Question from Carissa, Howard, Qld, Australia:

With correct training does a horses flight/fight response diminish or are some horses naturally strong minded?

So thinking about this question I have decided to answer it as two questions across two weeks:

  1. With correct training does a horses flight/fight response diminish?
  2. Are some horses naturally strong minded?

Because really we have two separate topics here:

  1. Dealing with fear based responses and,
  2. How we describe our horses behaviour (or is it personality?)

Question 1 –

With correct training does a horses flight/fight response diminish? 

Short Answer:

Yes with correct training you can diminish a horses fight/flight responses… and yes some horses will always have a higher level or higher occurrence of fear behaviour due to the difference in their natural motivation levels.

For instance, some horse’s are highly motivated or stimulated by changes to their environment, and some couldn’t give a rat’s, some horses are highly noise sensitive, some are not… Being that horses are prey animals you can never expect your horse to never show flight or fight responses.

However more often than not when flight or fight responses are seen in horses these are either directly or indirectly caused by humans incorrect training practices. Unpredictable pressures given by humans either under saddle or in hand will lead horses to feel that they can not control their environmental stressors, this can lead to mild tension (which will also increase the likelihood of a horse slipping into flight/fight behaviour) or complete conflict behaviour depending on the amount and level of the stressors.

So firstly you diminish your horses flight/fight responses by utilising learning theory and training correct operant (pressure based) responses, thereby removing the primary cause of conflict in the horse – us. Secondly when a horse does experience a situation outside of your control that triggers a flight response, if you have developed good operant based responses you can overshadow the horses fearful reaction quickly and induce habituation to the fearful stimulus rapidly.


Long Answer:

Firstly let’s discuss where ‘Flight/Fight’ responses stem from…


“(Fear) can be defined as the emotional reaction to a stimulus that the animal is motivated to terminate, escape from or avoid… Fear and anxiety are two closely related emotions. Fear is generally defined as a reaction to the perception of actual danger, whereas anxiety is defined as the reaction to the potential danger that threatens the integrity of the individual.”

McGreevy P, McLean A (2010) Equitation Science. United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell

Animals react to fear in one of two ways: Actively or Passively. Von Borell preferred to use Proactive (v’s Active) and Reactive (v’s Passive), as the notion of ‘passive’ has the potential to lead to the misunderstanding that the animal is doing nothing, when actually what is most probably occurring is the animal is preserving its energy as a ‘last ditch’ survival mechanism as all others (the proactive one’s) have failed…

Active coping mechanisms in animals comprise of escape or attack strategies (commonly known as flight or fight responses), while passive coping mechanisms are often very subtle and include ambivalent behaviour, displacement behaviour and freezing.

As a side note for us horsey people Nicol et al. (2005) Showed that feeding weaned foals a diet of fat and fibre decreased there ‘fearfulness responses’ and increased their ‘investigative responses’ compared to their research counterparts who were fed on the more traditional starch and sugar diet.

Being that horses are prey animals they want to escape aversive stimuli where possible. They have therefore developed strong ‘flight responses’, acute senses and fleet locomotory ability. Aggression or ‘Fight responses’ in horses generally only occur where the animal is trapped and unable to flee or when defending foals from certain predators. It has been found that there is a great variation among breeds and individual horses when it comes to their expression of ‘fear responses’, these responses can also be modified by age, experiences, genetics, physiological state and season.

It is very important to note here that fear inversely correlates with learning and performance; once the brain has perceived a fearful stimulus, alertness is raised and less salient stimuli are ignored (like reins and legs). This naturally occurring reaction to fear (the dulling of less salient stimuli) is why horses can gallop into fences or cars or collide with trees or other solid objects while in a full-blown flight response.

Once you digest this piece of information you realise how important it is for horse trainers to have a very good grasp of fear and its occurrence in horses…

As a side note it is also interesting to consider how a horse in a partially fearful state whilst going cross country will begin to jump low and flat and ignore the fact that its legs are hitting solid obstacles… I don’t think it is erroneous to consider that the increased spate of horse and rider falls and deaths cross country has more to do with the change in horse type and course design highlighting our flawed training methods rather than these falls and deaths being due to the change in horse type and course design…

Fearful responses and learning

It is well known in horse training that horses require a high level of repetition in order to learn behavioural responses unfortunately what is less known is…

“The flight response, unfortunately, can be learned in just one experience…”

McGreevy P, McLean A (2010) Equitation Science. United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell

Just digest that one for a moment and consider the implications for that in regards to the horse/human dyad…

and then consider this one…

In our current situation of the 21st century horses may be subjected to various fearful experiences of differing lengths of time, what most people don’t consider is the greatest fear inducing factor in the modern horses environment is actually HUMANS.    

Consider that fear is actually a mechanism designed to enhance the level of control an animal has about its environment and in nature horses can generally flee or fight the fearful or stressful inducing entity thus resolving the conflict. What this means is that learning signals coupled with consistent responses gives a horse control over its environment and thereby giving it the ability to resolve fearful or stressful situations.

What I feel is important to drive home here is high levels of predictability and controllability are adaptive for the horse while low levels are stressful, maladaptive and result in conflict behaviour…  

Why is it that WE are most commonly the cause of our horses fearful behaviour?

“Horse-riding provides a common setting for short or long-term stress because riders can directly enforce responses and unlike other animal training pursuits can effectively prevent escape by trapping horses between rein and leg pain…”

McGreevy P, McLean A (2010) Equitation Science. United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell

Active emotional coping in the form of engaged, vigilant and hyper-reactive behaviours characterise acute (short-term) stress. Acute stress can also manifest as redirected aggression, displacement activities, freezing or quiescence. Most typically in the horse however acute stress typically manifests as conflict behaviour…

Conflict Behaviour

“Conflict behaviours are the horses extreme attempts to resole conflicting motivations through hyper-reactive behaviours.”

