Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals

by Dr. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2009
ISBN 978-0-15101489-7

(In United Kingdom, book title is "Making Animals Happy" and ISBN is: 978-0-7475-9714-8)

Links for ordering:


An Excerpt from Chapter 4: Horses

Hyper-specific Fear Memories and How to Handle Them in Horses

A horse is a sensory based visual thinker and fear is it’s main emotion.

In any habituation program, you have to expose the horse to all the different scary things he’s likely to see. You can’t just expose him to one or two scary things and teach him the general principle: Don’t be scared of novel stimuli. You have to habituate him to each scary thing separately.

That’s because animals — and autistic people — are super- sensitive to sensory-based detail. They are hyper-specific. In Animals in Translation, I wrote about a horse who was afraid of black cowboy hats but not afraid of a white cowboy hat or a baseball cap.

People have always known horses were sensitive to detail, but they haven’t always interpreted this the right way. For example, horses sometimes startle when they see the same object from a different angle. This can happen in the arena or on a trail when you ride the horse in one direction and then back again. An object that didn’t scare the horse on the trip out can startle him when he comes back the other way.

The explanation for this used to be that the horse brain doesn’t transfer information between the eyes. Horses have eyes on opposite sides of their face, so it was thought that a horse that doesn’t startle at the sight of a flag in an arena on the way across but does startle on the way back is actually seeing the flag for the first time twice, once with each eye. But anatomical and behavioral research has proved that the horse brain does transfer information from one eye to the other. I believe that the real explanation for why a horse can startle when it sees an object from a different angle is that the object looks different and therefore becomes a brand-new, scary thing. That’s true for me. If I pass a barn on my way to an appointment, that barn looks like a different object to me when I’m driving back from my appointment because I am seeing it from a different angle.

Dr. Evelyn Hanggi did a study to see whether this could be the explanation and found out that it could. When she rotated children’s toys into different positions, the horses she tested recognized the toys in some rotations but not in others. Even though the horses were looking at the same toy they’d been looking at just a few minutes earlier, they didn’t realize it was the same. Almost all of the consultations I do with horse owners are about hyper-specific fear memories their horse has and what to do about them. If the owners know the horse’s handling history, we can usually figure out what the problem is. Recently I talked to a person whose horse was deathly afraid of long-handled tools. The owner was able to trace this back to an accident in the crosstie when the horse flipped over and fell down, pulling his lead rope taut across his chest. It was a thick blue rope, and when it was stretched tight it looked like a broom handle to the horse. So now he was scared of a blue-handled squeegee, and he had also panicked when he saw a broom.

This is a case of visual hyper-specificity because the horse wasn’t thinking about the meaning of “rope” or “tool handle,” but about the super-specific visual category of “things that are long, straight, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and probably blue.” No one else has that category, only that one horse. I told the owners just to keep him away from tools with long handles unless he’s being ridden by his best-friend rider who can calm him down. If some kid gets on him and the horse sees a rake leaning up against the wall of the barn, the horse is going to freak out. With fear memories, it’s always best just to get rid of the thing the horse is scared of if you can. I’ll talk about extinguishing fear memories later on.

Another owner I talked to had a horse who was scared to death of riding crops if she held one in her hand while she was riding him. If she held the riding crop in her hand while she was standing on the ground, he didn’t mind. This is another example of a fear being hyper-specific. The riding crop triggered a fear memory only when it was in a person’s hand while the person was on the horse’s back. That’s because nothing bad had ever happened when a person standing on the ground was holding a riding crop. In another case, a horse was afraid of naked white saddle pads. If a saddle partially covered the pad, the horse tolerated it, but a naked white pad either on a fence or on another horse’s back was scary. It is likely that the poor horse had been roughly sacked out with a white saddle pad. Dark pads had no effect.

Sometimes problems due to hyper-specific fear memories are easy to avoid. For instance, a couple asked me about their horse who would load only on the left-hand side of the trailer, not the right. They didn’t know her history, but she had probably had some kind of accident on the right side. I told them just to load her on the left-hand side and not to worry about it.

Another couple got in touch with me about a mare they had bought to train as a carriage horse. She was quiet and calm when the carriage harness was put on, but as soon as she pulled forward and felt the pressure of the harness on her back, she went berserk. When they looked into her history, they found out she’d been used for collecting urine to manufacture the drug Premarin. To collect the urine, ranchers keep pregnant mares locked up inside a stable all winter with a rubber collection cup shaped like a jai alai scoop attached to their hindquarters. They harness the horses to the stalls so they don’t knock the collection cups off.

