No one knows the flight and fright response in the world better than horses. They have perfected the idea of sensing danger and running from it. Fear is a common emotional language and it is what binds us together as animals. We all know what it is like to feel afraid. What we do with this information is what makes us individuals.
For horses, living in a world heavily influenced by humans can be challenging. Vertigo is the name of my beautiful grey Holsteiner dressage horse. The biggest fear in his life is, without a doubt, a spray bottle. Forget trailer loading, jumping, or even me crawling on his back, Vertigo is terrified of the little squirt bottle that sprays him.
Luckily, we are gaining confidence and comfort with this little bottle of terror. Fear is just a built-in protective device which tells us to be cautious. But, fear can also paralyze us from leaving the confines of our comfort zone.
The sound of the spray bottle and the feel of the light mist on his skin are the two qualities that make Vertigo's heart race. His muscles tighten, his head raise up, his breathing become shallow, and his eyes fixate on the bottle. People often resort to many tactics when trying to "help" an animal through fear. However, "help" and "harm" can be horribly mistaken.
When working with Vertigo overcoming this fear, I always allow him his expression and, more importantly, I allow him the ability to get away. So many times, we may think that if we can contain the animal by tying or forcing them, then we can get them "used to" whatever we are trying to do. However, this does not build confidence, in fact, it only strips them of their free will.
When working in the round pen, I allowed Vertigo full control of his emotions and expressions. I merely sprayed the bottle and helped him figure out which direction to run. After a few minutes, Vertigo started to feel tired of fleeing and decided that the mist and sound of the bottle really was not that bad. His mood shifted when he stopped running away and took one big breath. Next, he touched the bottle with his nose (NOTE: this is very different from me shoving the bottle to his nose. Letting him touch the bottle is done by his invitation and under his direction).
Pretty soon, as he felt the mist against his leg, he started to reevaluate the idea of fleeing and initiated the logic of thinking things through. With my support and reassurance, he went through the process of understanding. This is very different than if I were to tie him up and force the spray bottle on him. With that method, understanding is never achieved, but rather acceptance that things are out of his control, it is the sense of giving up.
With allowing Vertigo freedom to pick his emotions, he becomes more stable with his understanding of new stimuli. He learns to become more comfortable with new things because he decides it for himself. I merely witness the process. Forcing an animal, or anyone for that matter, to "get used" to something violently controls another being. No one "gets used" to anything in that scenario, they merely give up and succumb to the dominant threat. No one learns to believe in themselves, process through an emotion, or build confidence.
My role in his process is merely to stay calm. Even as Vertigo is running away from the spray bottle with all his might, I simply give him the escape route. By doing this, I never corner him and he never has to resort to fight. On the lunge line, I can direct his feet left or right. He is reacting with fear, and the good news is that he can only stay in this state of mind for a finite time until he decides to pick another reaction. If I never let him go through this process, he will always remain a little ticking time-bomb with new experiences, and this is not something I wish to ride. I want Vertigo to feel confident with himself, no matter how strange the surroundings.
When the horses are going through this process, my pulse never changes. When they are reacting with strong energy, I stay as calm as when they are standing peacefully. I can do this because I do not join their reaction, rather, I wait for them to join mine. Horses like to be calm, as animals, most of us do. All I have to do is wait, this is the easiest thing, but also the hardest thing. As Vertigo is learning how to process his fear, I am learning how to further develop patience. Together, we become stronger and our relationship deepens.
In our human world, we all have our own versions of the spray bottle. Remember, fear never lasts forever. With a little patience for each other and for ourselves, we can allow for the processing of this emotion. This way, help is truly out of harms way.