Reader Question: Appropriate Responses to Stress

Flight happens fast! Here’s me, stuck in freeze, while my herd are already in full flight.

Hi Julie

Ok so I have a question which I would love your thoughts on when you have time.

This one is really important for me to understand and get right because this situation makes me anxious and as a result I have been inconsistent and not able to help my horses in the past.

Yesterday I was working on the crab walk with my mare ( but it could be doing anything, anywhere at any time )

We were in the roundyard and the other horses in the paddock suddenly all start having the crazies and running around, my mare got completely distracted and stood stock still, frozen with her focus 100% on them, she had gone into the sympathetic nervous system and was trying to work out whether there was something she needed to flee from ( my take on it )

So when this happens

If the horse is just standing still you match their focus, so spend a minute focusing on the same thing breathe deeply , do you then

1) wait for them to come back down before quietly asking for them to move their feet as a way of asking for their focus to come back to you ?

Or do you move your body a bit to see if their focus can come back to you and if so all good and carry on with whatever you were doing and then draw them in and look for twitching to see if they need to let down ?

So basically do you wait for them to reset themselves or do you help facilitate that or does it depend ?

If they were to start moving around in an anxious way and hit the end of the leadrope, use the flag ( calmly and with as little energy as needed ) to try to redirect their attention ?

If they are moving around in an anxious way in towards you create enough energy to just keep them off you ?

The reason this makes me anxious is because I don’t know what to do

I would really like to have a clear picture of what to do in each situation because then I can stay calm and confident and help my mare to find her way back to that place.

I hope that makes sense



Hi Jodie

Great question!

As always, I will clarify that as I am not there, it’s impossible to know a situation properly without observing it first hand, and that my answer here is just my speculation on what might be happening and what I personally think is appropriate in a situation like this.

The answer is yes, it depends.

The stress responses that we know best are flight, fight and freeze. This situation describes very well a case of a horse going into freeze. It could also describe a horse just observing other horses playing – sometimes we watch interesting stuff without getting upset about it!

So all of your suggestions are good ones, depending upon the situation. There are also other solutions that may be more appropriate depending upon what is really going on this time.

In my early days of learning about natural horsemanship, I was taught to match the horse’s energy, and to add a few ounces- in other words, just do what they are doing, but a little bit more than they do. This rule of thumb worked out ok for me most of the time.

Eg: My extroverted mare gets playful? A simple send gets a massive farty buckitybuck yeehah? Great! Let’s play- no shutting that down, I encourage and urge her on…just a little longer than she may have decided to play for otherwise, and only then I would offer up my own idea (settle) which is now a lot more attractive. And it’s not about punishing or ‘making the wrong thing difficult’. It’s more ‘you’re idea/my idea!’ which is a handy little way to remember not to just automatically correct every independent thought the horse might have, but to instead convince the horse that you liked his idea and playfully encouraged it…and that now your alternative idea matches his idea too. It’s an extension of the idea that ‘first we go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then we go together’.

If she’s gone into flight however, because she’s feeling scared, then I remember that movement helps these moments to resolve into feeling better too. However I don’t chase her and accidentally add to her fear. Just let her move, and when I can, encourage a change of direction. Every time she does a 180 and the scary thing reappears from behind her, it’s an opportunity for her stress to reduce.

As for freeze: One of my fb friends has coined the term ‘Standing Still Olympics’.

That would have been very similar to my ‘adding a few ounces’ to standing still.

I love freeze. Of all the stress responses, it gives everyone a moment to think -providing of course that there is not a real lion out there stalking us.

These days, I still use my rule if thumb, but with more nuance. I read my horses and decide what is most appropriate, and as your relationship, feel and timing improves, you can often get pretty good at ‘doing less sooner’ to avert stress arising in the first place.

So if your horse gets fixated on some thing, and is clearly freezing, then yes, stop and wait is always a better option than pushing them past it.

However the plot has thickened a lot from there.

I used to stare at the thing as well, and this would usually work out in that I didn’t initiate any explosions by pushing through.

However the caveat is that horses are pattern animals.

We also need to differentiate between whether we need to provide an actual feeling of safety for a horse, or if it’s merely comfort which is needed to help this horse feel better right now.

When we match steps and copy the horse as an exercise in helping him feel better about us, we ought to consider that we are following that horse, not leading him. I think this is good to do sometimes, as horses themselves switch modes and roles with each other a lot. However, not always. Sometimes you need to take charge in order to keep everyone safe.

