Sunday, August 29, 2010

Whistling In The Dark

A number of years ago, when my now almost-adult daughter was three, I had the opportunity to put into practice every bit of faked calm I’ve spent a lifetime working to perfect. This is what happened: In between the lessons I was teaching, the teenager whose job it was to be my daughter’s responsible playmate while I was busy ran up to me, grabbed me by the arm and said, “You should know your daughter just caught a snake and is bringing it to show you.”

Ha. Not what you thought, huh? However, if you have even a passing acquaintance with me you’re aware of how snakes will produce instantaneous cold-sweat, leg-weakening, electric terror that zings from my scalp to the soles of my feet.

Thank God for the practice.


Yeah. Practice. With horses. Lots and lots of it, and this is why: Horses require leadership. They’re afraid of pretty much everything that’s different. New additions to their surroundings, the sudden appearance of a squirrel where there wasn’t one before, mail boxes, bags the wind can blow, odd noises, almost everything white…the list is endless. It makes sense, really. For millions of years horses were a nice entre on most predators’ menus. Because of that, horses run first and don’t bother with the questions later. Bolt and live. No need for analysis once the herd is back to munching grass. No one is going feel the need to question why Dobbin started the stampede. They’re alive, having escaped possible danger, it’s all good.

What does leadership have to do with this? It’s the herd look-out (one of the responsible horses in the group) who often signals the danger. The other horses accept this without a thought. When humans stepped into the equine equation we became (essentially) part of the herd. It is our job to be the alpha-horse, to build trust and obedience. Our word is law. Part of achieving this alpha-horse status is the ability to remain calm and not react in a nervous manner, particularly in dicey situations where our horse is tapping into that ancient flight/fight response. It’s a safety issue, too. A frightened horse is very very dangerous. Projecting calm as the alpha-herd-member, particularly when you’re not feeling it, goes a long way to keep a potentially perilous situation under control.

This works quite well with an all human cast, too. The ability to convincingly project calm and rational behavior will promote and encourage the same in others.

How did the snake incident work out? Having a moment’s warning to let me grab hold of my phobia with both hands helped. When my daughter ran up with her new “toy” writhing in her little fist I exclaimed how pretty it was, told her it was a common garden snake, and would probably appreciate being put back where she’d found it so it could play with its friends. She conceded that I was right, since the snake kept biting her and trying to get away, and turned the thing loose in the tall grass. At 18 she still has no fear of snakes. I avoided passing along my phobia. Yay for me! Pretending did the job.


  1. First of all, I commend you for not passing on your snake phobia. I have an equally irrational one of spiders, so I know how hard those phobias are to control.

    I had no idea that horses were so easily spooked, though it makes sense as you explained it. What is it about white that bothers them?

    I've had rescue dogs for many years. My two current babies come from horrible situations and required months of love and patience to gain their trust. Similar to your situation with horses, we have to be calm around these dogs, as they easily and overly react to our emotions and movements. And while I've been teaching them, they've been teaching me. We can learn a lot from animals if we pay attention.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Darcia! Oh, my yes, horses are champion spookers! It's their primary defense. You can't train it out of them, but you can learn to deal with it and manage it.

    Kudos to you for working with rescue dogs! Working with any rescue animal takes patience, love AND a great deal of skill. You've obviously got all three going for you.

  3. Sometimes pretending helps you move from the "I'm afraid to try that" moment to the "look at what I accomplished". Pretending is to confidence what dressing for success is to wardrobe. It helps you believe you can get the job done!

  4. My stepmother is so terrified of snakes we can't even joke with her. I once saw her take a hoe to a poor garden snake and make it into sushi-sized chunks. Luckily, I was too old to have that rub off on me at the time. Kudos to you for keeping calm and great info. to know about horses--the keeping calm bit. I'll try that with my little ones to see if they make a good herd. I doubt the young mare will follow along though. ;)

    Thanks, Susan!

  5. Oh, those youngsters! They're always pushing the limits! I've seen mares discipline their offspring by pinning their ears and threatening with the usual bite and kick gestures. If that hasn't worked I've seen mom-horse smack her kid with her teeth (not bite!)-- wouldn't suggest that on the human's, however!With the older ones, they're usually chased away until they show they're sufficiently sorry--the horse version of Tough Love. I guess every species has its methods!Good luck with your herd!