top of page

Does your horse feel safe?

PERCEPTIONS OF SAFETY

by Irene Perrett


Perceptions of safety are important to all of us.


Notice the word perceptions.


Not only do we need to be safe but we need to feel safe. Feelings of safety mean that we

have some chance of predicting what is going to happen and how we may be able to

respond. Of course, some responses are innate. In other words, certain responses are

physiological and have evolved to help us to remain safe. We may be aware of changes

within our body as our sympathetic nervous system does its job to prepare us for action. In

simple terms, this could be to prepare us to fight, to flee, or perhaps to freeze. Our heart rate increases and we have heightened sensitivity to factors in the environment. All our senses are working to give us information about the best action to take to keep ourselves safe.



We may also develop similar experiences through learning too. Something could happen

that causes us to feel unsafe, and we develop a conditioned emotional response when this is

repeated. Therefore, the physiological response is triggered in these circumstances too.

Whether innate or learnt, the emotions associated with feeling unsafe are very real, and we

learn which actions help us the most to regain feelings of safety. When we have choices we

can choose from a range of options, but if those choices are limited then our response may

be different from the optional course of action. Imagine being shut in a room with an abuser.

If it is the first time, we may try to escape, or push the abuser away. But if this isn’t an option

or we are unsuccessful, we may freeze. Over time, if the situation continues or is repeated,

we can develop a strategy of learned helplessness because no course of action engenders

feelings of safety.


Feeling safe, I would argue, is the most valuable and necessary way of being to enable us to

function coherently. It is more important than warmth, food, or social interaction. These other factors are important but perceptions of safety trump those needs.


Now I will get to my point - at last!


Why is it that we so often override our horses’ need to feel safe in favour of our own

agenda? Do we even recognise when our horses feel unsafe or uncomfortable, either in an

environment or within themselves? The essential questions here are:


How can I help my horse to be and feel safe? (Actual and perceptual safety.)


How do I recognise behaviours that inform me whether my horse is fearful or

uncomfortable?


As carers and guardians of equines, these two questions are paramount in our responsibility

to our horses. There is so much good information now about equine behaviour,

understanding how horses naturally interact with their world and how we can transfer this

knowledge to the horses we live with.


For starters, take a look at International Equine Professionals website, or consider a course to guide you through these aspects e.g. the DoGenius Institute’s Diploma in Equine Welfare, Training and Behaviour or Rachael Draaisma’s short course on Calming Signals.



Equids have evolved to escape predators. Even though horses have been living with

humans for thousands of years, that is such a short time-period when compared to their

evolutionary history. Rather than supressing behaviours and evolutionary forces, we need to

address the reasons why our horses may feel unsafe, and how we can best respond to help

them change how they feel.

Take a look at their environment. Horses feel safer living with their conspecifics with whom

they develop cohesive social bonds. Isolation, whether through stabling or individual

paddocks can have a negative impact on social cohesion. Horses learn from one another

about their environment and what is safe. Being separated from others takes away their

ability to rely on other herd members for mutual security.


When we ask a horse to work for us, again they very often are separated from others. Already, this can cause them to feel more vulnerable. We expect them to work in an arena or

hack out without giving them opportunity to check out their environment. Horses are very

tactile, they explore their environment with their body, particularly their lips and teeth. They use their developed sense of smell to assess what is around them, their eyesight perceives movement much more readily than ours, and their hearing picks up on sounds we may not hear. Their comprehension about the environment is very different to ours, they sense it from the evolutionary perspective of a horse. If fearful, their innate response will be to make distance from whatever may cause them harm using whichever behaviour is most appropriate. By suppressing these behaviours using physical barriers, for example tack and equipment to contain the horse, we are not enabling the horse to change how they are feeling. Remember learned helplessness – the horse may appear to be coping but has in fact internalised rather than expressed how they feel. Think how it must be to feel unsafe, but when you express this you are ignored or even punished. Your feelings don’t disappear. Probably you feel less safe, but now you are no longer able to make your feelings known.


When our horse holds tension because of perceived and actual concerns over their safety we can instigate changes to protocol and management strategies. Simple adjustments do make a difference, and can enable the horse to change how they feel. We can promote feelings of safety by giving our horse time to adjust to new and familiar surroundings such as walking them in hand, allowing them the opportunity to look and assess without rushing them, adopting familiar protocols that enable them to feel safer such as ground exercises or massage, giving access to other horses with whom they can develop a stable relationship; essentially listening to their concerns and supporting them in developing their own resilience and ultimately robustness. Let our horses be horses. Let them sniff, explore, when it is safe - make choices, develop their curiosity.

We can also assess how we as individuals impact the horse’s feelings of safety. The

qualities that impact a horse aren’t necessarily the qualities we may anticipate. Here are some to think about:




Being prepared to take time and not rush our actions,


To take a deep breath and leave agendas at the gate,


To empathise and respond to our horse with clarity and authenticity,


To be open to learning but also be able to critique and if necessary, adapt what we learn,


Engender practices of listening and an awareness for the horse that they are being listened

to. By listening we understand our horses better and thereby can develop a trusting

relationship.


  • Be supportive when the horse is unsure,

  • Show kindness when they are sensitive,

  • Be happy when they are curious,

  • Hold gratitude when they trust us.

As the day draws to a close, walk away knowing that our own and our horses’ lives are

better for the time spent together.












Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page