When I did a double take to look at the bear with both eyes instead of out of my periphery I was surprised to find it wasn't a bear at all but a large chunk of driftwood. I shook my head and laughed at my tired mind. Under normal circumstances, my mind would have been sharp enough to realize that it wasn't likely to be a bear on Sand Creek right in town and I would have had to take a double take to convince myself it wasn't a piece of driftwood. Our logical and intelligent minds make those kinds of decisions for us even if our eyes "play tricks" on us sometimes. That's why when we see certain typos our brains will automatically read right over them and just see what we expect to see.
Horses on the other hand operate just like my tired mind. They are hard wired to see the bear, tiger, or wolf in the shrubbery. In their world everything is a predator until proven otherwise. They have a very highly developed sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for that rapid "flight or fight" response. When they see the perceived "bear in the bushes" they react just like my body did in that moment when my Autonomic Nervous System was fully functional and I was on auto pilot. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is our body's auto pilot. We breath, digest, have a heart rate, and other necessary functions thanks to the ever functioning ANS. It would suck if you had to always tell your heart to beat, guts to digest and brain to function. You can all say a little thank you to your ANS for taking that to do list off your hands.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is a branch of of the ANS. This branch is responsible for keeping us alive in dangerous situations. It's always there and ready to take over when we need it most. It's responsibilities include diverting blood away from the gastro-intestinal tract and skin and to the large skeletal muscles and lungs which prepares you for flight. This is the reason people blanch when afraid. Horses do it too, you just can't see it through all the hair. The SNS also dilates the bronchioles to increase air flow through the lungs. It increases the heart rate and contractility of the cardiac muscles creating that heart "squeeze" that anybody who has suffered a sudden fright has experienced. It also causes the pupils to dilate allowing for greater field of vision. I have watched this happen in a horse that suddenly saw something outside of the arena during a ground work session. Head came up, heart rate elevated, eyes dilated and horse exited stage left.
What you have to understand is that you and I and the horse have very little control over this reaction once the SNS gets underway. It takes over and auto pilot is thoroughly switched on and it can take a few moments to get the switch thrown back the other way. Even when you are looking at the piece of driftwood, shaking your head and laughing at yourself, you can still feel the last racing beats of your heart and the blood returning back to your cheeks.
The other component that compounds the horse's "flight or fight" response is their eye sight. They simultaneously see both more and less than we do. Horses have a very large field of vision owing to the lateral placement of their very large eyes. They can see approximately 300 degrees around their body at all times. The problem is that the majority of that is in monocular vision which is anything but reliable. The horse's monocular vision is similar to our peripheral vision. Think about the kinds of things you can see well in your periphery; flashes of movement, slashes of color, recognizable shapes. Anytime something in your periphery catches your attention you turn to look at it with your highly acute binocular vision that will determine actual distance to the object, true color and actual shape. Horses have a very limited field of binocular vision. They can only see clearly what is directly in front of them and in order to adjust acuity they need to raise and lower their head. That takes time and if you are a horse and are hard wired to flee the scene you may not take the time to look at the object you think is a bear with your limited binocular vision to decide if fleeing is the right move or not. You may just flee first and ask questions later at a more appropriate distance.
So, how do we, as horseman, counteract a system that is so hard wired and rapid fire in our horses? Luckily for us, the horse is a herd animal and not an independent thinker. Horses "know" that their SNS can be a little over reactive causing unnecessary expenditure of valuable energy and calories. Therefore they rely on the acuity compliation of the masses. If one horse sees something that looks like a bear they will alert and this causes the other horses in the herd to alert as well. The younger horses will often take their cues from the older horses in the herd who have the experience and learned behavior patterns to over ride the SNS when necessary. If the older, more seasoned horses in the herd see the object in question and go back to eating, the herd stays quiet. If, however, the alert is picked up by the dominant horses in the herd there will soon be a stampede. Conversely, if it is one of the matriarchs of the herd that alerts, there are no questions asked. The younger horses in the herd will assume that an alert from an experienced leader is valid and will flee without taking a second look.
You can see this in a group of horses on a trail ride. If there is a youngster in the group that repeatedly shies, or spooks at known objects on the trail, the older, more seasoned horses will likely ignore junior and his antics. However, if the lead horse sees something up ahead, the other horses in the group are likely to turn and bolt at the same time as the leader assuming that he knows what he is talking about! This is why having a good strong solid leader on a trail ride with younger or more inexperienced horses will help make the ride more pleasant for all concerned. The very worst combination is to take two inexperienced horses out on the trail together. They feed off each other and compound the spookiness. Dan and I once took our two colts out together for a little trail ride. We figured they were such good buddies that they would enjoy being out together rather than going out with one of the older horses who always picked on them. It had the opposite effect of what we intended. Instead of a fun "kids only adventure" where the two boys could enjoy their time out together they were uncertain and often afraid together looking (thankfully) to us to help them through something. Both of them did better with an older gelding giving them the confidence and security of a lead horse on the trail.
