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Understanding Fear
By Dr. Beverly Gordon
The sport of riding is unique. It is one of the few sports
where successful performance is directly related to the
quality of communication between two distinctly separate
species. As such, there is an element of uncertainty
inherent in the sport. Add to that the very real possibility
that the rider or horse might actually become injured and it
is no wonder fear is so prevalent throughout the sport.
As we strive to improve our communication with the
horse, we naturally learn more about how and why
the horse responds as he does and how we can help
him through his own fears. This helps decrease the
unpredictability associated with riding and increases rider
confdence. Combine this with information and research
on the scientifc basis of fear and we are well on our way
to improve human/equine communication and, as a result,
decrease some of the dangers inherent in the sport.
Science of Fear
The Trigger
You’re riding along quietly and in an instant, seemingly
out of nowhere, you feel a perceptible change in your horse.
His body suddenly tenses as you feel him drop his back and
raise his head. Maybe he stops moving, or starts jigging,
or worse he spins, bolts, bucks or perhaps even rears. You
might not know what started this undesirable behavior;
but certainly something in your horse’s brain triggered this
sequence of events. But what was this mysterious trigger
and how can we help the horse through it so we can keep
it from happening again?
While you may never know the exact sequence of events
which set off your horse’s need to act as he did, you can
be sure that in every instant where fear is a factor there
exists a trigger for its expression. In both the human and
the horse, this trigger is usually the result of an association
with either a past memory or previous life experience,
or an instinctive behavior (as is bred into the horse as a
protection for their survival). Either way, fear is the result
of a complicated sequence of chemical reactions which
originate in the brain.
Origin of Fear
Scientists have made strides in identifying how and why
we experience fear. Apparently, several parts of the brain,
acting in combination, are responsible for the fear you
are feeling at any given moment. The hippocampus, for
example, allows the formation of memories, including the
fall you had last week in the grassy feld after your horse
bucked wildly and uncontrollably through the rose bushes.
The cerebellum helps you remember what it physically felt
like to fall and hit the ground. Furthermore, the amygdale
allows you to recall the emotion you experienced when the
horse began bucking, along with the fear associated with
the entire incident. This whole process occurs because
your brain has nerve synapses which create pathways
for the development of this fearful memory along with all
the factors associated with it. This is why you might feel
fear again when you ride through a grassy feld or smell
rose bushes. It is very interesting to note that people (and
probably horses) can remember things incorrectly or things which
never happened if their association with the fearful memory is
strong enough!
Dealing with Fearful Horses
When a horse becomes frightened, humans will typically
exhibit one of three responses. 1- We tend to soothe or console
them, 2- treat them aggressively or reprimand them for their
undesirable behavior and 3- ignore this behavior. In actuality, all
three responses can be correct, or incorrect, depending upon the
circumstances at hand.
Let’s look at the frst response. It’s human nature to comfort and
protect and these kind and gentle actions are intended to calm and
quiet a frightened horse, and in fact, may do just that. However,
because horses’ reactions depend a great deal on their natural
instinct, during moments of fear, it is imperative that the horse’s
trust in the human overrides his natural instinct to be fearful.
More than soothing and consoling from humans, horses need
the human to become a confdent leader; one who can give them
clear direction and stability during fearful moments. Deferring to
the leader in the herd throughout history during dangerous and
stressful times has ensured the survival of the species.
With regard the second response noted above, it should be
obvious (especially if you have been reading my articles on
Resistances) that by punishing a truly fearful horse for being
frightened you might, in fact, train your horse to become more
fearful, and less trusting. For example, if you are afraid of elevators
and every time you entered one someone hit you in the head,
you would be conditioned to be fearful of elevators. However,
if someone proved to you that every time you trusted them and
walked into the elevator you were not only safe, but received a
reward, you would be quite a bit more likely to get over your fear
of elevators. And, more importantly, gain trust in the person who
asked you go into the elevator.
Ignoring your horse’s fear because you are lazy, indecisive,
or fearful is inexcusable. Your horse’s well being is always
your responsibility. There are times, however, when you should
ignore your horse’s fear to show him you believe there is no
reason to be afraid. This will only work if your horse trusts that
you are a confdent rider, with specifc purpose, who will always
look out for his safety. This should be the goal of every rider!
In a follow-up article we will discuss overcoming your Fear of
Until next time,
Dr. Bev Gordon
Dr. Beverly Gordon is both a licensed
human and certifed AVCA animal
chiropractor, consultant at L.I.Equine
Med Center and President of Gor-
don Chiropractic.  Her background
is in exercise physiology and biome-
chanics of movement. Dr. Gordon’s
practice is limited to horses and fo-
cuses on improving movement and
performance at all levels through
grand prix. She may be contacted
at or