Two mares matching and mirroring. Comfort.

The appropriate time to match and mirror is when you are both already feeling safe. It’s a confidence building game; but confidence in YOU as not a threat, not always confidence in YOU as someone who can actually keep her safe (a leader is the one who makes decisions in the moment; but good leaders make decisions that hold safety of the herd in mind).

So she’s grazing, I match her steps, and maybe as a mindful safety top up, keep an eye out for any predators. That is a passive leader strategy. A passive follower strategy would be to ‘graze’ as well. See the difference?

Matching/mirroring provides something that horses crave- harmony. They get comfort from it. However when she’s scared, you don’t want to match and mirror fear. You are providing ‘comfort’ as an answer to a ‘safety’ situation, see?

Comfort is trumped by safety issues, every time. No one naturally feels comfortable when in mortal peril, or in nature gets to survive very long, if they do.

Usually going that will be ok, but you will not be noticed as being part of a solution to the fear. You may even become completely irrelevant if the fear stimulus is very high.

If you’ve done a lot of matching, you will find that usually your horse starts to automatically feel better when you are doing it. Sometimes this might help you bring emotion down through a lot of of habitual conditioning, like stimulating the hyoid release causes the physical act of mouthing, which is what a nervous system reset often evokes as well. Or how lowering the horse’s head lowers the heart rate. But if he’s really frightened, making him ‘relax’ via his body is as effective as telling a terrified person to just chill when the threat is still very real. It’s futile. In those cases, matching a posture of fear is not one you might want to mirror. You don’t want to reinforce that feeling of fear, because the ‘familiar’ practice can work against your best interests.

An extreme example- a terrified horse released from a burning barn turns around and runs back into the barn- because the conditioned ‘familiar’ has created a positive reflex – he wants to feel better, he cannot think because he’s terrified, so he falls back on doing what has helped him feel better in the past.

If you are consistently providing comfort regularly by mirroring your horse, it becomes a soothing reinforcer. It becomes ‘familiar’ and ‘comfortable’. Comfort is desirable, but not always appropriate. Sometimes the world is TOO interesting (ie your neighbouring horses freaking out as described in your example) as opposed to familiar or comfortable, and demands real safety to be provided, not comfort, to help.

I myself have a very reactive damaged horse that I have rehabbed. He used to go straight into panic mode at the slightest hint of a threat in the environment, herd or leadership areas of focus (fear of what the human would do to him if he put a foot wrong in his case). During the process of getting to know each other, we managed to get his violent outbursts to at least a warning freeze first as an option. To achieve that, every fear threshold was honoured religiously. We would stop and stare at ‘the thing’ together, I wouldn’t have to choose between dying and getting off, and he became braver. He ‘felt felt’ and was ‘getting gotten’. Like me sitting in the dentist chair, he knew he could throw up a signal that says ‘stop!’ and I would always say ‘of course.’ I would even add my few ounces by backing him away from it before he felt he had to flee.

McCoy’s ‘Freeze’ face. See tension in his mouth, jaw, nostril and eye.

However while my horse became braver and more confident as a result of that, the stopping and staring stayed a constant- it got to the point that we would stop and goggle at the slightest thing of interest on every ride.

I was providing so much comfort by matching him, that we fell into a pattern of it during every ride, and it was being reinforced to become stronger and stronger a pattern because of the comfort he got from it. So any thing that is remotely interesting would warrant a game of standing still Olympics! Yet he was not necessarily scared. It was just what we did when we encountered ’Interesting’.

So I discussed this with one of my teachers, Elsa Sinclair, and she talked a bit about the difference between Familiar, Comfortable and Interesting, and reminded me of how ‘going into flow’ with our horse becomes a reinforcer.

So I made an adjustment. When he stops now, I still don’t push him past it or insist upon getting on with his job. I still wait, but I don’t stare at ‘it’ too, I don’t join him in the freeze. I do not ‘flow’ or harmonise with the freeze. Instead, I fiddle. I twiddle my hair, or his mane, or check my gear or adjust my clothes. I shift around a little without actually demanding he do anything else, I use the time to watch the horizon for any real threats. It’s not a bid for his attention, I’m still waiting him out, but I’m just not joining the freeze- and pretty soon he will give me at least an ear, or sometimes a look of astonishment that I’m not matching, and sometimes a complete let down/sigh/yawn etc.

Any will do. All I need is to know is that he can change focus and not fixate. Then I can ask him another question, and expect a good likelihood of a ‘yes’ answer, and we can move on together.

