Sometimes, we as horsepeople have fears that are overwhelming - particularly if we've had a bad wreck. I certainly remember that feeling - that catch in the gut with the flood of fear and bad images - that would come after my accident in June 2011. All it took was for a horse to take a bad step, or be up, or move funny on the lead line - it didn't take much. It was debilitating and the feelings involved were horrible.
I often remember how that felt when I'm dealing with a horse who has a fear issue. Fear is different from anxiety - dealing with something new or an unusual situation. Fear is "I have to save myself, otherwise I will die" - it's that strong. Having experienced fear like that helps me sympathize with a horse who is deathly afraid of something.
Red is terrified of lunge whips. I learned this one day after I got him when we were doing some ground work - I used a lunge whip for the first time - just in my hand - even when I didn't use it - he would bolt, and rear, and generally lose his mind - he was gone and desperate to get away at any cost. We don't know how he came by this fear, but he came by it honestly - he's genuinely terrified - his experiences must have been overwhelming, particularly to such a sensitive horse. It really doesn't matter - it just matters how we deal with it now.
It's clearly a specific issue - Red, although prone to worry and somewhat high-strung - isn't a spooky horse - noises and strange objects don't really bother him all that much and his curiosity is very strong - I like curiosity in a horse - it indicates intelligence and willingness.
Yesterday Red made huge progress on conquering his fear of lunge whips. I don't routinely do desensitization with my horses - I prefer for them to operate on trust no matter the situation. I think a lot of desensitization work is done without regard to how the horse is feeling about things, is done to excess, and sometimes horses just put up with things and shut down their emotions - this can come back later to bite you. But I do do work on "scary objects", giving the horse choices and rewarding them for courage. For example, Dawn and I have done clicker work with scary objects - like plastic bags and tarps - that used to scare her badly - and she's made huge progress. The ability of the horse to choose seems essential to me - the horse needs to tell me how close, how much, and I need to listen and not overwhelm them.
We'd already had a busy day - the vet was out in the early afternoon to do our West Nile vaccinations. This meant my three had to come in from turnout early and wait their turn while other horses were looked at - Red was fussy and doing a lot of nickering and calling to me from his stall. All three horses were excellent, as usual, for the vet. Before the vaccinations, the vet evaluated Pie - who'd had an EPM-related neurological flare up from his previous vaccination - and we determined he was improved enough to vaccinate now.
After the vet left, we went back to our usual afternoon routine. I rode Pie first, then Red. While Red and I were riding, another boarder came into the ring. I know him well - he often lunges his horses - he has two mares he rides as well as two older retired horses - before he rides, to determine how they are before he gets on - he's close to 70 - older than me - so I understand his caution. He had a lunge whip with him - Red spotted it immediately. Red was nervous, but cooperative with me as we worked around the perimeter of the ring. Then the other boarder snapped the whip - Red flinched as if someone had hit him with it. I took him down to the far end of the ring, dismounted and closed the door to the barn he lives in - the opening is too small - both width and height - if a horse bolts and goes through it, and I wasn't interested in getting scraped off. I led Red around a bit at the far end of the ring, and then, "snap" the whip went again, and Red made it clear that We Were Leaving the Ring Now, Even if That Requires Going Through Solid Walls. In his past, this would mean that he bolted over and through me, but this time he just said he had to go NOW, and I went with him while making sure he didn't run over me. At times like this, it's important to be with the horse and not ask them for something they can't do.
The boarder, who is a very nice man, stopped cracking the whip immediately and put it away - unlike the two insensitive and uncaring boarders Red and I had encountered on an earlier ride. I was able to lead Red back to the other end of the ring, around the lunging horse - he kept an ear on things, and remount. This is huge for Red - for him to calm down after an upset and be able to pay attention to me again is enormous progress. Red was even reacting to the whistles and kisses the boarder was using for his horse, so he stopped doing that. I remounted - Red stood like a trouper - brave horse - and went back to work. He didn't care about the lunge whip when it was lying on the ground, or when it was leaning against a wall - it was only when it was in someone's hand that he was afraid.
We decided to see what Red would tolerate, and see if we could help him start to get over his fear. The boarder took his mare into a corner, with the lunge whip all rolled up, and started rubbing her all over with it - she could have cared less. I gradually asked Red to approach closer, step by step - I never forced him and he was on a loose rein and if he had wanted to leave, I would have let him. I just gently asked, and each time he went a bit closer. I praised him extravagently at each step. His ears were up and he was focussed on what was occurring. The boarder and I agreed that horses do learn by watching other horses, and what happens to them - good and bad. Red did a lot of licking and chewing - not just nervous chewing, which he can do when he's worried. Since I didn't force things, and he felt free to leave if necessary, he was able to try for me.
When the boarder walked around the far side of his horse to rub her with the whip, and came back around with the whip raised, Red felt the need to take a few steps back - that was fine with me. Then, when he was comfortable again, the boarder held his whip out to his mare's nose and then offered it to Red. Red was able to stretch his nose out and touch it - we decided that was a triumph and stopped right there - what a good, brave horse - he got a huge amount of praise from me. Red and I went on to have a lovely ride afterwards.
We have a lot more work to do on this fear he has - but this was huge progress - I'm so proud of him, and he knows it.