• Adele Shaw

Fear vs Panic

Updated: Feb 28

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.)