What are thresholds and how can we deal with them?
Horses can have fear or leadership thresholds that can involve environmental, emotional or physical issues. These can sometimes show up as ‘napping’ where the horse refuses to go forward and people call the horse stubborn, this could also be something physical or painful somewhere, this should be checked by a vet first and foremost. They can also show up in sceptical horses where everything seems fine but then for no apparent reason they fly off the wall, bolt for home, spin or back up exceedingly fast. All of these really are fear or emotional thresholds or issues but it can also be a leadership or trust issue because if we’re frightened or unconfident the horse will pick up on that really fast and be unconfident or frightened too.
For a prey animal horses are asked to do quite a lot of things that aren’t naturally in their DNA. Horses are flight animals that live in family groups. They rarely go anywhere on their own, they are programmed to run without thinking through fear, for a horse it’s good to outrun whatever it was that frightened them or maybe wants to eat them, They are also animals that push into pressure SO when we get a horse going through a fear threshold their instinct to run without thinking is natural and quite often we are in the way and can get hurt. They literally cannot think of anything but running when in full flight mode. For a predator to ask them to calm down and listen is extremely hard to do and even harder to do when the predator is maybe being predatory!
Remember also that WE have thresholds…..this can be fear based such as trauma from a horse accident or going into a new environment such as a wide open field and a frisky horse. It could be worry that you may have an accident or riding with people you don’t know. We need to approach, retreat and reapproach with our own thresholds too!
SO…what can we do to help our horses and their thresholds?
1. We can really listen to their body language such as where their ears are looking, are their nostrils flared, is their head high, are their muscles tightening? if so then they are coming to a threshold. If we’re good at noticing these things we can do something earlier, before it becomes a bigger issue.
2. Once we’ve noticed a worry in our horse we can carry on and help the horse by being confident and assertive (not angry, frustrated or predatory) and this often can help a horse be more confident with us. If the horse stops and wants to look then let it, if the horse stops and snorts then there is something worrying it and we can back off, turn around and go away from the worrying thing (even if you can’t see what it is) or we can get off our horse and ask it to walk on or away to help the horse find confidence in us and relaxation over the situation.
3. Each situation is something you have to figure out with your horse as to what to do next. Once you have a good connection with your horse you should be noticing everything that it ‘says’ to you in it’s body language. Doing something earlier is better than doing something later and helping to understand your horses feelings and emotions goes a long way to being connected and learning to trust each other.
4. With the issue of a leadership threshold, where the horse doesn’t listen or trust us enough we need to learn to be ‘leaders’ in a way that helps our horse overcome issues it may have. By being a consistent, confident, quiet, calm leader where your horse can follow with confidence, because if we’re not confident about leading our horses won’t be confident to follow.
5. We need to make things familiar then take everything into a slightly unfamiliar place and create the familiar there too. To progress we take small steps into the unfamiliar and bring it into the familiar regularly and keep at it to progress. What we’re looking for in our horses is relaxation, attentiveness to our requests, willingness to perform those requests and curiosity with confidence. What we need to look for in OURSELVES is the ability to be confident by making sure we know the techniques to help our horses relax, to be confident in the ability to retreat out of a scary place if it’s making US or our HORSES worried at all and to be able to have techniques to help US relax in any situation even if that means GETTING OFF, BREATHING, RETREATING and RE-MOUNTING when we feel we can.
Being overly brave outwardly but scared inwardly really upsets horses, they read us beneath the surface, so don’t try to make it by faking it, it doesn’t work with horses. We need to ‘get our butterflies in formation’, find our confidence through consistency and progress at our and our horses pace.