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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Stress in training

It is impossible to move through life with zero stress and it is unfair not to prepare a horse for the situations they will encounter in their daily lives, but this doesn’t mean we need to put the horse through high-stress training to achieve this.

There is a big difference between “I’m slightly uncomfortable” stress and explosive, fearful stress. To offer an example, you have a horse who is reluctant to go over a jump. Option A might be to take the pressure off, let the horse sniff the fence, lower it right down to the floor and walk through until the horse builds confidence. Option B might be to escalate the pressure, refuse to let the horse back off even though they’re trying to spin and rear and just keep hounding them so their only option is forwards giving them no opportunity to assess the situation beyond that.

Personally I want to avoid high-stress whenever possible and it really has no place in my day to day training. I’d rather get there taking a little more time with the horse feeling as comfortable as possible than get there more quickly and risk damaging their associations with humans and training.

Instead of putting horses in situations where we know they are likely to have a big reaction or explode then trying to train from there, we can break things down into smaller steps and only move on when they understand. We can explain things clearly to the horse rather than trying to catch them out so we can sharply correct them and create that hyper-vigilance around people. How would you feel around someone who was hard on you every time you made a mistake or were hesitant? I don’t want my horses to feel like that around me.

We also need to think about the other ways stress can present itself, some horses are internal worriers, especially when their expressive behaviours have been shut down. Shut down horses are often mistaken for relaxed ones. One of the quietest horses I know was diagnosed with grade 3 stomach ulcers after a 3 week stint of no turnout, he didn’t box walk, he didn’t weave, he just quietly stood at the back of his box, and yet he was extremely stressed.

Sometimes we can swing too far in the other direction when we’re trying to be kind and give the horse no direction at all which can also cause high-stress. We can be considerate and thoughtful but still give our horse’s boundaries that help them navigate the world safely around us.

Training with food is a big topic and this can also cause high-stress if not used appropriately. We need to think about whether the horse’s needs are being met so they can feel comfortable around food, we also need to then teach the horse how to behave around food and make sure we are accurate with our timing and good at recognising frustration. Positive reinforcement training is really nothing to do with just feeding treats, it is a skill to be learned just like anything else and can be an incredibly effective way to train, especially with traumatised horses. 🐴

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