Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Reassurance


re·as·sur·ance. noun : Something that is said or done to make someone feel less afraid, upset, or doubtful. To restore confidence.” These are the first internet definitions that come up.

how to reassure a horse
Photography copyright: Valia Alexiou

By: Franklin Levinson

If we were relating this to humans I think it would be relatively easy to come up with ways to try to reassure someone who was afraid of something. Especially something we could see was obviously nothing to fear. With a horse it may not be that simple. When they are afraid and stressed their behavior can quickly become so erratic and the movements so big and fast that the situation becomes quite dangerous for us humans. Because a horse is a prey animal (eaten by predators) it is only logical and natural for their fear responses to be so huge. In such instances it is important that we first never judge the animal as being bad or naughty, or doing something intentionally to hurt us. We are dealing with fear of not surviving and not disobedience. Not surviving is a basic fear we can all have. I believe it is very important that humans accept this before they attempt to deal with a fearful horse.

Knowing when and how to reassure a horse it is safe is huge for humans interacting with horses, Whether on the ground with a horse or riding it, knowing what to do and when to do it to assist in alleviating a horse’s fear is very important for both horse and human. Horses have two basic responses to scary situations. The first one is to run away. If it is at all possible for the animal to do this, it will. The second, if the horse feels trapped it will begin to fight for its survival. When I work with a nervous or fearful horse I do my best to stay below the panic threshold where it may want to jump out of the arena (or whatever the enclosure I am with the horse) or it feels it necessary to attack me. This involves the ability to ‘read’ a horse’s emotional state accurately. We need to be self-aware of our own emotional state too as the horse will tend to mirror the emotional state of the human. If we can remain calm when the animal gets fearful, this in itself can be reassurance for the horse that there is nothing to fear.

Reassurance can include verbal, as well as physical support. Speaking in calm, even manner to a horse can assist it in not being so afraid. Fast talk, a high pitched voice and abrupt sounds will produce more fear.  Gentle and appropriate stroking, not patting, can serve to help a nervous horse to settle own. Stroking the animal’s neck on the top and side can be very reassuring and can be done by a rider as well as by someone on the ground next to the horse. It always surprises me when I see riders slapping their horses on the neck thinking this is a good way to praise the animal for a good job or to calm it. The human who understands and respects their horse enough to touch the animal in similar ways that they would like, to me, shows that human to have wisdom of horses and a high regard for them. Through experience I have learned that horses like a thoughtful touch that is steady, not too hard or soft and not quick. I discourage humans patting horses.

I recall a situation where a fellow had a horse in hand and wanted to take it for a walk. He got some rather short distance away from the barn and the animal began rearing, bucking in place and dancing around. I saw this and knew it was not about a bee stinging or a fly biting the horse. The young man, who thought he knew something about horses, got quite loud, afraid and began yanking on the lead rope making things worse for both. I asked this fellow if he wanted some help and he nervously said yes. What I did was to take hold of the rope and quickly guide this fearful animal to some shrub on the side of the road which the horse immediately began to eat. I know a horse will not eat if it is afraid. Horses need to feel safe in order to graze. The eating motion alone settles a horse down and actually provides reassurance that it is safe. I see nothing wrong in allowing a horse to settle down and release fear by eating. A fearful horse will often grab a bite of grass and quickly bring its head up again, dance around a bit and then grab another bite. Usually, over a short period of time, they care more about eating than what they were afraid of.

Reassurance that a horse can release its fear may also come from the human leader who knows how to guide movement in a very appropriate and effective way. Rather than attempting to restrain a horse that is showing fear, often I will ask for simple movement, such as lungeing around me. I believe in allowing a nervous horse to move and merely directing where it goes. Horses in the wild are reassured of safety by the leader(s) of the herd. That leader knows when and where to move the herd. That leader controls the spatial aspects of the herd (who stands where) and will easily move a youngster away from the herd a short distance as a consequence for unwanted behavior. So when the human leader can correctly ask for and receive movement from the horse, even simple movement, then reward the animal by removing the pressure of the request, this is a very effective way to reassure a horse there is nothing to fear. Fawning over a nervous, fearful horse is mostly not effective. Excellent leadership is. It would be the same for a fearful child. The parent who can come forward with confident leadership reassures the child that there is nothing to fear.

So it can be seen that human reassurance for a fearful horse can come in a number of ways that all have their basis in calm, confident and skillful leadership. Allow movement but direct it. Give up restraint and go for willing cooperation via this great leadership. Help alleviate a horse’s fear by developing trust and feelings of safety with it. The rewards will be terrific.