First Impressions Count

They really do.

Especially when it comes to the potential for a new experience to cause fear.

Why is this? Well the first time we experience something, our brains are busy noticing every detail and paying close attention to the experience. If something happens that really frightens us, the situation and the fear can become inextricably linked. There is no prior experience telling us that the situation is usually safe, so our brain learns that that particular environment is scary and something we should try and avoid. So a horse that had a painful procedure the first time they met a veterinarian and who has associated veterinarians with fear (of pain), will experience that fear every time they see or smell the vet.

Last week I took my baby for his first swimming lesson. I was excited, anticipating a fun session for him, splashing around getting used to the water, in the company of other babies. We certainly started out that way, but then the instructor asked us to sit them on the edge of the (chest deep on me) pool.

‘Just line them up’ she said, ‘and I will come along and push them in’.

Errr, say what now? There was no way I was going to let her push my baby into the water! That would be so frightening for him and so likely to create a fear of water - the exact opposite of my goal for bringing him to the class in the first place!

My heart started beating faster, I hadn’t prepared for this, I didn’t have an articulate argument ready, I came here to have a lovely time, not a confrontation. As I took my baby out into the pool well away from the edge, I watched her push the other little babies into the water. My heart broke to see the big round eyes of a little girl as she clung to her mother, wet hair plastered down. Another little one swallowed water and had to be taken out as he started vomiting. His mother left without looking back. I recall how quiet it was after all the dunking. Where before there had been splashing and delighted shrieks, now the babies clung to their mothers, silent and watchful.

‘Yeah’, I said to the instructor when she motioned for us to participate, ‘we’re not doing that’.

We didn’t participate and we won’t be going back, but the experience has left me pondering 2 things:

1. We need to remember that feelings attach themselves to situations and experiences, especially first experiences. And if those feelings are particularly strong (like a really scary experience or traumatic event), they can persist. This is one of the ways a fear of water, or horse floats, or needles can get established. The horse who ends up in a traffic accident the very first time they travel in a horse float is likely to be far more frightened of the horse float and problematic to load next time, than one who has the same traffic accident after floating calmly and uneventfully many times. This is why it is soooo important that we try and manage all our horses ‘first’ experiences as much as possible to make them as likely as possible to go well.

2. We are our horses’ only advocate. Sometimes we will find ourselves in positions we didn’t expect and, like me with my baby in his swimming class, we need to speak up to protect them from what could be a traumatic or frightening experience that could create a negative association. This can be sooo difficult because we are taught from a young age not to question professionals and socially, there is a lot of pressure to comply with requests and do what everyone else is doing. It is difficult, but vital that we are prepared to advocate for our horses and keep the ‘thank you, but no’ and the ‘I’m not comfortable with that, do we have another option?’, cards in our back pocket for those times when an instructor wants to teach our horse a lesson we are not comfortable with, or we are asked to do something at a clinic, or by a farrier, vet or other equine professional that doesn’t fit with our ethics.

Fear is not a fun emotion to experience. Whether it’s fear from a trauma or scary event in the moment, or being triggered long afterwards because the feeling of fear has become associated with something in the original environment. Fear associations can be difficult and time consuming to change. It’s our job as horse guardians to do everything in our power to prevent them from being made in the first place.

© 2021 Sara Jackson


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