Module 4 – Equitation Science International 2006

What causes conflict?

  • Sustained pressure
  • Pressure released for the wrong behaviour
  • Pressures released inconsistently
  • Pressure is too severe and not targeted at the lowest motivating level…

There are others… but the underlining message is this…

When using pressure to train, Predictability, Controllability and Escapability of these pressures are the most important factors to consider during implementation.

Your horse must feel like he has the ability to ‘Turn Off’ your aversive signals in order to gain control over them, this control will then result in his relaxation, as he feels in control of his environment…

When he can’t turn off your aversive signals and therefore loses control over his environment he enters a stressful state which can result in conflict behaviour becoming evident…

As horse trainers we can not initially avoid the use of pressure to train, this is why as horse trainers we NEED to understand how important operant responses are, how to train them and not avoid their use in favour of classically conditioned responses. It is faults in OPERANT RESPONSES that result in conflict behaviour, faults in classically conditioned responses have few damaging repercussions directly. However when a horse does not respond to a classically conditioned response the trainer will fall back on the operant response it should be linked to, and if THAT response is not clearly understood and eliceted from a low pressure you have now set the stage for conflict behaviour to develop…

Conflict behaviours and their causative factors

Please note this is not a ‘blue print’ for exact following, but it does give you a guideline as most behavioural problems manifest due to confusion about the pressures that control speed and line (considering that our legs and reins have the highest ability to elicit pressure). Frequently if there is confusion with one response there are also issues with others…

Confusion about the ‘Stop’ responses frequently include:

  • Bolting
  • Rushing
  • Running away
  • Jogging
  • Pulling
  • Above the bit

Confusion about the ‘Go’ responses frequently include:

  • Jibbing
  • Napping
  • Baulking
  • Refusing
  • Pulling back when tied up

Confusion about BOTH ‘Stop’and ‘Go’ responses frequently include:

  • Barging (in hand)
  • Reefing
  • Head Tossing
  • Bucking/pig rooting
  • Rearing
  • Freezing

Confusion about ‘Turn’ (and sometimes ‘Yield) responses frequently include:

  • Shying
  • Spinning
  • Lugging
  • Falling in/out
  • Dropping the shoulder
  • Unlevelness
  • Bridle lameness
  • Mounting problems

How do I diminish my horses ‘Fight/Flight’ Response?

In the list above I have highlighted those conflict behaviours that would also fall into the category of ‘Fight/Flight’ responses. So if you are experiencing any of those firstly you must retrain the responses associated with the behaviours.

Secondly your horse will always have moments where YOU are not the direct cause of his ‘Flight’ response and you need to manage these times also. Generally these moments will only occur due to environmental factors outside of your control – branch falling down, dog running out, child running around… the key here is again to have your OPERANT responses light in order for you to be able to overshadow the random environmental stimulant… if your horses has previously learnt that ‘All becomes clear and controlled in my world when I do ‘B’ in relation to ‘A”, it is amazing horse quickly they will habituate to extremely novel stimulus.

This I think is the where trust really forms between you and your horse, but it is trust born of pressure based signal control. If my horse stands still and relaxed in the face of a flapping scary tent he has either;

A – Previously experienced a number of flapping scary tents and has habituated to the experience


B – I have trained stop, go and turn to the point where they can out compete (overshadow) what should be a highly aversive stimulus and I have done this enough time’s that my horse has learnt though repetition that if he does respond to a highly aversive stiumuls in an un-natural way (ie. by not running away and by responding to these pressures coming from this random thing on his back that tell him to not run away) NOTHING BAD ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO HIM.

Hence we have a very large responsibility that when we ask our horses to respond in a way contradictory to their nature (which is pretty much everything we do with them) we must remove or at the very least minimise any pain or discomfort that may occur parallel to the ‘correct response’. For instance asking horses to jump fences prior to correct preparation increases their likely hood of them falling into fences, hitting rails or being pulled in the mouth or hit in the back by unprepared riders… this of course will lead to the horse being somewhat hesitant next time we ask him to jump or even to ‘Go’…

Yet people very often now blame the horse as being unwilling, lazy or stupid rather than considering that his behaviour is partially the result of receiving pain and discomfort as a direct result of responding to the humans signals…

One last note on stress…

Up till now I have talked about stress and its relation to how it can trigger flight/fight responses in horses. This type of stress would be considered maladaptive to horse training (considering that it is triggering a fear based response). However not all stress is actually bad in terms of any animal’s (including our own) well being. Low levels of stress are necessary for survival. Yerkes-Dodson’s law (included below) describes how stress can enhance learning performance to a point and then inhibit it.

Yerkes-Dodson's Law describes how stress can enhance learning performance to a point and then inhibit it.

Yerkes-Dodson’s Law describes how stress can enhance learning performance to a point and then inhibit it.

What this means to us is that optimal learning requires a specific narrow range of stress… This means that as horse trainers we need to have a keenly developed eye for the signs of stress and know how much is enough and how much is too much… a difficult lesson to learn…

In summery as you can tell this is a really huge topic, and one I fear I may not have been able to make as simple as I would like. I guess however this is the rub, while the practice of horse training is really quite simple; nearly everyone can kick, pull, tug, tap and also stop doing these things quite easily, it is knowing WHEN and WHEN NOT to do them that is the hard part.

This is where a deep knowledge of equine behaviour combined with a critical eye and high emotional quotient is imperative for horse trainers. Without these tools we are ineffective and quite possibly going to damage our horses to the point where they become unsuitable for some or all humans to enjoy.

Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions or want your question answered as a #talkbacktuesday topic. Happy riding everyone :)