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    Why "kick him on!" is not an appropriate way

to deal with a fearful horse.

In the mainstream equestrian world the focus is placed on the horse behavioural response to events/stimulus. In most cases this lead to abusive practices that are not actually efficient at removing the fear and at best only temporarily remove/reduce the unwanted behaviour. Common solutions include putting a martingale on a horse that toss his head in the air when spooked, kick and whip the horse relentlessly until he jumps over the scary water obstacle, forceing the horse suffering from separation anxiety to leave the yard by kicking him on and turning him in circles until he gives in. These solutions are often accompanied by the belief that the horse is somehow trying to trick you, being naughty, lazy, silly etc. It implies that the horse is in full control of his behaviour when in fact he isn’t.

Behavioural suppression vs behavioural modification


As described previously behaviour suppression solely focuses on one aspect of the horse response to an event: its behaviour. It typically involve positive punishment, meaning the addition of an aversive stimuli following the unwanted behaviour and flooding, the repeated presentation of a fear eliciting stimuli.

Behavioural modification use less aversive and less intrusive techniques. We discuss some of these techniques in our article: How do I help my horse overcome his fear, anxiety or phobia. It addresses the cause of the unwanted behaviour and take into account the other two responses: the autonomic response (such as accelerated heart rate) and the hormonal response (such as increase of blood flow due to adrenaline). It goes without saying, the horse is not in control of these two responses and therefore shouldn't be blamed for them but instead helped.

Some downfalls of behavioural suppression


  • Fear causes the release of beta-endorphin, which numb and reduces emotional and physical pain. This is why we all all seen horses spook and riders pulling with all their strength on very harsh bits and yet having very little success in stopping their scarred horses. An approach which rely on hurting a fearful horse is therefore rarely efficient.

  • Behaviour suppression focuses exclusively on reducing the behavioural response (symptom), not on eliminating the fear (problem) itself. A horse standing still can still be experiencing the autonomic and hormonal elements of fear. This makes the horse a ticking time bomb, a safety hazard for his handler and people around him.

  • Flooding is considered highly unethical in the treatment of humans suffering from phobias and therefore should also be considered unethical in the training of non-humans animals suffering from separation anxiety etc. Flooding causes brain fatigue and the individual either becomes shut down or highly phobic.

  • Behavioural suppression most often rely on the rider trying to be scarier than whatever scarred the horse in the first place. Not only this is not a sustainable solution (there will be at some point or another something scarier than your kicking legs and waving whip) but this will also ruin your relationship with your horse.


Illustration by Fed up Fred

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