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Fear vs Panic

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

Fear vs Panic and Why It’s Important To Recognize The Difference

The words “fear” and “panic” are often used interchangeably when attempting to explain behavior in horses. Typically the behavior being explained is dangerous, hyper aroused, out of control, and usually considered down right obnoxious to many horse owners. Running, pacing, bolting, kicking, rearing, calling, biting, chasing, sitting back... these are just a few symptoms of a horse experiencing an extreme emotional state of fear...or is it panic? But wait... aren’t they the same thing? Is there a difference? According to the research of Dr. Jaak Panksepp there are seven different primal emotion systems of mammals across all species. They are the core emotions that are responsible for our behavior and survival. Understanding them as well as learning to to recognize them, and their differences, is critical for both the care and training of any species.

SEEKING - Feelings of enthusiasm and helps animals “seek out” food and other resources. Can be active with other emotions.

RAGE - Feelings of anger and when you feel very annoyed or pissed off at something or someone. This system is used to protect resources, such as food, territory, mates and offspring.

FEAR - Feelings of anxiety. This helps protect the animal because the animal learns to avoid or be cautious about things that produce fear emotions.

LUST - Related to reproductive urges and patterns of courtship and reproductive behavior.

CARE - Feelings of tender and loving care and a desire to care for young. Manifests differently in various species, but usually stronger in females.

PANIC - Lonely or sad. It is activated when a young animal is separated from its mother. Panic suppresses the seeking system, also related to grief and depression.

PLAY - Feelings if joy and happiness. Allows animals to get socialized in a positive, joyful way. Important for development.

Clearly fear and panic stem from very different root causes, and manifest in the brain in very different ways, but when it comes to training horses though.. we often handle horses experiencing panic and those horses experiencing fear the same way. Why is this? Well, I believe it's a two fold problem. First, a misunderstanding or lack of awareness for equine emotions, and second.. the misinterpretation of equine body language (ie. how those emotions physically display themselves).

This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity (now looking back on it) to experience these two emotions vividly in my horses due to an unusual situation we were in. I was reminded of how similar they can appear to the uneducated(or unaware) handler, but how differently you should approach handling the different emotions in order to be successful. Thankfully, I got a few pictures that I would like to share with you to help explain both the differences and the similarities.


First, we have fear. I talk more about fear (it's purpose and the negative impact it has on learning) in this article, but I want to talk more about the physical expression of fear in horses here and it's differences from a panic response.

Fear is the emotional state of self preservation. Horses are pre-programmed fear the unknown, to anticipate the worst of unfamiliar situations and objects, to flee or fight danger. As prey animals they have a magnified ability to fear anything and everything in order to stay alive, including that suspicious looking corner of the arena they've practiced in every day for the past year just fine.

Fear can also be learned, from bad experiences or even from observing others of the same species. Sometimes, within a herd, one horse will suddenly become wary of an odd looking bird or an unusual sound. Their actions may alert the rest of the previously peaceful herd until the whole group is in an uproar over what could possibly be dangerous.... "better safe than sorry" is the motto of the horse.

In the picture above my nearly two year old filly is experiencing fear. Her eyes are wide and focused intently, her mouth is frozen mid chew, her back leg is cautiously propped up (prepping to flee should the need arise), her chin has hardened slightly, her head and neck rigidly upright, ears pressed forward... her whole body screams "I'm ready for anything" as she's seemingly frozen in place (freeze). If her fear continues to grow... her next move will either be to fight or flight. Spoiler alert... she flees.

Her two herd companions (not visible, but directly behind her in corrals) were on alert too, but not nearly so close to their fear thresholds. Their behavior was saying "hey, what's that?" This filly's body language is saying "Guys, it's coming to get me..."

Next we have panic. Panic is about distress, loneliness, and separation from companions or caregivers. It's the primal emotion that's triggered when a foal is separated from it's mother and when a horse is separated from the safety of the herd.

