Something happened between the horse and the handler. Perhaps it occurred long ago...
Maybe the handler doesn't even know what the situation was (maybe it was real, maybe it was contrived). It really doesn't matter because now fear is part of the relationship.
The human tries to get the relationship back on track. But something is always there, in their mind, warning them:
CAUTION! BE CAREFUL! LOOK OUT!
The brain sends messages to the body. The human is unable to control their sense of unease and the energy pops out of their muscles.
...and the horse doesn't understand any of it. His once reliable, trusted leader is acting out of character.
So now the horse is on edge, he's unsure. The problem is, he doesn't know what he's unsure about. All he knows is that his leader is unstable. His person is afraid of something and it's his job to remain on high alert and figure out what it is.
The slightest breeze, a falling leaf, the cat jumping off the tack trunk, a car horn honking...
Anything and everything causes the horse to jump. He's looking for the "thing" that his leader is afraid of. He's feeding off his leader's emotions. Then it gets worse. He sees something and jumps. Then the handler jumps, confirming to the horse that the "thing" he found to jump at, was worthy of his nervous attention. Very soon, the horse is jumping or acting nervous about everything and the handler is convinced that they have a fearful horse.
This is the beginning of a vicious cycle - a feeding off one another that has no basis of justification. And for the horse - no reality.
This perplexing situation is confusing for both parties. The horse doesn't understand why his once reliable human is afraid of every little thing and the human is convinced that the horse is fearful - of something, maybe everything. The errant human logic is that the horse acts afraid - therefore, he must be! Right?
The pattern spirals out of control until both parties are chaotic and neither understands what to do. To protect himself, the horse tries his best to get away from the jumpy, edgy, shaky, nervous and anxious handler. The horse acts out negatively, he doesn't want to be with this person any longer.
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I have seen this pattern throughout my career. It is difficult to understand and even more difficult to correct. Bravo is in training for me to break that pattern and his owner has agreed to come too. Working with them together is the only way to correct this situation.
I start with the horse first.
I've blogged about how I got Bravo to start connecting with me. It's a good start. He trusts me just enough to give me a chance. Horses are so willing that way. During our encounters throughout the day, any time I am with him, whether he is haltered, saddled, loose out in the pasture, in the round pen - I never react to his anxiety or fear. If he is frightened by something, if he jumps, spooks, leaps sideways, or pulls back, I just go about my business. Whatever I was doing at the time Bravo changed from calm to anxious, I ignore his behavior and keep working on that project.
To successfully ignore him, I set my mind on one question...
What is out there, around my farm, that could cause this horse any harm?
The answer to that question is nothing. Therefore, when I have him tied in the barn and I'm grooming him and he chooses to jump out of his skin at some imagined fright, I keep grooming. If I'm on the top rail of the round pen and Bravo is next to me as I prepare him to be mounted and he jerks away because he "saw" something, I calmly bring him back, rub him and continue my preparations. Whatever the scenario, this thought process allows me to be completely calm and relaxed regardless of what Bravo decides to do.
By repeatedly remaining calm and assured, I am reinforcing a new pattern into Bravo's mental and emotional psyche. I am proving, regardless of the situation and how he may handle it, that a human
can be trusted to be a fearless leader.
Over the next several months, I will convince Bravo of this truth. Then the work will start with his owner....