Stimulus Stacking

Fear based reactions from horses can be a real danger to humans working closely with them. This is where working with horses differs greatly from working with exotics, as they're almost entirely trained in “Protective Contact” (training with a physical barrier between trainer and animal). While I am a strong advocate for using protective contact while working with horses, especially those new to CT, horses with strong or frequent fear responses, or impulse control issues with aggressive behaviors. Protective Contact is a valuable tool to use in many situations not just for our safety but to help encourage a horse to open up and feel safe (especially those with poor human history). It also really forces us humans to communicate in a way that is clear and concise with a proper rate of reinforcement, because the horse can easily just walk away if things aren't just right, I truly believe protective contact work makes us better trainers.

Before I get into dealing with fear responses I'd like to talk a little about what fear is. Fear is one of the primal emotions that drives all animals self-preservation. One of the biggest problems with fear is that it lingers in the mind and takes a long time to wear off. What happens now is what we call “Stimulus Stacking”. When one fear-invoking experience happens and doesn't have time to wear off and another experience happens, the two actually add together. This can result in situations where “he exploded for no reason” or when your horse reacts to something they normally never do (maybe a funny colored bucket or a jump they're usually good with. This is a horse going “Over-Threshold”, it is the moment where fear becomes a reflex and not a thought out behavior, learning can not happen over threshold. Previous fearful stimuli have stacked up and weren't noticed or given ample time to reduce before another was added, sending the horse over threshold. This happens especially often when a horse is punished for showing fear behaviors, they learn not to show the signs of fear, until it become a reflex and they can't control it, leaving us with very little warning. We want to be constantly aware of stimulus stacking and be sure after little frights we've come down fully before moving on. I'll get into this more after the discussion of the options of how to deal with fear.

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