12 Aug 2022

The JenkuMethod: The Invisible Box – Addressing Claustrophobia in Horses

Claustrophobia in horses is a natural response. Signs of claustrophobia and when these may occur, include:

  • Pulling back on halters during leading, ponying, or when tied
  • Entering narrow spaces, stalls, barns, enclosures, and trailers
  • Unprovoked flying back out of a trailer, chute, stands, or other restrictive spaces
  • Freezing, bracing, and rigid responses when restrained

Knowing this, it is no wonder then that when we try to contain horses in any way, we actually increase their anxiety.

Imagine for one moment we take a tack box that’s big enough for a human to fit into.
Imagine yourself sitting in this tack box while I am attempting to close it with a lid.
If you happen to be naturally claustrophobic, having gathered all your strength just to get in the box, seeing the lid may cause you to want to get out and run away, already anticipating what was going to happen.

We call this anticipatory anxiety.

But what if I made an agreement with you that I would not put the lid on, and I would not go and sit on the lid. Would you at least try and stay in the box then?

You may feel terribly anxious and that is totally understandable.
What if I asked you to just stand in the box?
What if I were to tell you that you only have to sit down in it when you feel comfortable enough?
What if I promised that I will not put a lid on it and sit on it, and that I would never break my word?
Will you then at least try and stay in the box?

As the trust between us is built, once you start believing that I will never break my word, slowly you may start relaxing and then you will sit down in the box. Eventually I may get you to go right down, putting your entire body and head into the box.

As long as I don’t bring the lid near, you should be fine.

The Invisible Box

How do this relate to horses?

When we ride, the bit, the reins and our legs create this rectangle around a horse that the horse can feel, but they cannot see it.

Imagine how much worse that must be! At least when you stepped into my visible human size tack box, you had the ability to rationalise what was happening.   And still, even for beings with the ability to rationalise this and understand it at a cognitive level, it puts a naturally claustrophobic human into overwhelm, into fight or flight state, just thinking of being trapped inside this invisible box.

When we then add nosebands and tighten it so well that we take away their ability to lick and chew, we also take away their ability to go into the rest & digest state of the autonomic nervous system.  I call this artificially induced stress.

Read more on this here: Uncovering the Mind/Body Connection in Horses

Understanding the Horse’s Viewpoint

It is helpful to understand what we are doing to horses when we put them between the bit at the front, the rein on the left, the rein on the right, and our legs at the back. What happens when we put the reins on, the bit through the horse’s mouth, and add in the legs, is that we create a two-dimensional box.  But what you may not think about is that when you actually sit on your horse, then it becomes a three-dimensional box that the horse is contained in.  And that is like sitting on the lid of the tack box and precisely the reason why horses get so anxious.

We can imagine it, but we do not actually see the invisible box around your horse. We cannot fully appreciate the level of stress that we’re putting a naturally claustrophobic being under when putting on the rein on the left, the rein on the right, the bit through the mouth and add your legs at the back.

Building Trust with Your Horse

We have to work at building trust with the horse in order to overcome their natural propensity to become nervous in enclosed spaces.

The number one trust builder is to be predictable by being consistent.

  • Be consistent with your energy level, emotions, and how you show up around your horse.
  • Stay consistent with your communication, always sending and receiving messages in the same way.
  • Stay consistent by continually using the same messaging system that both you and your horse clearly understand.

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