The value of fear in horse assisted education

When we present our activity, we often hear “Sounds interesting but I’m afraid of horses!”. Other times, we get into the arena to start the first exercise and then we hear this phrase. On some occasions we see people’s fear directly in their actions: they hesitate to get near the horses, they drop the lounge and get out of the way etc.

Fact: working with horses in a horse assisted education set-up is for most of our clients a first. Most of the participants know very little about horses in terms of how and what they communicate, what are the incentives they are sensitive to, how to negotiate over space and time and especially how to lead them. On the other hand, our horses are highly socialized and love being close to humans, thus they will deliberately interact with people in their proximity.

The base function of fear is to keep us safe, to secure the boundaries which allow us to exist as individuals. We would get hurt fast without fear.

Safety is our highest priority. We take fear very seriously. Both the fear of the horses and that of the participants. Often, the fear of people is misdirected – they fear the non-dangerous behaviors of horses and are completely unaware about the real dangers. Often, horses are afraid of the simplest objects, just because light or shade.

For horses, fear originates in the unknown and the unpredictable. With people it’s a little bit more complicated, the uncontrolled also plays a role.

Here the first value-point comes in: interacting with horses shows us that we are mostly afraid of the things we interpret based on the information we have previously been exposed to, instead of being afraid of the ones who could really threat our well-being, as per the present events. Our existing mental constructs are so strong that they determine the behaviors we display, even in the face of an evidence, which in this case weighs roughly 3-400 kg. We instruct everyone about the basic rules of safety when working with horses. In this respect, being behind a horse bares an intrinsic risk of surprising the horse which will lead to a reaction (flight of kick).

We here more people being afraid of a horse-bite than of a horse-kick. The actual threat favors the last over the first.  This belief causes people to work from a distance which for horses is neither leading nor following, therefore unpredictable. The horses try to compensate by turning their head which simply generates the person to step even further or they walk away which means the person might end up closer to the hind legs than to the head.

Even after experiencing in practice this cause & effect pattern, past information, false as it may be, is a stronger determinant of the behavior than present evidence.  We are sometimes slower in adapting to change that we would like to believe. We need time and repetition to change.

The second value-point emerges: to rewrite a behavior- pattern we need more than information or knowledge. We need to experience the new alternatives until we pass over the fear of the unknown, the unpredictable or the uncontrollable.  To be able to develop as individuals, we need to work on our boundaries, physical, emotional, intellectual, so we stop turning on the fear-alarm.

Fear is a here & now guardian and horses are the best models to demonstrate this. Although they are the prey, and being afraid of the unknown means staying alive, they embody calmness more than they embody fear. They permanently scan their environment, you included if you happen to be part of it, and assess the risk, while being in a calm state. They are present. Only should the need arise, fear will kick in, determine a response and once that situation is resolved, they will go back to grazing.

We, the humans, tend to be afraid of imagined things (past or future) more often than we are afraid of present things. This means we expense a considerable amount of energy on items belonging to the past or the future, both being out of our control instead of focusing our attention on the present, where we can do something.

The third value-point is fear is valuable mostly here and now where it engages vast resources of energy to keep us safe. Fear of past or future is just waste of energy because it does not improve our well-being, it just drains our body of vital energy. Working with horses is a pure source of feedback about our awareness of the present moment. Once we learn that, we will be able to interpret the information fear brings to us instead of putting it down and covering it with high-adrenaline activities or by shying away from other people and experiences (hide the emotion or hide the context).

The main advantage of being able to correctly interpret the message carried by fear is that our problem-solving skills will increase because our brain will be relaxed enough to work with the resources it has. If resources are available, not directed towards an imaginary threat, the results will be far better than when there is scarcity.

Fear can be a significant roadblock when deciding to work with horses. Working with the information provided by the fear, at the right pace, with the right partners can transform it into a source of progress.

Please be safe and keep your equine partners safe, always. Please note that horses have their own will and remember to always opt for the safest way to do things with and around horses. Always evaluate the horse and the environment before deciding your actions. Never surprise or scare a horse.

Always choose to work with professionals with high standards regarding safety for humans and horses.