You cannot reinforce fear, but you can reduce it
I have written several posts on why you cannot reinforce fear (because fear is an emotion, not a behaviour), but it really became very clear to me today on an out-ride, how true this is. In fact, adding good stuff (comfort, food, play) to potentially fear-inducing situations can actually REDUCE fear and help animals to recover more quickly when they are anxious or unsure. It can even change the way animals respond in the future to scary situations and help them to be more “optimistic” and resilient.
Fear responses in horses are usually pretty hard to miss. Where dogs’ fearful responses are often mistaken for “aggression” or even “playing the fool” (appeasement and displacement behaviours), it is hard not to realise that a horse jumping out the way or running off is afraid. Many people feel that horses are quite unpredictable in their sudden propensity to take off when startled, but this is a very normal survival response from an animal whose ancestors had to escape being food for predators. The suddenness of these responses can be alarming for riders and most horse people have fallen at least once from a spooked horse!
But it also has to be remembered that the traditional way of handling fearful horses has been to flood them with scary stuff and force them to comply with physical pressure from the rider to pass scary things. I still remember a woman hitting her horse after the horse spooked at a spot she had insisted on riding past, despite knowing that the horse ALWAYS spooked in that particular place. Seldom are horses comforted and handled with kindness or given any sort of choice in scary situations. Seldom is food used as a tool to change their emotional responses.
However, this is exactly what I have done with Jedi, the horse I have the privilege of spending time with and riding. If Jedi looks at something with any hesitation, I talk to him in a reassuring voice and feed him carrots, apples and shandy cubes. I baby talk him past whatever it is and keep the food coming. The result? I now have a horse that sees something potentially spooky and instead of freaking out, turns his head to me immediately for reassurance and snacks. I am not saying that if a drone landed on his head or a snake slithered over his hoof that he would not still want to bolt – of course extreme fear-inducing situations are still likely to trigger that innate behaviour pattern - BUT in the majority of spooky situations that could potentially have gone either way, Jedi now alerts, stops and turns to me. I don’t care whether it is because he wants me to reassure him or whether these situations have simply come to predict food, the fact is that I am spending less time clinging onto a bolting horse and far more time sitting calmly and helping Jedi through the situation. And I think Jedi is feeling far more confident about the world in general.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that adding food and reassurance has definitely REDUCED the intensity of Jedi’s fear response, the speed of his recovery after seeing something spooky and his general horsey inclination to find novel things frightening. And of course it works for dogs too whether their fear response is wanting to run away or become reactive.
Photo: Jedi getting his first look at the wetlands where he usually walks, after a massive fire swept through the area. He was "aware" of all the burned restio stumps and the smell of fire, but coped very well. He's got the "I'm not sure what that is, can I please have a carrot" thing down really well!