Spring Fever, Bad Behavior, or Flight Response?

It’s February on the high prairie at the fringe of the Rocky Mountains. The pond is still frozen so there is an unnatural quiet, no bird chatter, no wings in the sky. After months of feeling that light is somehow a product of ice lighting the ground, the sun feels just a bit warm again. It’s still below freezing, but a winter jacket is too warm. An hour later, the temperature hasn’t changed, but it feels like a polar front, and fingers sting inside of winter gloves. The angle of the sun is shifting, a month from Spring equinox. The sun has been low in the sky even at midday. In the summer, the sun is so direct it would fry an egg, but now it’s just peeking through prairie grass, teasing us. The ground is still winter-dead. This is the time of year that storms get more violent, but we beg for any moisture, we measure the angle of light, the moments lengthening before sunset.

In this quiet dawn of a new season, lost in thought, I hear a jarring sound somewhere between a fat cat being shut in a door and a low moist dragon fart. Stop and listen: a half-mile over on the paved road, sometimes semi-trucks let out a backfire rumble while downshifting. Sometimes a Harley pulling onto the road makes an internal combustion growl that carries from a distance. The sound comes again, deep and raw, followed by the clang of metal remarkably close by. Oh. it’s just my mare finishing breakfast, slamming her hind end into the feeder, and snarling like a grizzly bear. Her companions, like me, have frozen mid-chew. Seasonal Tourette’s, I think. Not a mechanical explosion, after all. Walking over, I give her a light scratch on her hip and draw back enough loose winter hair to line a bird’s nest. Yesterday there was none.

For folks who live in town, the weather is small talk, but weather can be life and death news while caring for livestock during changeable seasons, even on a small farm. As we’re busy cleaning tanks, chipping frozen manure, and waxing poetically about how tough we are, living in the real world, it’s a good time to remember that we actually live inside of climate-controlled houses just like townies. It’s the horses who live in the real world, each of their senses sending indelible messages that we can’t imagine. What does it smell like when the ground comes back to life? What does it feel like to shed dry winter hair in a full-body itch? Is the angle of the sun a reason to gallop in full flight, kicking hooves to the sky? Is this level of awareness exhausting for them, ever on alert? Even at times that humans are the most aware of our environment, our senses are muffled and dull in comparison.

A reader asked about the difference/intersection between a flight response and springtime forwardness. I think she’s asking in a politically correct way about why horses go nuts in the spring. She said, “… it got me thinking about how some people love the roller coaster and others of us can’t understand why we would put ourselves into what feels like panic mode. Or how I have found my excitement about engaging with a horse can escalate and sort of tumble physiologically into a non-specific fear response.”

I think her question about roller coasters might be the answer to how horses feel. We have the same nervous system, after all. When peaceful activity turns into a full-out bolt, we feel disoriented and left in the dust, mentally as much as literally. Maybe the analogy of a roller coaster is what it means to be a horse living in an unpredictable world.

Think of the process of encouraging a horse’s confidence. There is that time when you might be leading from behind or just taking a horse to turnout, allowing curiosity to rule as he sniffs his way down the aisle of the barn, then edging his way to a path, his eyes taking it all in as his neck stretches low. He’s alive in his environment, his ears pointing out interests beyond our meager senses. Does the earth breathe differently when seasons change, can his whiskers sense the beginning of grasses before they are visible? Did he see a flicker of movement in those trees? Are fawns being born, leaving the scent of afterbirth in the air? That’s when he’s the only one who notices he’s a few steps too far from the herd.

We’re thinking about work or dinner plans or riding goals, but an instant later, your peaceful little nature walk has exploded like a field of landmines. You think he’s spooked at nothing, both jerked into a tug-of-war over the lead rope, and your horse seems to be frightened by the sound of his own hooves pounding a staccato sound on hard soil. He thinks he might die, and real or not, Seasonal Tourette’s can feel like a bloody profanity, spit to the wind for no good reason, as the line between curiosity and fear disappears entirely.

Humans want answers. What did he see? Why did he spook? We want an intellectual explanation for an instant in the environment that never rose to meet our limited senses in the first place. We don’t understand our own emotion-based fear response, but we seek a logical answer for our horse’s behavior because thought is a self-soothing activity for us. We can feel safer if we can find reason in chaos. We wander through potential answers while as usual, our horse remains fight animal, marginally domesticated if at all, living outside our climate-controlled brains, looking for the next danger. Lost in our thoughts and living a moment in the past, we never catch up. Autumn is no less alarming for horses, life is change.

Horses are never truly domesticated. That’s what it means to be a flight animal. On the days when the world becomes alive in a different way, a change of weather or herd or location, and they seem to have a case of Seasonal Tourette’s, but isn’t that a reasonable equine response?

This is your seasonal reminder that your senses are not a good match for a horse. Their reaction time is seven times faster than ours and the existence of our frontal lobe is no advantage. It’s less important to immediately know why, and more important to not make the horse wrong for having better senses than we do.

This is your seasonal reminder that it isn’t about whether we like roller coasters or not. If we live with horses, we’re on one.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

38 thoughts on “Spring Fever, Bad Behavior, or Flight Response?”

