How to Help a Horse Overcome Fear

This is Hero, he is a three year old quarter horse, a very inquisitive, curious horse with a pretty laid back disposition until something unfamiliar presents itself. Like many other horses the dreaded tarp just about always elicits the fear response. Why? Well, tarps have many components that bring about fears, it can make unfamiliar noises at every touch, so it’s rather noisy and it moves unpredictably especially given a little breeze. Not to mention, it smells funny too.

With utilizing Positive Reinforcement methods first, this was going to be a great demonstration to see how long it would take, how well (quality) we could achieve our result and how calm the horse is throughout the process. The latter being my first priority and goal. (I am never concerned as to the time it takes, I’m just always amazed as to how little time it does take when using positive reinforcement! :0). Quality and calmness are my measurements.

Next on my list is no force, only suggestions. No ropes, no halters, no stick, no nothing except praise and reinforcement when he tries.

horse and tarp showing fear

In the above picture Hero clearly demonstrates the fear response, he is deciding when fleeing is necessary! Notice tense muscles, ready to take off and away from the object. Ears perked toward the object and nostrils flared. Since he showed me that this was very frightening, I do the next exercise to alleviate some of that fear.

All horses become less fearful if the object is moving away from them rather than toward them. This is why I wouldn’t get good results by picking up this tarp and trying to go toward him with it. This would just create more fear. So I would do the opposite and have him investigate from a distance and encourage him to follow it. Their sense of curiosity will kick in and they will want to follow it. If it doesn’t don’t worry, you could be dealing with much more fear than you realize. Just do what the horse can tolerate. You might need to walk away further and further, but if they are watching you, they are curious.

So in the next picture, he is practically "stalking" the tarp! LOL Curiosity is in the forefront now and fear is one step behind. We reversed the order!

horse following tarp

Before long I stop walking and he gets to sniff and investigate further. Off I go again. Then stop (when he is curious and calm) and now he sniffs and paws at it. Great! We are moving in the right direction.

horse pawing tarp

Now I walk over it a couple of times while he watches. ( I want him to hear the noises it makes) Then I ask him to try to follow me. Of course at first he wants to follow me but takes the long way around the tarp! I laugh and stop for a moment. Stroke his neck and point (targeting) the tarp and take a step onto it. Here’s the result.

Whoolah! Success!

horse walking across on tarp

Now this is a great place to stop, give a jackpot and call it a day or move on to something easy and familiar. But because Hero was so calm and dare I say seemed rather impressed with himself! I wanted to double check our result by moving the tarp again (creating another kind of noise from the tarp) and asking if he could walk upon it again to note if we have less hesitation than the first time.

Yip, he could, no problem! So that was where we ended this task.

horse standing on tarp

How long did this take? The whole thing from the first picture to the last was 15 minutes! To me that’s a spit in the bucket where time is concerned. Not to mention that this exercise will be beneficial for Hero when he encounters any other object that might frighten him because we now have established a good experience to draw from.

Special Note: Prior to any teaching to be successful with a horse the first ingredient to be in place is trust. Hero and I have created a two way trust. That doesn’t mean on occasion he doesn’t say NO to one of my playful ideas! He has the right to say NO too! It's how I know what he is thinking! Sometimes he will look at me with the suggestion of, “What? You want me to do that?” or “Gosh, you really come up with some strange ideas!” and my favorite, “You must be kidding!, I’m not ever doing that!” Only through time and quality communication I help him to understand that my idea really was his idea all along! He just didn’t know it yet!

Here’s to helping our horses overcome fear,

Elaine Polny

Training Horses Naturally

Return to Horse Training Tips from How to Help a Horse Overcome Fear