The other day I asked my followers on Instagram to tell me what they thought of this video of Cashmere running around the arena.
I asked what everyone thought she might be feeling/experiencing/communicating in that moment.. and the comments were fantastic! I got responses varying from "she's having fun and being frisky" all the way to "she's experiencing separation anxiety/buddy sour". And now.. I'm hear to tell you the rest of the story and explain what was happening.
I love sharing videos like this and asking people to look and tell me what they see, it's such a great exercise in training ourselves to "listen" to horses better.. and not just go along with our first thoughts or believe what we've been taught in the past.
It would be so easy to stop at seeing the horse running around fast in a safe arena without anything obvious to be scaring her and think, "she has a lot of energy! Maybe she's letting off steam." or to think "She's pretty confident about that big canter stride, rather than spooking away from something, so she's probably not scared... must mean she's playing", but it's SOOOO very important that we see our horse's actions through the glasses of equine behavior, and not through human behavior/idea googles. Seeing a situation through human glasses might get someone very hurt, or make a situation much worse... we need to see it for what it is.
With human glasses, we don't see anything overly wrong with the situation... we see a nice horse, a safe arena, a confident stride, and a lack of fear and think... "All must be good!", when through horse glasses we can see something very different.
It's also important to look at the big picture, and not just pay attention to a small part of it. We have to assess the environment, the before and after, look at every aspect of the horse's movement and actions, and REALLY *see* what's going on.. to be able to accurately assess the situation.
So what do we really see and hear in this video? What are the observable behaviors of the horse and what are those behaviors telling us? Fast and motivated running that's almost frantic, extremely elevated head carriage, flared nostrils, wide eyes, heavy breathing, head turned to the outside of the arena, faint calling/nickering, running herself into arena corners, staring off into the distance.
What you can't see in this video, but is all necessary information, is that she had begun this frenzy by pacing/prancing back and forth along the rail closest to the camera and barn, and she multiple times tested jumping out of the arena. What you ALSO can't see, is that her normal pasture companion walked away from the arena into the barn, leaving her behind trapped in the arena.. (I had gone after him to bring him back to keep the situation from escalating; client was holding camera).
All of this information can quickly bring us to the conclusion that this horse is clearly not playing, happy, or just blowing off steam.. and is also not likely afraid of a particular object or area either. Her observable behavior is likely indicating she's experiencing PANIC.
Separation anxiety stems from the core emotion "PANIC" (see Jaak Panksepp's work on emotions) and is also closely related to depression and grief. PANIC is a high stress, high adrenaline, almost "blind" emotional state that's triggered to preserve life.. survival. A foal that is separated from his dam experiences PANIC, during sudden or too early of weaning or when temporarily separated, and when a horse is separated from the safety of the herd or a companion they can experience PANIC.
Panic and it's very different from the emotional state FEAR.. and it's also VERY VERY different than the emotional state PLAY, which would be what was occurring if she were frisky and playful. I wrote more about the difference and signs of PANIC vs FEAR, but really quick...
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. With PLAY though... we are more likely to have random bursts of energy, rearing, bucking, leaping, kicking out, head rolling, prancing.. Think of two horses playing together and how they usually act with one other.... you're not likely to see frantic running with calling. Identify which of these emotional states is causing the behavior is very important because it will dictate the handling and training. When a horse is experiencing PLAY, and it's time for them to focus or learn how to play safer... Training will be centered on a task that will calm them and refocus them on interacting in a safe and controlled way around the human, or working behind a barrier. If it's FEAR you're going to want to be working on exposure training below the horse's fear threshold and building confidence. Systematically preparing them to feel calm and confident in the presence of whatever or wherever they were experiencing fear. (see blog post about this) Then with PANIC we know we are dealing with distress and separation most likely, in which case once triggered the horse is likely far beyond any rational state of mind and feels desperate to do whatever it takes to regain connection with it's herd/companion/dam. So we need to again, work below their panic threshold and begin to gradually counter condition being away from companions or having companions leave in a low stress and positive way. If however PANIC is triggered unintentionally, immediate action needs to be taken to return the horse to a place they feel safe, with the companion, before training can resume.
For this horse in this video, this was an unintentional spike of PANIC, I was not expecting it to become so violent so quickly and she's on a very careful conditioning program now to help reduce her anxiety when separated from companions. I expect to see immense progress quickly with a systematic and positive approach.
To read more about separation anxiety and buddy sourness in horses ....
To read more about the core emotional states in horses/animals and for more about Panic vs Fear...