Panic is an extremely powerful emotion that can affect a horse long term. Depression and grief stem from the panic emotion being overly activated, such as when there's a loss of a companion or caregiver (harmful weaning practices, death or sale of a companion, etc.)

In these pictures my mare is experiencing panic as she realizes she’s separated from the herd. As you can see, body language wise this mare is displaying very similar reactions as the first filly; wide hard concerned eyes, tight compressed chin, rigid mouth, widened nostrils, hyper alert body stance with an elevated head and neck. From pictures alone, you can't really tell what's going on in either the pictures of the filly or of my mare. However, we know the core emotion is very different for these two horses.

So how CAN you tell the difference if they look so similar? Well, every horse is a little different, but there are some key differences. One is vocalization. Often times a horse experiencing grief will call to their companions or to their mothers. A horse that's experiencing fear is usually completely silent, not wanting to draw attention to themselves should the situation actually prove to be dangerous.

Another difference I often see is movement. A horse experiencing panic is likely to be attempting to move back towards the herd or caregiver. Running fence lines, pulling at the end of the lead rope, running circles around the handler, and general dancing around. With fear though, "freezing" is more likely to be the very first response; a lack of movement. The horse takes on a statue like appearance as it assesses the situation, and then.. it may suddenly choose to flee (bolt) or to fight (attack). No movement, then sudden movement, rather than frenzied constant movement. Also, looking at the direction of movement is helpful. Movement towards something is often a result of panic, movement away from something is typically fear.

One way I like to think of the two emotional states is distress vs terror. A horse that is experiencing panic is likely to be acting in such a way that it appears mildly to greatly distressed. A horse that is experiencing fear will appear as if it's terrified. One thing the pictures wont tell you, but I can tell you (since I was there) was that the mare was pacing distressed circles around me and calling to her companions while the filly was frozen rock solid and completely silent before she suddenly bolted.

So what do the differences of panic and fear have to do with training and how we address training situations? Let's think of an example ...

Let's say you have a horse that's refusing to load into the trailer. You've spent days, weeks, months introducing the horse to the trailer in a patient and positive way. Using positive reinforcement and conditioning to make the trailer positive for the horse, but still the horse refuses to load into the trailer. Until, one day you happen to have loaded your horse's pasture companion into the trailer first and then go to load your horse into the trailer and suddenly your horse jumps right in! Ah ha! Problem solved right? Your horse is no longer afraid of the trailer and now loads like a pro. You pat yourself on the back for a great training job.

That is.. until the next time you go to load your horse into the trailer without the companion... again, you find yourself with a horse that's refusing to load into the trailer. This is because we've failed to address the true problem. Your horse isn't experiencing fear of the trailer, but panic about being asked to leave the herd. The problem isn't the trailer, it's separation anxiety.

What's more in this situation is that, if you're dealing with a horse that's experiencing panic and you force the horse to load into the trailer to be taken away from their companions, you may actually create a fear response to the trailer. Now you've got a horse that experiences both panic and fear at the idea of trailering, we've compounded the issue.

Another example might be a horse that's difficult to lead to the barn. Is your horse acting dangerously because he's been handled aggressively in the past by short tempered barn staff and therefore experiencing fear? Or, is he experiencing panic at the idea of being separated from the rest of the herd?

What about a horse that acts impatient and frantic while tied in the barn for grooming, tacking up, or having it's hooves trimmed? Is the horse pawing, kicking, and sitting back because he's never been taught to stand quietly in a positive and patient way (fear), or... is the horse experiencing panic because he's all alone in the barn?

In all of the examples provided the undesirable behaviors had two very different causes. Is your horse experiencing PANIC or FEAR? They may often times look the same, but they are so very different and require very different approaches. Knowing which emotion system is being trigger is vital for effective training.

- Adele

Here are some resources to learn more on the topic of primary emotions if you're interested. <<< links to the rest of the video series)



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