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.)


  1. It's certainly food for thought. I don't doubt that horses can have panic attacks as humans do. And I agree that the way to help them get over their fears would be the same as dealing with the human condition. By building on facing the fear one step at a time with positive results. I think the way you let Cowboy decide for himself what he was comfortable with was a positive experience for him.

    Interesting post and lots to think about. Thanks. (p.s. I know the glazed over eyes of husband during horse talk...until something interests them!)

    1. Haha. Yes! That's why we have horse friends, to save our husbands from having to hear all the little details. Husband: It's a horse. It's a nice horse. Let's ride horse. End of story.

      Me: Let's talk about horse. Let's talk more about horse. Let's talk all night about horse.

  2. OMG........
    this is exactly what happens in my house.
    In fact, I'm pretty sure my husband has said this PRECISE thing..

    (you wrote):
    "It's a horse. It's a nice horse. Let's ride horse. End of story."

    I just had deja vu. Not even exaggerating (kinda scary).

  3. Interesting post. I do think that fears in a horse have to be overcome incrementally, if you have read my posts on training Kai and his great fear of being saddled and how we went to placing a little military saddle (no cinch rigging on it) gently on his back, moving to swing it on, and then going back to the big saddle- it worked for him, he did get so that you could saddle him with out any issues and it didn't take too long. I think part of overcoming anxiety in horses is about them learning to trust you as their leader who won't put them in harm's way. And getting back to praise- that's one time I used BIG praise.

    1. "I think part of overcoming anxiety in horses is about them learning to trust you as their leader who won't put them in harm's way." So very true.

    2. Shirley, where I'm going to go with this is a very particular type situation. For example, you're out on a trail and have to go across water and for some reason your horse balks and won't cross. You put pressure on him, the panic elevates. What do you do? There was a time I was riding--and Cowboy is a great trail horse in almost every way, but there was a set of trees who's tops were at the base of descent and there were large ravens in the tops of those trees having a hissy fit. Cowboy would not go through those trees to descend and we ended up finding another way around. Now, you could say he's just a smart horse, but you could also say, he really needed to go through those trees. The reason I backed off is because he started to panic the more pressure I put on him and that wasn't good. What would you do in these situations?

    3. I'd do what you did- find another solution to the problem. Forcing a horse when their mind is "blown" just escalates their fear and is counter-productive to building trust. I might have got off and led him through the area if there was no other way to go, but for sure wouldn't have tried to ride him through the hissy fit. Discretion is the better part of valor!
      You mentioned wanting to go to a Buck clinic- the one I am going to is in Ellensburg Washington, and one lady is looking to sell her spot. Let me know if you want contact info. Also I think you can audit.

    4. Which classes did she sign up for--all? I will definitely at least audit since Ellensburg is so close. Thank you for letting me know!

    5. I don't know- you'd have to talk to Trent Marquis, I know there is a spot open in Horsemanship, which is the class I'm taking.
      509 728-3190

  4. Great post! I think there's lots of similarities in handling panic situations in horses and people. I'm so glad you allowed your horse to relax at the water's edge, and not force the issue further. When my Harley was very young, he was terrified of water, hose, puddle, creek - didn't matter. When he was about 18 months old we had him castrated, and I took him and the dogs on long walks. That usually ended at the creek where the dogs would drink and play in creek until we'd head back. Harley always assumed I was going to make him get in the creek and he'd always panic because he thought he knew my intentions. However, I wasn't ready to battle so I was content to stand back and watch the dogs. As Harley watched the dogs go back and forth, drink and enjoy the creek, he got more curious and inched his way closer and closer until he was in the creek, then across the creek and then splashing and drinking...I just smiled and let him have at it. Since then, we've crossed lots of different waters with no problems at all. My overall thoughts are this: when we force issues and make a big deal out of them - they become "big boos" in the horse's mind. I also like the approach and walk past method, do this over and over, then ask again...most times they do whatever was scary before this little exercise and the fear is gone. In the situation with the ravens, I'd probably have found a different way around too, sometimes you just have to pick your battles. Kinda like with husbands...

    1. The walking back and forth that you mention would fulfill the human requirement to "control some physiological parameter". The standing back and letting Harley watch would fulfill the "top down thinking" approach. This was a great post to share, thank you. A long time ago I probably lost Cowboy's trust by "expecting" him to do what he was "trained" to do. If I had taken him where he was at and did the things I'm starting to do now, he'd probably be a more confidant horse in all situations.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.