Adrenaline plays a huge role in the behavior of horses. Because they are prey animals their adrenaline switch is very easy to turn on and quite hard to turn off. In the wild their survival depends on first noticing danger as quickly as possible and then reacting to it by running away very fast. They are not interested in figuring out the threat because by then it could be too late and the faster and farther they can run the better off they are.
Adrenaline is a marvelous chemical that bodies produce in times of stress to enhance performance. It allows the horse to run faster, jump higher and react more quickly than he could without it.
The downside is that it uses all the body’s resources to the maximum and reduces the animal’s awareness of pain. The priority is to get out of danger now, tomorrow has to take care of itself. Consequently, after an adrenaline fired run, the horse will be out of danger but in the process will have depleted his body’s reserves and may even have injured himself. Think of racehorses that finish the race on a broken leg. It is adrenaline that allows them to do that.
Think about what adrenaline can do to your horse’s behavior when you are riding or working with him. If his adrenaline switch goes off prematurely or too often when you are doing normal everyday things, like riding in your arena or heading down the trail, you can see that it could present problems.
- Your horse will be able to do more than he is really fit enough to do, which could be construed as a benefit except that, worst case scenario, he could injure himself and best case scenario, he will perform without seeming as if he is tired (in fact sometimes horses act as if they have more energy, not less, as they get more tired) which means that he is using his body more than he should for optimal health. This guarantees that he will be sore and cranky the next day and quite possibly the next week. If you ride him when he is essentially broken down like this you will probably turn on the switch again. How else will he be able to carry you on his aching body? And the cycle repeats.
- If your horse is high on adrenaline he will be super sensitive to perceived threats, he will be looking for things to be dangerous. A lot of horses become what we as humans would call paranoid. Expecting danger behind every tree, death at every expect noise, mountain lions at every movement. They will be looking for danger and when they see or hear anything that could be interpreted as threatening they will react with sudden, quick movements. Movements that are potentially dangerous for riders and handlers.
- While a horse is adrenaline filled he is not able to assess real danger correctly. He becomes so intent on flight he may not notice uneven ground, fences, obstacles in his way. He may not look where he is placing his feet or what his body will bump into if he turns fast or leaps sideways. Again if you are handling him or, worse, sitting on him his inattention to these risks puts you in danger.
So what can you do to decrease the likelihood of turning the adrenaline switch on and when it does how to turn it off?
First, learn how to recognize it.
There are a number of signs, though a horse may not show all of them.
- Appearance: His head, and possibly tail, will be held high. His eyes will wide. His ears ultra pricked
- Sweating profusely.
- His gait will be quicker than usual and he won’t be able to stand still, except for a few seconds to stare at something, then he will move again, quickly.
- He will be extra alert, every little sound and movement may bother him.
Redfield sees a very scary llama!
What can you do to calm your horse down once the Adrenaline switch has turned on?
First of all be calm yourself, if your adrenaline switch turns on when his does your horse will immediately know it and it will make him more afraid. You can’t fool horses, so find a way to get yourself out of danger so that you aren’t afraid. If you are on your horse and afraid that you will fall off if he moves too quickly, figure out a way to safely dismount. Then figure out a way to get your horse far enough away, without running away, from whatever is scaring him so that he is no longer afraid.
If you are not afraid yourself, stay calm and take him far enough away from the object so that he doesn’t feel the desperate need to run, then have him face the scary object for long enough to figure out that it is not scary. He will let you know that he now realizes he made a mistake in judgment by lowering his head, taking a deep breath and acknowledging you with a nuzzle or an ear flick. At this point you can encourage him forward towards the scary item and even let him touch it, which will further prove to him that it isn’t the monster he thought it was.
Alternatively, depending on the situation, you can take his mind off the scary object by turning him away and giving him something else to focus on. Usually when horses can’t see or hear the source of their fear they forget about it pretty quickly.
If you can’t figure out what is causing the adrenaline spike you may have to let the horse work it off by putting him in a round pen or on a longe line where he can move without jeopardizing his, or your, safety. The idea is to produce calm so you don’t want to do anything to rev him up further, just give him a safe place to go with his energy and wait calmly until he slows down, the goal being to walk it out not run it out.
The next thing to do is figure out what sets him off and then try to desensitize him to that stimulus. It can be any number of things, but in my experience it is often the owner/rider who is the catalyst. There are any number of ways you can do this without being aware that you are the cause.
If you are afraid of your horse or afraid that he will do something, like spook, that will hurt you, then he will catch that fear and the vicious circle will start. You’re afraid, which makes him wary and anxious, which makes you even more nervous and so it goes on with the two of you stuck in a never ending feedback loop.
If you have asked too much of your horse, either physically or mentally, he may associate you with discomfort and confusion and react with an adrenaline.
If you suspect that you fit either of these descriptions, jump to the Patience section of this article and then return.
If you are quite sure that it is not you, then you have to figure out if it is something from his past that sets him off. Perhaps he was worked too hard and too quickly by his last owner and the mere thought of work sets him off. I have seen perfectly calm horses turn into nervous wrecks just at the sight of a saddle. Or maybe he had a bad experience with a door banging into him so he now rushes through doors, the examples are obviously endless. Because horses remember things, especially scary things, very well, whatever it is that sets him off can only be cured by PROVING to him that he no longer needs to worry.
