My horse, Rebel Kartoon, is one of them.
Kartoon is no spring chicken. He has a show career spanning almost two decades and a passport with more stamps than most tourists. Yet, at one of our last competitions, he froze at the sight of the judges' booth. (A, enter collected canter, X, halt, snort, stare, eyes bulging) Really, Kartoon, are you seriously surprised? Every show, without exception, has a judge at C! This is NOT your first rodeo! At a clinic, a golf cart parked next to the ring turned him into a whirling dervish, levitating ten feet off the ground. It took twenty minutes and several hundred ten meter circles to obtain some semblance of civility. And, God forbid you rearrange the chairs on the sidelines. I suppose that's why his sales ad read, 'not for the timid rider!'
Of course, that nervous energy lends itself to brilliance if it can be harnessed and controlled. No 6's for Kartoon, it's a 2 or it's an 8. We go big or we go home.
Kartoon is hyper aware of his environment; he notices every tiny detail. If something is amiss, he reacts first, and thinks later. He experiences what scientist term fast fear. Fast fear takes the low road in your brain. Sensory inputs travel deep into the brain in a fraction of a second. Slow fear operates simultaneously, traveling the high road to the top of the brain for analysis, which takes twice as long. Kartoon sees a long thin object. Fast fear sacrifices accuracy for speed and screams "snake"! Kartoon jumps. Twelve milliseconds later his brain processes the information and says," false alarm, it's just a stick." But, here's the thing. I think he enjoys himself. He's not really and truly afraid. He would never, ever spook with a novice rider. He will plod along like a pack horse, docile as can be. Start putting him through his paces, though, and game on. Hang on and enjoy the ride!
Decadance is different. Like Kartoon, he notices everything, but rather than react, he is drawn to investigate. I have learned not to question his perception; just because I can't hear or see it, doesn't mean it isn't there.
Situation normal, Decadance is suddenly on high alert. He focuses intently on something way off in the distance. His ears flick and turn, orienting on some unfamiliar sound . He doesn't lie, there is always something somewhere. A dog, a truck, a deer moving far off in the neighbor's pasture. The orienting response is Decadance's conscious slow fear processing. Threat assessed, analyzed, and removed, he relaxes. Situation normal once again.
There is one thing, however, that puts Dec's completely and totally over the edge. And, it's not what you would expect. It's riding lawn mowers. Not tractors, not push mowers, just lawn service type lawn mowers. And when I say fear, I mean PANIC!!!!
The first time I noticed it, I was hand walking him. All of sudden it was as if I wasn't even there. The next time I was on him, and he took off in a bucking gallop. This was not his normal resistance behavior. This was what I call a Category 3 spook.
Spooking 101....Ready, Set, SPOOK
Category 1: Typically, Decadance has a spook of the military variety. Jump once, halt, and await further instructions. Not a lot of energy expended, and very easy to manage. Of his many issues, spooking is not one of them.
Category 2: A Cateory 2 spook takes it once step further. This is a jump and run maneuver, frequently with a spin attached. Think prey animal evading perceived predator, and the prey animal is quite happy for you to come with. Kartoon is a typical Category 2 spooker, he'll be halfway across the ring in an instant, without you knowing why. It's not really serious, and actually kind of fun, in a sadistic kind of way. If you like roller coasters, this spook's for you.
Category 3: This is the "balls-to-the-wall" SPOOK, and not fun at all. This is where said prey animal runs from perceived predator and leaves you behind as bait. It's a damn-the-torpedoes-full steam-ahead out-of-there exit. It's all-bets-are-off, say-a-prayer, hope-you-live trouble.
I don't know what it is about the sound of lawn mowers. It doesn't matter if I'm on or off him, he reacts just the same. This is not bad behavior, this is fear. He wants as far away as possible and as fast as he can manage it. We're working through it. As with everything with Decadance, it's a slow process, but I'm making progress using both desensitization and counter-phobic training techniques.
Desensitization is where you introduce the horse to small doses of the scary thing. Decs and I go for walks around the neighborhood listening for lawn mowers. We've walked back and forth and back and forth in front of the yard using approach and retreat to acclimate him to his terror. Counter-phobic training involves lots of treats, building good associations to overshadow whatever negative experience lurks deep in his memory bank.
Will I ever know what happened to provoke such an extremely specific fear? Probably not. Will I be able to overshadow and eradicate it? I hope so. I do know punishment would only make it worse. He needs gentle handling to restore his confidence.
That, and lots of horse treats.