Too finish with a recap of the other two modes of stress responses:

If they go to flight- you described ‘hitting the end of the leadrope’ – my instinct is usually to allow as much room as possible and help them move more. Changing direction helps- not just running round and round, which many horses can do a lot of for a long time and still not feel better. The physical act of stopping and looking back at ‘it’ helps the reset. In the wild, evading attack, a horse will run just fast and far enough to be safe, but he has to check that the predator is left behind at some point or he will run himself to death, so ‘stop turn and face’ is an instinctive pattern that needs to happen before they can relax again. Each time he does it, he has to assess; and thinking requires a momentary change from ‘react’ to ‘think’. A change of focus that is relevant to the danger he feels that put him into flight in the first place, not an irrelevant person saying ‘look at moi!’ When there’s maybe a lion in the grass.

If pushing into you (fight) then you have a choice. One is to simply not engage, walk past him and off his tail end. However sometimes circumstances mean that this is not possible, and yes you do need to be able to get them off you if you need to save yourself.

There is also a ‘clumping up’ behaviour when they are can be misread as ‘fight’; but is often more a ‘find’ response- an expression of stress that takes the form of looking for safety and hiding behind your herd/leader. The safest place in an emergency is in the middle of the herd! While this speaks to his trust in you, obviously half a ton of terrified horse trying to hide in the middle of the herd, when said herd only consists of the two of you, is not that good an idea.

This is why we want to teach basic yields extremely thoroughly starting when the horse is calm, so that even when he’s up, you can still get him off you without frightening him or offending him. It needs to become as natural to yeild to you as it is to find comfort with you.

Yielding the forehand using a steady feel.

I have found the truth and the usefulness of Elsa Sinclair’s answer to stress; which is to turn fight into play, freeze into think, and flight into yeild. Above are some of my interpretations of how that can be achieved. Can you see how each of the techniques described above could potentially do this?

5 thoughts on “Reader Question: Appropriate Responses to Stress”

  1. Dear Julie, thank you for this amazing reply full of very valuable information. Regarding your own horse riding out and him freezing…do you find yourself stopping every 20metres in freeze mode ? I find that the more I listen to my Horse,the more he stops in freezing mode…and I am going nowhere, is it when you would recommend (well Elsa S) to not be in harmony with him during the freeze so that doesn’t enjoy it too much and finally reduce this freezing time? Has your horse now been able to carry on without freezing? How long did it take long ? THANK YOU in advance


    1. Thanks for the question.

      ‘Going nowhere’ is going somewhere! ‘The more you listen the more he stops’- that is progress in that he trusts you not to shove him over the edge if the reason he stops is uncertainty and fear. Think of ‘interesting’ as a scale- mildly curious to madly intensely desperately ‘interesting’ (no one would be disinterested in a lion about to pounce).
      In short, yes my horse now only freezes if something is desperately interesting. He is much braver because he trusts my OPINION in assessing each threat. That is what the ear flick (change of focus) tells me. The trust builds because I never push him over the threshold, but I’m authentic in my concern- does that make sense? I am not going to be ‘fiddling while Rome burns’- if it’s really a lion, or a swarm of bees, I’m saying ‘we choose flight!’ Or I’ll do something to help him feel safer; such as retreat a few steps (add a few ounces) as a good herd leader (protector) does to keep the herd safe.
      The original photo with me and the horses and heavy machinery- that was taken during an Elsa clinic and was the real start point for McCoy because he got to stare at it for so long, choosing his own distance and time spent, that eventually he couldn’t help wanting to investigate more.
      So as to how long it takes will depend up a few factors- him, yourself and your feel and timing, the circumstances, how much freedom of choice you can give. In my case I had spent years practicing’freeze’ with him. It did not take long for him to change at all- it was pretty instant when I started not freezing too but just waiting, because it made a big contrast to what he was expecting. So I guess it depends.


      1. Thank you so much. It makes sense. One last thing. Will you ask a second question (e.i step forward) once he changes focus (ear flick, sigh, dropping head to eat the grass…), or would you wait for him to decide to go forward when he’s ready?


      2. If he can change focus easily I would play it by ear (flick lol)good leaders also ‘yes’ questions. I would say ‘let’s go’ once he’s with me. However if he’s wavering between being able to change focus and checking back on ‘it’ I would probably ask a less challenging request- perhaps can he back up, or circkecround to take another look…Hope this helps 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: