I did many walk road hacks last week as it seemed to be physio week at the yard, and on one of them my friend accompanied me on her loan horse.
As we mooched through the village, moaning about the driver who had undertaken us as the horses spooked, our conversation turned to horses and claustrophobia.
She told me that since she’s taken this horse on she has loosened his nose and by two holes and his flash by three. As a result she’s finding that he is less resistant and more consistent to the rein contact, and isn’t fixing his brachiocephalic muscle against the hand, which is causing him to carry himself more correctly. He has largely stopped snatching his reins and twitching his head whilst being worked.
From this we moved on to how horses are, by nature, claustrophobic animals – they are prey animals so need space to flee from predators. Hiding in a cave won’t allow them to use their long legs and speed to outwit the predator; they will have to fight.
We have domesticated horses and expect them to face their fears on a daily basis: live in small paddocks, stay in stables, wear constricting rugs and tack. But where does this leave us?
With behaviour problems, of course. Like my friend’s horse, they could develop a little vice, which in the grand scheme of things is not life changing, but it will limit their ability to succeed in competitions.
Last year for example, Mum bought Matt a larger browband and found that he was immediately more relaxed and not shaking his head so much – the pressure around the base of his ears had gone.
We all know horses who don’t like travelling in partitions, or small dark stables, and it’s not surprising given the contrast to their natural habitat, but we continue to force these situations on them. Most horses accept and adapt, but one mare I ride hasn’t. She won’t stay in a stable, and whilst she tolerated travelling in Otis’s trailer without the partition, she panicked when put in a lorry and had the partition closed. Additionally, when you ride her in the school on a long, loose rein she meanders past jump blocks, swaying nettles, without fear but as soon as she feels constricted with the rein contact, however light, she begins spooking at anything and everything. It takes a very sympathetic hand to be able to take the contact but not cause her to feel closed in. She is getting better though, so I only hope that frequent work with a light contact will teach her not to fear it.
I would love to put her in a paddock with a very large field shelter so that she could gradually learn not to fear smaller spaces, because her level of claustrophobia actually limits her life – she has to live out in all weathers and she can’t go out competing. I don’t know what has happened in her past, but it does make you wonder.
Have you ever been riding a horse who is getting upright and tense, so you shorten the reins and pull, trying to slow them down or stop the jogging? Then someone says “drop the reins” and as soon as you do so the horse stops jigging? By holding on tight, which is our natural reaction, we are adding to the horse’s fear because he feels he cannot flee, and must fight the predator.
It was a really good conversation to have, and makes you reassess everything about your horse’s lifestyle, just to make sure that you aren’t causing him any claustrophobia – by having tack too tight, or holding on very tight to the headcollar when leading him in, or even riding in a constricting style. See if you can think of any changes to make!