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Where Does Fear Come From?

So, I have a Mustang now. Her name is Luna, and she is a 6-year-old mare out of the Twin Peaks HMA in California. She is the first wild Mustang I have ever worked with, and I am learning A LOT.

The thing that I am most struck by every day I spend with her is the stark contrast between the “normal” behaviors of a domesticated horse and one that has been living without human contact. Luna lives with every one of her natural survival instincts fully intact. The same cannot be said for the other horses on my farm. The first time a human ever touched Luna was about a month ago. She relies on her years of experience in the wild to distinguish between what is a threat and what is not. Imagine everything she saw and felt in her first 6 years of life that is informing her decisions now.

Her eyes are always on her surroundings, simultaneously taking in things near her and things at a distance. She’s always listening, ears moving like satellite dishes picking up signals. She breathes in the scents around her to determine what might be passing nearby or coming her way. She is always aware of every part of her own body. There’s no sneaking up on her.

She is constantly learning to figure out what gets her needs met. She figured out how to eat out of a hay net and drink from a rubber tub in minutes because food and water are necessities for survival. She already knows the sound of the side-by-side that brings her hay and grain and of the bucket with training treats we use during our daily sessions together.

Luna has the uncanny ability to distinguish between inanimate objects and living things. To her, inanimate objects hold no potential threat. They are simply there, inherently lifeless, and easily ignored, even if they are in motion. She is content to let such objects move around her and touch her all over her body without a care. Lunge whips, horseman's sticks, flags, pool noodles – you name it, she doesn’t care about it.

A human hand, however, is a very different thing. I can move my hand in the exact same way over her body as I just did one of the aforementioned objects, but she treats it entirely differently as if she can feel my heartbeat in my touch. To her, that hand belongs to a predator and is, therefore, a threat. Put a small curry or brush in that hand, and again, there’s a safety barrier. The inanimate object is doing the touching, and it is allowed far more freedom of movement than the hand. I have talked to several Mustang trainers, and it seems this reaction is more common than not with wild horses.

This phenomenon was so surprising to me, having only worked with domesticated horses who have been handled by humans since they were young. I assumed that if I could touch Luna all over with these objects and wave them around her with no reaction, then I would be able to touch her in the same way. That’s how it works with most of the other horses I have helped, including the more sensitive ones.

In fact, most of them would much rather be touched by me than have a whip swung over their head and around their body or a flag rubbed all over them. I was pondering what caused this difference when it hit me. It’s us. It’s people. It’s how we imbue the objects in our horse's world with meaning from the moment we start handling them. The objects themselves hold no meaning. We give them meaning for our horse.

For example, I have had many horses in my program whose owners tell me they are afraid of whips, and the horse’s behavior demonstrates this fear. I would now clarify this reaction in horses by saying they were TAUGHT to be afraid of whips.

They weren’t born afraid of them. Whips had no meaning to the horse when it was born. They were inanimate objects in their world like they are in Luna’s now. Somewhere along the way, a human gave a whip meaning by using it in a manner that caused pain or fear and, in doing so, taught the horse to be afraid of whips. Then, logically, whip-like things also became frightening – things like flags and pool noodles, anything that is waved around quickly like a whip.

It takes a lot of time to rewrite the imprint of fear on a brain. Fear lays a heavy neural pathway because it taps into survival instincts. Once a brain sees an object as a threat to its survival, it takes a lot of relearning to override the reactivity that object causes. It takes empathy and patience to facilitate this kind of relearning, even when you don’t fully understand the horse’s reactions or where they came from. Rest assured, they came from somewhere, likely a human hand.

I am in a unique position with Luna at the moment. She’s a bit of a blank slate, like a baby horse, but with more awareness and learning capacity than a foal or yearling. I am literally shaping her opinion and understanding of humans and the objects we use to communicate with horses. That’s a huge responsibility, made more palpable by my knowledge of the fact that Luna didn’t ask to be domesticated.

She was perfectly happy in a world without human contact. The innocence and sincerity in her expression as she tries to figure me out tug at my heartstrings, and I can only hope that she sees our interactions as clear and kind. She deserves that from me, at the very least.

Special thanks to co-sponsors Alison Brigham and Michael Frankel, as well as the barn staff at Unexpected Farm who help make this journey possible.


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