Overcoming Head Shy Fear

Or, The Great Green Cloth Experiment

Lots of horses get in a state about having things put over their head or having their ears handled. When I rescued Roisin, this was one big issue and we had to undo bridles, head-collars and reins to put them on and off.

I successfully re-trained this using a novel approach that involved a piece of green parachute cloth. Here’s the video of how I did it. You’ll see how having things put over her head becomes one of Roisin’s favourite games!

The Science of Memory Making
This week some new science on the biology of memory making in the brain made me wonder a bit more deeply about the process of turning fearful behaviours into favourite ones and I’ve been digging into some deep science to find out .

In this blog by Hannah, you saw how to help a horse overcome fear, in this case of being bathed using a hose. That was an excellent example of systematic desensitisation. Essentially, you introduce the object of fear at a distance where the animal is aware of it but still feels relaxed. Focusing on the relaxed state, you gradually bring the object closer and closer until the animal is totally relaxed about the whole experience. But what if this approach doesn’t work?

Well that was the situation with Roisin and the reins. I had tried for years, using systematic desensitisation but had made only a little progress. It was better, but she was never relaxed and it was easy to trigger the old fears, which is why we managed to get the film at the start of this video.

So why hadn’t the systematic desensitisation worked in this case? The symptoms she had around it suggest that she was suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with respect to bridling. She had been a competitive jumping pony and the reason she was going to be shot was that the owners could no longer catch her, or put her in a stable and it took two people to tack her up. By that time she would be dripping with sweat and wasn’t fit to be seen in the ring. She was useless to them. Roisin is the sweetest horse I’ve ever met and was doing everything she could to avoid this trauma, but was trapped into a hideous repetitive cycle of repeated stress.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is notoriously hard to recover from and the article gives some insight into why. When we want to recover from fearful memories we need to bring up the bad memory and then re-store it with a different feel. Scientists have now discovered that this happens within the same cells, as opposed to there being some cells for retrieving old memories and different ones for storing the new ones. It is the same cells which are activated to recall the event as are activated in storing the memory. So when we counter-condition, we are actually making changes in individual cells in the hippocampus. I don’t think you can get change much deeper than that!

In treating PTSD in people, they deliberately remember the bad stuff, getting the memories out and then, after the therapeutic intervention, re-store them with a different feeling attached. Now it seems to me that, with systematic desensitisation, we are simulating this “tell us the bad stuff” process. We introduce the scary object but at a distance where the horse shows us he is aware it’s there, but we don’t interact with it in a way that takes the horse over threshold. That is, we keep things at the place where the fear stimulation is low. Possibly this allows the brain cells to return the memory of simply seeing the object without any fear chemistry attached.

But what about Roisin and the difficulty I had getting this approach to work? It seems that the trauma of PTSD is too deep for this cellular change to be made simply by presenting the object of fear, and, of course, we can’t use language to get in deeper as we do with people. In training, it felt that there was no gradual slope between having the bridle close to her head and then putting reins over her head. Her response had become reactive and there didn’t seem to be a gap where I could work with any kind of true relaxation. It was as if the cells were locked up, unable to be changed.

In The Archaeology of Mind  Panksepp describes having his own PTSD treated using a novel therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. His description of the wider aspects of his therapy gives me the explanation I need. He says that his therapist had a three stage process:

1) setting aside unresolved emotional material in an “imaginary container”;

2) the client is trained to “access the ability to feel safe in safe situations”

3) the application of the EMDR. This was the third aspect and could only work when the other two are in place.

Well, with Roisin, I satisfied the first part by taking away the bridle and substituting with a completely different object. Thus her emotional issues around tack were put away. She had no history with the green cloth and so it was a neutral object to her.

The second part really struck me as the major benefit of using reward-based training with traumatised horses. The reason I started clicker training was Roisin. When she came to me I was already teaching Natural Horsemanship. I knew my stuff! Her response to me simply looking at her (her frozen fearful stance, what I later came to understand as her learned helplessness) meant that all my stuff was no use to her. She could not feel safe with a human around. It was not a safe situation. In fact, I spent hours watching her in the herd and it was plain she simply didn’t feel safe in her own skin. It took her months to find a place in the herd and simply be a horse again.

The Great Green Cloth Experiment
By the time I came to the Great Green Cloth Experiment, Roisin knew that she was safe with me in certain situations. So that’s where we began and we began with making it a game. The first part was for her simply to touch the cloth, an easy and rewarding behaviour for her. And this is where another aspect of the brain comes in. You see, the brain cannot access the PLAY system when the animal has the FEAR system operating. It inhibits play. The brain must be feeling secure for joy to be felt. The fact that I had so carefully created her shed as her safe space meant that Roisin was able to experience the green cloth targeting as a fun game. She enjoyed playing the game. Therefore, the Green Cloth memories that were being laid down in the hippocampus as we progressed through the game to going over the ears and back again all had the biochemical spin of joy attached.

The cues I created for her to dip her head…holding out the object with my arms straight, gave her a nice anticipatory splurge of dopamine and you can see in the video how much she loves the game. Her playful behaviour reflects her joyful feelings. If I leave the green cloth out anywhere she will invariably go up to it and touch it, recognising it as her fun thing. This has transferred to the fly mask now, too, and she will go up and touch that if its around the yard.

The take home message from this is how valuable play is in changing traumatic memories into happy ones and how your horse can only play when they feel truly secure. How to do that comes into the art of this training. If you have a really deep seated fear response to something that you want to change in your horse, it’s probably best to take the long and winding road to a solution. Work first on the easy stuff, but, as you do it, focus on creating a safe space and being a safe person for your horse to work with. Your horse may need to learn how to feel safe again, so take your time and know that with each reward, you are putting money in the trust bank between you and your horse. Then, when you want to start working more directly on the problem issue, look for a fun and creative way to approach it, so your horse is truly in a good emotional place. That way, your foundation will be as strong as it gets.

*You can see the whole process with Roisin and other techniques to tackling head shy and bridling issues in our Daily Handling Home Study Course in the CT Club.

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming Head Shy Fear”

  1. Excellent article. Love the fact that it is backed up by scientific data as well. Our horses use play/joy within our therapy sessions and our human clients often positively turning their lives we around completely.

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