We have to teach our horses that we are the lead horse. If we help them to understand that if we aren't afraid, they shouldn't be either, they can learn to ignore that SNS in all but the most terrifying situations. You can't ever completely remove that "flight or fight" reaction system out of the horse (no matter how many times you stand on their back wielding a leaf blower or chainsaw), but you can help them look to you to know if they should react or not.
Ask yourself how you react to your horse's spookiness on the trail? Do you get nervous yourself, afraid that your horse is going to bolt or whirl? If you can feel your horse tense up beneath you, you can bet your horse can feel you do it on top of him. Do you get angry at your horse, kicking or whipping him forward to face his stupid fear of the rock he's walked by 100 times? The absolute worse thing you can do with a horse that is locked up with fear is move them forward while that SNS is in full effect. If you want to force movement on a hair trigger response you are likely to get more movement than you intended. The horse in their "flight" state of mind may read your reaction as agreeing with the alert he has given you and getting the go ahead to leave the scene. Conversely, holding a horse still when his body wants to move can compound the fear response as well. A horse that feels the need to flee physically but can't will flee mentally instead. Have you been on one of those horses that "checks out" on the trail? It's not a good thing. That's when crashing into trees and tumbling down cliffs happens. If the horse is allowed to move their feet and clear their mind (provided you have a safe place to do that) you can help the horse to blow off the SNS and return to conscious thinking.
In a situation where the horse is alerting to an object, it is our job as rider and leader to help our horse understand that object is safe and it is not a bear. We do this by first and foremost building a relationship with our horses. The horse has to understand that we are the leader when we are together. Not the alpha, but the matriarch/patriarch of the herd. The one they can look to for support and guidance when they are unsure of themselves. This relationship starts on the ground. We teach the horse through groundwork exercises and flagging that even if you are afraid, even if you are unsure of yourself, if you will just trust me and come back to me, everything will be okay. This isn't desensitizing. You don't have to repeatedly expose your horse to every scary object out there until they pretend it doesn't exist and go comatose and ignore it. That isn't teaching a horse to think. That is teaching a horse to do stage tricks with a leaf blower. It's okay for a horse to alert. I want my horse to tell me they see something they are unsure of on the trail. The last thing I want to be doing is riding a dead head that is unaware of their surroundings, ignoring everything around them until there really is a bear standing in the trail ahead of us. If my horse has to ask me a dozen times if that rock is safe, I'm okay with that because I will tell them a dozen times that it is just fine. My horse knows to feel back to me when scared so that he doesn't doubt my judgement feeling the need to allow the SNS to take over in a scary situation. They can't be afraid to be afraid because that only makes it worse for them.
The best way to help a scared horse feel back to you is through body language. Talking to a horse is for the human. If it helps you to remember to stay calm, that is great, but it's the body language that your horse is really feeling. If you keep your seat bones quiet, legs soft and body relaxed that will transfer through the saddle. Touching the horse on the neck with the palm of your hand helps the horse to feel our pulse and know that you are not afraid and are looking at the same thing that he is. I can feel the heart rate on my horses through either the neck or the saddle. I allow a few moments for that heart rate to stabilize before asking for forward movement.
Tom Dorrance used to talk about riding through your horse's eyes. We all try to ride and feel down to the horse's feet, but if you can also ride through the horse's eyes you can get to the brain before it even gets to the feet. It requires seeing what the horse is seeing and being an active leader for your horse. You ride your horse forward on the trail, looking where you are going as well as looking around and being aware of your surroundings. Your horse can tell if you are riding turned around in your saddle chatting to the person behind you. The more your horse feels you are a passenger and disengaged with the ride the more he his inclined to take over. If that happens and your horse feels the need to spook or alert at an object, he may not bother checking back in with you because he knows you haven't been paying attention anyway. Riding through your horse's eyes doesn't mean you are looking at your horse's head, it means you are looking where your horse is going. It casts your energy forward and creates forward movement in your horse. Your horse can feel you keeping an eye out for bears and Indians and will relax and rely on your leadership.
Riding in kinship with your horse is an amazing feeling. It creates unity and sense of purpose and direction. Having a horse as engaged with the ride as you are enhances the experience. Ride through your horse's eyes the next time you head out on the trail. You may be surprised at what you've been missing.