Entrapment - Panic & Reaction

     In order to understand "entrapment panic," it is important to know first that in the nature of a horse, the main defense is to run from any danger, or for the matter from anything else that scares him. The second important aspect is to know how horses perceive time. In our article on “Nature” it states and explains the time dimension in which the horse lives. The horse is able to live only in the “present – now” concept of time. Therefore the two catalysts of “entrapment panic” are the flight reflex (running way) and the “now” time zone. Understanding this will help solve many problems with horses. It is also important to keep in mind the main reason for fear in all living creatures under the sun: fear of the "unknown"/unfamiliar/unpredictable = fear of possible pain.

     When we attach a saddle or just a girth we introduce the unknown, unfamiliar feeling of an object that is attached to a horse now (hence to him permanently). The unknown (unpredictable) creates fear (or at least heightens the senses), the attachment is a form of entrapment (cannot escape from it) and the now also means permanently. Therefore, the panic of entrapment sets in. The horse will buck and jump because he cannot run away when he is fenced-in while being saddled. In the open, he would buck and then run like hell, only God knows how far, and then eventually come to terms with it.

     The first and most important thing to teach any horse when training for anything is that what ever we are doing to him is only “temporary,” and if circumstances allow, he can escape from it. If the horse is finally able to predict, for example, that the saddle will come off in time on its own, or that he will not stay in the trailer “for ever” he will adjust and adapt more quickly. Of course familiarity plays a great role also, since it will eliminate the fear of the unknown/unpredictable.

    For better understanding of “entrapment panic” I will use different examples of teaching a horse to stand tied, because any tying of the horse entraps him; thus he feels that he cannot run and he panics.     

    On large farms in Europe I have seen 25 to 30 weanlings at a time being tied to the walls, up high on chains and heavy-duty halters, during a massive weaning process. They all panicked, but in time they gave up and were thus broken for tying within one day - the next day only very few fought and for a very short time. The more we "betray", or better said, entrap horses during the time they are being raised and trained, the more stressed they are and the more resentful and "distrustful" they become to us humans. On the large commercial places, and in the old days the military remount centers, they do not have time for personal involvement with horses and it must be handled in this way; there is simply no other solution. It is therefore very important to understand that horses, for the most part, do not like us, though they will adjust, adapt and accept their destiny.

     When teaching a horse to tie, I prefer to simulate the "tying" with a lead-rope attached to the halter and the other end is not fastened to anything, but slides through a ring on a wall, while I hold that end of the rope. After the horse gets the idea of staying in the space limited by the rope, I will finally tie him up at first on one tie. I personally like to tie horses on ties with string in between, so the horse can break them anytime (they sell new and fairly safe and practical contraption now like the blocker tie ring), hence he will not be unnecessarily introduced to entrapment. The latter is not necessarily a part of "tying" education (separate issue), but it is a precaution to prevent possible "entrapment panic attack" and thus the possibility of injuries to the horse or the people around, and the possibility of not being able to tie the horse ever again. (A well broke horse for ties - cross-ties will move forward when he feels the tension of the rope.) (Rubber ties are dangerous and only inexperienced people use them.)

    There were many ways I have trained and broke horses, because of the trainers I had the chance to work for as well as the time when I was self-employed. One way is for example: when I am teaching a horse for the first time for the girth, I will only set it on his back and when he spooks I keep it in my hand pulling it off, hence he feels he can run away from it. He quickly relaxes and I keep repeating it. After the horse stops moving away, I put it around his chest, do not buckle it, but gently tighten it with one hand. The horse will react as most do, moves or jumps away from the unknown feeling. Again I hold one end in my hand and the horse feels that he can runway from it. Since most horses remain semi-unafraid in the "un-entrapped" state, they are aware of any actions that I take and they are learning much faster.
    Only in minutes, by most horses, I can have the girth tight and attached without the horse bucking while moving. I leave it on only for a short time, remove it and then put it back on. I do this several times till the horse feels unthreatened. I do the same with a saddle, using a light saddle that I can hold in one hand, since I am holding the horse with the other. I prefer to do the work with the horse by myself without being distracted by others.
   When the horse is finally saddled I do similar thing when mounting, jumping just on my belly over the back of the horse and off. I let the horse feel my hands in the places where I may touch him with my legs etc. The whole process in "breaking" of horses in this way is to get the horse to do what I want him to, without feeling entrapped and without breaking his spirit. This is very important when it comes to stress, because frequent mental stress often leads to nervousness in horses. We for most part seem to ignore this, since many of us find a solution to our anxiety problems these days in Prozac or Valium.

    This above paragraph is in no way a suggestion on how to break or train a horse; it only describes a particular way in which I have avoided “entrapment panic.” When one trains a horse, he should be very experienced in that department, because the training of horses requires certain expertise that cannot be taught by men, but by horses alone. It is down right preposterous to write books, to give clinics or teach how to train and break young horses. If I wrote a book on such training (or gave a clinic on it), it would surely be the shortest book you have ever read. It would say, "Do not do it! Get a job somewhere with experienced people to show you how, and under their supervision get to ride and train many horses, since the horses are the true teachers of riders, trainers and horseman."
   There are many ways to teach and break horses, but every horse is an individual, hence training and handling each horse is one of a kind experience. I have never "broken" a horse the same way as any other of the previous ones I handled. If and when one decides to break a horse slowly – gradually, he must be a better horseman (trainer) than the person who just jumps on the horse and bucks him out (“wearing out the horse”). Henceforth, the latter is more practical method and more used on large commercial places (old military academies etc.) since most people could "mess up" the horses during the prolonged process.

    There is also another way of breaking horses, which is in these days often demonstrated by the “miracle” trainers, who show people how to break/train hard to handle horses. That kind of method is as old as the horse industry and it is called “wearing down the horse” method. Simply said, you bother the horse so long till he gets so tired, that he couldn’t care less if he lives or dies. At that point anyone can do with him anything he wants, since the horse is exhausted by the fear alone.
   The same method is used by wolves in hunting, who just keep following their prey so long, till it gets tired and gives up on life; the kill is then much easier and less risky. Well...  And beating a horse, so much that he gives up on life, is also common and the folks who do it, usually refer to their breaking of the horse’s spirit, as “his eye had soften.” I guess so.  Since he gave up on life and his spirit is permanently broken, he can be very sweet and kind to others, who have no idea that a “dead horse” is standing in front of them. Hence the terms, “dead quiet,” “dead broke” etc. Horses broken like this will almost never find interest and joy in their work.

    To be able to see when a horse feels entrapped and to know the right thing to do in the fraction of a moment, is the essential part in training a horse. Our ability to respond, and the speed of it, is crucial in decent training of horses; this can only be developed by experience and taught by horses, not to mention a certain level of talent (most people will never get it). If you need to buy a book on how to train or ride horse, you are just as foolish as the people who wrote it. The difference is, that the writers made money, while you stand a good chance to injure your horse, the people involved or get hurt while paying for it.

     One should take from this article, that every time we put the horse into an “entrapped” situation, we should be aware of the reasons for his reaction and understand it. It is also important to avoid putting our horse in the “entrapment” whenever possible, because it will always cause some damage to his character, if not physical damage as well. In layman terms, anytime you expose the horse to fear from which he cannot escape, you are inflicting an immense mental stress on him, which will often leave irreparable mental damage to the animal's character, not to mention the damage to your relationship with him and the horse's perception of people.

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek