Living Relaxed In A Stressful Life
By Hadrien Dykiel
Stress management is a great skill, both for horses and people. With experience and a little help from others to guide us in the right direction, it is a skill that can be practiced and developed over time.
As horse owners and riders, we can help our horses deal with stress in healthy ways. Mojito is a 4 year old rescue horse that came to me last year. He had never been traumatized, simply neglected. He just did not know much. Throughout his training, I helped build up his confidence by pushing him out of his comfort zone gradually.
Gradually is the key point here. Mojito was scared of crossing the stream when he first saw it. On the first day, he got within 10 yards of it. He was nervous, pawing and snorting. He learned, however, that there was no water monster living in it. He also learned that when scared, it is a better choice to stop and think instead of over-react by bolting to the side or rearing up. On day 2, Mojito got his foot in the water. On day 3, he went through it.
The important point is how Mojito was pushed out of his comfort zone and taught to deal with stress in a productive way. The next time Mojito encountered a stressful situation, a dog who jumped out of the bushes, he turned around to face the dog and stood still. The other horses, who were older and more experienced than Mojito, bolted and ran away. Many parents teach their kids how to handle stress by providing them with tools, such as exercise and constructive communication. You can do the same with your horse, teaching your horse to automatically respond to stress by stopping and thinking instead of bolting and over-reacting. One great way to do this is through desensitizing, which will help your horse develop a safe way to react to stress.
I have to caution you, however, at how much stress we subject our horses to. Too much stress at once can be a bad thing. Mojito was doing really good with his training when one day, he pulled back in the cross-ties. The cross-ties snapped and hit him in the head. He then tried to turn around and ended up running into saddles and grooming boxes in the hallway as he darted out.
Too much stress can lead to negative results. After the little cross-tie incident, Mojito became nervous of the saddle in the cross ties. He associated tacking up with the feeling of fear and distress he felt when he broke the cross-ties. It took a while to rewire his brain to think “relax and think this through” instead of “I gotta get out of here” when tacking up. Mojito’s reaction to tacking up displays the importance of pushing our horses out of their comfort zone gradually and always ending on a good note.
Living in a sheltered bubble, on the other hand, prevents our horses from improving their stress handling skills. A horse who has not practiced those skills will most likely not know how to react when confronted with stressors, like a dog startling them. The same goes for us. Everyone has to deal with stress sooner or later, whether it is taking an exam or losing a loved one. Someone who has not developed strong stress coping skills might have a much harder time dealing with with some of the ugly things in life we all encounter sooner or later. Like horses, we can train ourselves to respond positively to stress.
What are some of your tactics for living relaxed in a stressful life?