Does this look familiar?
When horses stop and stand, fixated on something faaarrr from their rider or handler, it can be super frustrating as the horse stops responding to you, or responds erratically, with hurried, jerky movements and little focus. This characteristic pose is called a ‘freeze’. It might last a few seconds or even minutes and despite the fact that the horse isn’t moving, it actually means they are really quite fearful and worried about the situation they find themselves in. Their body is completely still, but it is preparing itself to run or fight. The horses stress hormones, heart rate and breathing rate are all increasing as part of this preparation.
The freeze ‘pose’, includes a very high head position, wide eyes, flared nostrils, raised tail, fixed ears and tense back and neck. They may poop. As a handler, it is easy to feel very small and vulnerable as your horse appears to grow another hand and stop listening to you at the same time! Not fun!!
To be fair, its not much fun for your horse either, as they are struggling to cope with the situation they find themselves in. So what can we do to help?
Firstly, don't ask them to do anything when they are in a freeze position, doing so adds pressure and can trigger them to enter fight or flight. So we wait, we breathe, we relax our shoulders. Try and model relaxation for your horse.
Secondly, we want to identify what is triggering them so that when the horse comes out of the freeze, we can take steps to reduce the intensity of that trigger, to help them calm down. For example:
If we have taken them to a new location (say on a ride out, or even a new area of their home property that they don’t usually go), take them back somewhere more familiar,
If they have moved away from their normal companions, take them closer to a familiar horse, or have a familiar horse brought close to where you are working your horse.
If there is something novel in the environment that they are worried about (eg: a type of animal or vehicle they have never seen before), take them further away from it
Once we have reduced the trigger, help the horse to calm down further by encouraging them to graze for a bit. If they are too worried to graze, they are not calm enough for training and we need to reduce the trigger further.
If we catch the freeze early and can calm them down quickly, we may be able to continue with some training, just not quite the training we originally intended.
When our horse goes into freeze mode, it is not a good time to try and train them to cope with whatever situation is worrying them, they are too worried to learn well and very likely to escalate into fight or flight mode, which can be dangerous and lead them to learning to be even more scared.
What we can do is help them to calm down and make a note of what it was that worried them. This is training GOLD right here! Then when our horse is safe and calm, we can go and have a cup of tea and make a plan to gradually address the issue another day.
© 2021 Sara Jackson