Scared Horse? Try Counter-Conditioning

Scared Horse? Try Counter-Conditioning

If a horse has had a bad experience while tied, counter-condition him to step forward and stand still when you apply poll pressure.

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Q. One of our horses spooked when she was tied up, and now she explodes if we try to tie her at all. How can we overcome this behavior?

Patricia, Maple Valley, Washington


A. First of all, let me say that I find this a particularly challenging problem to rehab to the point that I trust the horse to be safe and comfortable tying. That’s because this type of unfortunate experience is one that tends to leave a very strong and long-lasting impression on a horse, particularly if the horse actually breaks free. Not only does the horse now have a high-level conditioned fear and an almost reflexive panic at any indication of being tied, but the release of pressure she felt when she broke free strongly reinforced the explosive reaction. The panic and the reaction that led to release in the first event appears to become almost hard-wired. A similar situation that is equally dangerous and difficult to rehab is the horse that rushes backward when backing off a trailer for the first time.

A strategy that works fairly well for most horses, and probably has the best chance of successfully helping a horse become safely comfortable when tied, is counter-conditioning. This is teaching an alternate response to triggering stimuli. For instance, if pulling back is the response that gets the horse in trouble, counter-conditioning would be teaching the horse to step forward and then to stand still to any poll pressure. 

While this might sound goofy or difficult to do, most people get really good at it fairly quickly once they see how effective it can be. First, I start out in the open and apply mild poll pressure while presenting a small pan of feed that will entice the horse to step forward. Then I offer the horse a bite. I repeat this a few times until the horse responds to the tug of poll pressure reliably and reflexively by stepping forward even without the feed bowl enticement. (However, I still like to intermittently reward the desired response of stepping forward by delivering a treat immediately after the step.) After that response is well-established, the next stage of shaping the response is waiting a few seconds with the horse standing still before offering the treat. Then I start stretching that time out further and further and introduce only intermittent food rewards, maybe substituting a firm scratch at the withers as a less powerful, yet still rewarding, thank-you gesture. 

One very important strategy is to set up a training situation that ensures the horse does not have enough space to pull back very far and break away.

Dr. Sue McDonnell

Once it is time to actually try to tie the horse again, one very important strategy is to set up a training situation that ensures the horse does not have enough space to pull back very far and break away. This is called interrupting the avoidance cycle should the horse pull back. At first I work in a chute with a butt bar positioned so that it stops the horse before the halter or lead breaks. Or I’ll work in a stall with straw bales lining the wall behind the horse or set up well-secured heavy round pen panels with a butt-high wall of straw bales between the horse and the panels. The goal is to have as little conflagration as possible that would only add to the fear or panic should the horse pull back. Use a sliding tether initially, so that if the horse pulls back, you can release pressure and nothing breaks. Sometimes I just hold the horse securely while feeding him. Again, this will help the horse realize that being tethered is not a bad situation and, in fact, leads to being fed. 

I mentioned how similar the problem is to rushing back out of a trailer. When counter-conditioning a horse that rushes out of the trailer, I like to teach him to back up one step at a time on command. I usually start in an open area, asking the horse with both a physical directive on the lead and the word “back” to back one step. As I ask the horse to back, I hold a small feed bowl with grain or treats out in front of him. That forward focus on me and the feed bowl seems to distract or override the conditioned reflex to rush back. 

Each time the horse takes one step back, he gets a bite of feed from the bowl. I replicate this a few times until the horse takes one step back with just the verbal cue. If he takes more than one step at a time, draw him forward with the bowl again and repeat. Using the lead, I also like to start directing the hindquarters one way or the other slightly or straight back one step at a time, as you may need to do on a trailer ramp. Once the horse is doing this well out in the open, I go to a chute or even a stall and ask the horse to back out of the chute or through the stall door in the same fashion.

The next step, of course, is to go to the trailer and do some loading and unloading in the same manner. Initially I do this without closing the butt bar or back gate. Dropping the butt bar often triggers the rushing, so I like to have the horse backing one step at a time reliably down the ramp on verbal command, then add those features back into the sequence. It is great to have an assistant place a hand on the horse’s butt while quietly removing the butt bar as I wiggle the feed pan or add new feed or whatever it takes to draw the horse forward off the butt bar and distract him from its manipulation. For the trailer situation, I like to be very slow to give up the enticement for forward focus and rewards for each single step back on command. I also recommend continuing to always back the horse out of the trailer one step at a time. It is a small price to pay to break the unfortunate cycle of panicked rushing back. 

This probably sounds like a huge, time-consuming job when it’s described in detail like this, but in many cases you can retrain these horses in a few short sessions, and sometimes in one day, but certainly in no more than a week of daily sessions.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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