Prove to your horse that something isn’t scary
How do you prove to your horse that something isn’t scary or even particularly exciting? The answer is CALM, PATIENCE and REPETITION.
If the horse respects and trusts you he will follow your lead. If you remain CALM, so will he. It may not be the whole answer, but if you are not calm you will never be able to convince your horse to be calm.
You can’t force a horse to remain calm, you can only show him by example and perseverance that something is not frightening or even exciting, he will come to it in his own time but you have to be PATIENT enough to allow it to happen.
REPETITION is how you prove to your horse that there is no need to be scared or excited by something. If you repeat the action or the stimulus enough times for enough days he will eventually figure it out. There should be no change or excitement until he really believes that there is nothing to worry about. You have to convince him that for instance, longeing outside is just regular old work or that the tarp is just a tarp. It is boring, not worth worrying about!
Learning how to calm your horse is very important because you cannot train a horse that has adrenaline rushing through his veins. The best you can do is is direct his adrenaline filled energy forward, giving him somewhere to go that is safe for both of you. Real training can only happen when the horse is calm and able to pay attention to you.
It’s all very well for me to tell you to be calm but a different thing altogether to actually be able to do it. I would go as far as to say that a lot of people are never calm around, or on, their horse. They are in fact so used to being nervous that they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They don’t realize how they are affecting their horse or how much more pleasurable it would be if they weren’t scared all the time.
So how do you stay calm when your big horse is bouncing around you, or snorting at some object that the two of you have to get by?
The first and most important part of staying calm is to ensure that you yourself are safe and it is no good just telling yourself to get over it. Your body has an automatic response to stress and if your senses perceive danger (I’m on a large unpredictable beast that is about to do something that will make me fall off or run around out of control) it will put you into flight or fight mode no matter what your rational brain is telling it to do. And what happens when that happens? Your horse picks up the tension, becomes even more agitated, and the two of you are stuck in a vicious circle.
Because you are the human with a brain that is capable of rational thought, you have to solve the problem. You have to figure out what you can do to enable the two of you to proceed forward in the direction that gets you both where you want to go.
First things first! Don’t get on a horse that scares you, find something to do with him that you feel completely comfortable doing. Leading him around the arena, longeing, round pen, grooming, to name some.
If there is nothing that you can do with him that doesn’t set off your adrenaline, you have a big problem. Rather than trying to pretend to yourself that you are OK it would be a good idea to seek professional help, before either of you gets hurt.
Let’s assume that you feel comfortable leading your horse around, it is still important to feel safe and try to avoid your adrenaline switch turning on when his does. Here are a couple of safety tips that will help you if your horse suddenly has an adrenaline attack.
If you are longeing be sure that the gates to the arena or field, or wherever you are, are shut and that there is nothing that the lunge line could get caught on if he got away from you. That way if he suddenly starts bucking or galloping wildly and you are forced to let go it is unlikely that he will come to harm, and you can CALMLY watch his antics until he is ready for you to start again.
If you are leading him and he starts to spook at something, CALMLY position yourself so that you are between him and the scary object. That way if he spooks violently away from it he won’t be stepping on you or knocking you over.
Always have an escape plan in your mind, a fail safe that can get you out of trouble should your horse do something dangerous. I know I may sound alarmist but part of being a good horse person is being able to predict what your horse may do and be calmly prepared. In order to do this you must know your limits, what you are capable of dealing with and what you are not. You must be able to be the calm, thinking, part of the partnership or the two of you won’t get very far down the path you want to go down.
The importance of Patience
“Patience is a virtue”. It wouldn’t be if it was easy! We are not born patient! As any parent knows we spend a great deal of our childhood learning to be patient and we don’t like it! Not one bit!
When we are two and we encounter the reality of having to wait for something we want, we yell and scream and kick, in the throes of tantrums. When we are teenagers we hate the reality of having to earn what we want with hard work. It takes patience to do the necessary steps needed to earn money, get good grades, go to college, get a job.
Nothing worthwhile comes easily or immediately. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but learn it we do, because we have no choice.
The same is true when working with horses, it takes time to train and condition a horse, there is no way around it. If you try to rush the process you usually end up doing damage, either physically or mentally, which you then have to go back and fix. The fix takes even longer than if you did it right the first time. There are no short cuts, your horse is what he is and where he is, there is no way to sugar coat it. Riders try all the time, they yearn to jump 3’or compete at 4th level or join a 50 mile trail ride, so they fantasize that their horse is ready.
We’ve all seen it, riders who are trying to do more than they or their horse are ready for. Its sad and it dangerous!
Why does it happen? Because they lack patience. If you can stop being in a hurry you will find that patience can be a pleasure if you know what you are waiting for and what to look for along the way. If you can educate yourself to truly enjoy the completion of each step towards your goal.
If you love horses, how they look, how they think, who and what they are, then watching them learn and develop is one of the great pleasures in life.
There is nothing I like more than to observe the subtle changes that happen daily to a horse in training. The way his coat starts to shine, the muscles starting to define
themselves, the way he becomes more confident, the look in his eye, the pleasure when he greets you, happy to go to work.
These wonders are the things that true horse lovers’ dreams are made of! Without patience they don’t happen.
Onwards! Patiently, safely and calmly.