Does Fear have a Place in Learning?

For anyone who has lived or worked with any kind of animals, you will know that fear is an experience that (generally speaking) you will see in an animal now and then. Some animals are braver, while others are more fearful. Because horses are prey animals, their instincts preclude them to access fear quite easily. Because of this, it can be challenging to progress with a horse without them accessing fear on some level.

IMG_5869Can that fear ever be useful to the learning process of a horse? Maybe, especially for those cases where you are helping a previously abused equine to overcome their fears (sometimes in order to help them you have to go to that bad place with them,, and lead them back to calmness and gentleness). However, in order to assess this, we must understand the nature of the learning process – not just for a horse, but for anyone or anything.

When learning something new, there is the inevitable period of uncertainty in the beginning. You don’t know how this works, what to do, or how to do it. But that’s natural – that’s part of the learning process: The beginning is uncomfortable. Now the difference for a humans compared to horses is that we understand (most of the time) what is happening and why it’s happening, whereas the horse doesn’t know why, they have no context for what is going on. The must rely solely on their interpretation of the behaviour of the human, and try to figure out the “right” way to respond.

So, understandably, horses also experience uncertainty when learning something new. A person who focuses on helping the horse to understand in as calm a way as possible will end up with a soft, willing and confident horse (obviously this is assuming that all the other necessary factors are in place). Compare that image to an individual who is pushing their horse into a fearful space, trying to get the horse to comply while they are in that state of mind. As can be expected, the horse seldom understands the exercise and has now also associated the exercise with fear, anxiety and stress. I am sure you can imagine how that horse will be working through the exercise after a fearful introduction to it.

The only thing that a horse will learn when they are fearful is what they must do in order to avoid that which causes the fear. So if we use a whip in such a way that it inflicts fear, the horse will learn to avoid the whip, rather than to listen to the whip. Another side effect of allowing a horse to remain in a state of fear while teaching them is the high level of tension that the fear will create in their bodies – this creates the opposite of a soft horse.

It is our tendency to believe that kicking up a lot of dirt and dust is required to “put the horse in its place” – again, I am not saying that it is absolutely never ever necessary, or that it will never happen, but it is most certainly not a good first approach to try. It is our responsibility to not fall into that all-too familiar human tendency of wanting to dominate and control everything around us.

Creating a relationship with your horse that is based on communication, patience, understanding and mutual respect requires that these be the principles that you focus on creating during those crucial learning phases where things can so easily go wrong. Now I’m not saying that it may be possible to avoid a fearful horse completely – sometimes their backgrounds, breeds or simply the environment can trigger their fear response. Sometimes we must help our horse move from that place of fear towards confidence, trust and softness.

This brings us to the real question: how do we help the horse to learn something new without that uncertainty, or discomfort, of learning something new turning into full blown fear?

As to the specific techniques – there are many that can be tried and tested on any individual horse – it’s about finding what works for you and your individual horse.  There is no “one size fits all” method. Flexibility is just about the only thing that remains consistent in a good horseperson – our ability to assess a situation and adapt ourselves with the goal of helping the horse.


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