The rancher who owned this horse had made his harnesses out of strips of rubber from a tractor tire inner tube. That made the harness stretchy so the horse could lie down. One day the mare had gotten loose and walked twenty feet away, which stretched the inner-tube harness out behind her until finally it snapped like a giant rubber band and whapped her on the butt. When her new owners harnessed her to the carriage, the pressure of the straps woke up her hyper-specific fear memory of getting whapped. Since the mare was a good riding horse, I told the couple just to ride her and not try to train her to pull a carriage.

Different Causes of Fear Memories

A fear memory can have two causes. The first is a past abusive experience and the other is introducing a new thing or a new sensation too quickly. It’s best to prevent fear memories from forming in the first place because a bad fear memory is very difficult to completely correct. A horse’s first experience with a trailer, shoeing, or new equipment should be very positive. A bad first experience is more likely to create a fear memory. If possible, teach your horse to go in a long trailer, which is less scary to enter, before introducing him to a smaller two-horse trailer. Horses can be hyper-specific about trailer fears. One horse I know of entered a trailer very easily but when he was unloaded, he bolted out like a rocket. In the past he had banged his head backing out of the trailer so now he backed out quickly because he was trying to get out before the trailer could hit him.

Fear memories that are associated with bits or other tack can be caused by abuse or by introducing the item too rapidly so that the horse never habituated to it. Fear memories associated with tack are also hyper-specific. A thirteen-year-old girl in 4-H had been showing her horse for three years without a problem. The horse was perfect. Then all of a sudden the horse went crazy and the family eventually had to sell him. When they heard me lecture about hyper-specific fear pictures inside horses’ heads, they remembered that right before the horse broke down, the riding instructor had switched everyone to a snaffle bit.

I’m sure that’s what set the horse off. To a person, a bit is a bit, but to a horse, a jointed snaffle bit is totally different from a solid, one-piece bit. I say to people, “When you go home, hold the one-piece bit in one hand and the snaffle bit in the other. If you pay attention, you can see that they feel totally different?’ I’ve talked to four or five different people now whose horses were obviously acting up because of a particular kind of bit. The horses had been abused by an owner or rider using that bit and associated abuse with the feeling of the bit. In every case changing to a different bit totally fixed the horses. The 4-H girl’s parents wouldn’t have had to sell their horse if they’d realized the new bit was the problem. But they didn’t make the connection until they heard my talk.

A common problem that is created by introducing new sensations too quickly is a horse that bucks when he changes gait. He does that because the saddle feels different at each gait. If he’s been habituated to the saddle at only a walk and a trot, when he moves to a canter the saddle suddenly feels like a novel stimulus. My horse Sizzler had that problem. My aunt bought Sizzler for me when I was in high school, but he was too dangerous for me to ride because he would buck when he went from a trot to a canter. If I’d known then what I know today, I would have started his training over again and replaced his Western saddle with an English saddle to provide a totally different saddle “feeling picture.” Then I would have gradually gotten him used to what the new saddle felt like at each gait. But I was only in high school and I didn’t know anything about hyper-specificity, so my aunt had to sell Sizzler back to the dealer.

Behavioral Signs of Fear

It is really important to recognize the behavioral and physical signs of fear. A fearful horse switches his tail. As he becomes more scared, the tail moves faster. Other signs are a high head, sweating when there is little physical exertion, and quivering skin. A really frightened horse gets bugged-out eyes and the whites show. When a horse is being introduced to any new procedure such as loading on a trailer or picking up his feet, training sessions should be kept short and ended before fear escalates into an explosion that can form a bad fear memory. When a few tail switches start, end the training session with the horse doing something right. If a horse gets really agitated during shoeing or a veterinary procedure, the best thing to do is to let him calm down for thirty minutes. Recently I talked to a veterinary technician who tried this with a horse who went ballistic at her clinic. The veterinarian thought the horse would need tranquilizers, but letting him calm down was all he needed.

A common mistake people make is mixing up fear and aggression. Most behavior problems that occur during handling, veterinary procedures, loading, and riding are caused by fear or pain — not aggression. The worst thing that can be done to a frightened horse is to punish him by hitting or yelling. Frightening or painful punishment makes fear worse.

Click here to return to the Homepage for more information on animal behavior, welfare, and care.

Click here to return to the Animals Make Us Human Table of Contents page and read other chapter excerpts.