and quiet way of working with horses.  She had her sweet trail horse, Penny.  Cowboy loves Penny and, as you can see below, wanted to be with her.  Working on herd-bound issues turned out to be our #1 concern.

Mom, you go play with those scary things, I'll go hang out with my girlfriend until you're done.

These pictures were taken during the in-hand portion of the clinic which we hadn't even signed up for, but since we arrived early, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity before the riding class.  What I learned is that since Cowboy and I don't do groundwork anymore, he's only confidant when I'm joined to him in the saddle or he's joined to my side.  That's not so good.  In fact, at the very beginning of the clinic, he was more of a cautionary tale for everyone else.  He was frightened and he felt trapped in the obstacles when I'd push him away.  He didn't really settle down until about half way through.

Penny, on the other hand, did great.  Or, as great as any horse is going to do in an arena full of every scary obstacle a horse will ever encounter.

The trick was getting them to acknowledge the obstacle first, get comfortable (haha), then lead them through it.  Cowboy did not want to acknowledge the obstacles.  He wanted to tell me that we needed to get the hay out of there!

Not surprisingly, Cowboy did much better during the riding portion of the clinic, and several of the trainers remarked at what a different horse he was.  After five hours, though, he was happy to hit the trails and get a little break.  Trails=easy, Clinic=Super-scary-hard-work.

But it was great!!  Everything I value in horsemanship, real job-related stuff: opening and closing gates, pulling logs behind, side passing in tight areas, crossing water...or foam that looks like water, SCOPE outdid themselves in this course. 

They also had plenty of volunteer trainers on hand to help us through the hard parts.  The picture below is Penny getting ready to side pass over the log and a trainer there helping them learn to do it.  I didn't get Cowboy to do it in-hand, but he had no problem in saddle.

The teeter totter bridge was probably the most scary of all, but was actually kind of fun when the horses got the picture.  It became like a game for them..or me...or both.  I'd be on one end of the teeter totter and then as soon as he started walking across I'd go right down with him at my side. 

Any day with horses is a day well spent, but this one was better than most.  I got to spend the day with my grand-daughter, and I couldn't have been prouder to see what a sensitive horsewoman she'd become, and we got to spend a whole day with the horses we love so much.