  1. Seasonal Tourettes! So, I guess this roller coaster I am on will be the fulfillment of a “bucket list” item (to ride an actual roller coaster). I’ll take this one any day…

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  2. Thank you for this, Anna. I so enjoy being reminded how much more attuned to the natural world horses are than ourselves. If I keep this in mind then I am able to see them, and their actions, so much clearer. I also remember as a child being hugely excited by those first few days of Spring. Finally — freedom, fun, and frolic!! Your point about all the smells that we can’t smell but they can, may be another example of why they probably enjoy the new season, the new sights and smells and sounds, as much as we do.

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      • Someone said horses are in “an almost constant state of fear”, or words similar. I prefer to see it not as fear, but readiness, or alertness, perhaps indeed routed in the survival instinct, but a constant state of fear implies they act and react only based on that, and I think horses can see something that might trigger that reflex but actually choose to stay calm, or dare I say, even make the conscious decision to not do what might come instinctively. Anyway, I wonder off topic, as I often do! Only point I really wanted to make was that alertness and being ready for action does not necessarily imply horses are always fearful. Have a great weekend, Anna and hope the warm sun comes soon for you and your herd.

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  3. Loved your roller-coaster analogy-so fitting! Makes one think of our ponies and how they see their world quite different from us. We can’t begin to comprehend what they’re seeing, hearing, smelling as well as reacting to. And the fact that a horse reacts to what we can’t perceive in 1/7th of a second is amazing. I think what is really amazing is that our horses continue to accept us-slow & sort of dumb compared to them-at all!

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  4. As always another thought-provoking essay. The photo is awesome, The description of the “dragon fart” noise is fantastic. But This part:

    [[ We don’t understand our own emotion-based fear response, but we seek a logical answer for our horse’s behavior because thought is a self-soothing activity for us. We can feel safer if we can find reason in chaos. ]]

    That was the “Mmmmmhmmmm” moment.

    Thanks again for, as always, entertaining, educating, and enlightening me.

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  5. Perfection, Anna. The current weather, even in Virginia, has turned my normally quiet Thoroughbred into a nutcase.
    I have to be very cautious when walking him on the lead and can’t venture far from the barn, presently.
    And I am one of those who does not like roller-coasters, only gentle, slower rides. I think your metaphor
    is perfect.

    Wonderful article. Thank you, Anna. Stay warm and safe.

    Nuala

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  6. The whole time I was pep talking myself about that heart pumping response to “seasonal Tourette’s” and how it can be fun on a roller coaster. The that last line. The perfect mic drop!

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    • To a fellow writer, I’ll say that I will preach about the mistake of using our brains instead of our senses until I’ve said it as many ways as Eskimos have words for snow! Thanks Max.

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  7. Anna,
    Horses live in almost-constant fear, and yet, they generally have big, strong hearts. There, too, we are so inferior.
    Nuala

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    • I always know that the real experience is different than societal knowledge. What did I get wrong? Should I use a different word? If I have been insensitive, I’m sorry. If I have made the uncontrollable nature of the horse more clear, and still offended, still sorry.

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      • Would you talk about Seasonal Autism? Seasonal Downs Syndrome? Seasonal Cerebral Palsy? This felt like a gut punch. It made me realize the extent of PTSD I have been carrying due to how people have reacted to this condition, and the pain caused to people with this neurological condition and those who love them by lack of understanding.

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  8. I understand that the analogy you are drawing is that the horse can’t control its response, but it came across as a humorous reference, and Tourette’s is so often made light of.

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  9. “Humans want answers”. Yes we do Anna, and I think, for me, that this gets in the way of peaceful partnerships with horses more than anything else. I notice when I’m focused on doing daily chores, moving closely around the horses, I never see a tight lip, flattened ear, or a dead eye. We move together in quiet harmony. I only see those manifestations of stress in the horses when I’m trying to find an answer as to why they aren’t responding as I expected. I am working hard to stop analyzing horse behaviors, but I have to THINK to do so. I love the quote, “if the human brain were simple, we’d be too simple to understand it”. Talk about your Catch-22!

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  10. HA! Such a perfectly written account of an experience I recently had with my new 4 year old girI. I’m new to all things horse, and what a terrific combo we are. Thank you for confirming what I felt was the cause. Although I am to blame!
    I took Journi out for a walk, same walk we have come to know together.
    With this recent, brutal cold front blowing into Texas I wanted her to stretch and move before she was limited to a stall for almost a week.
    So off we went, me bundled up, Journi wearing her new blanket, wind howling, temps freezing, ice/snow on it’s way. By the time I realized this was not a good idea, Journi had become very worried as her world was violently swirling around us with gust of cold wind. It became obvious that she wanted to go back to the barn NOW! Just a bit farther and I could get us to the shortcut, but she was not understanding, and seemed to want to go back the same way we came!
    We made it back, both of us safe and sound, but I came to witness a reactive force….WOW….as she reared up three times on me. I could sense that she was not trying to harm me, and I had a few skills to calm her a bit in between rearing episodes.
    I learned a lot that day. I observed that Journi has very normal, flight horse behaviors. I acquired skill, not just from handling her, but Journi was messaging me way before her panic rose to a 10. Next time, and every time, I will do my best to better tune in…watch and listen. That was my greatest take away.
    We were both very happy to be back at her stall! Thanks again for you wonderful, and well timed, post Anna

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  11. “somewhere between a fat cat being shut in a door and a low moist dragon fart” This had me laughing out loud! Quite the imagery!! 🙂 🙂

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  12. One positive thing for me about horses being so sensitive to their surroundings has been that it has made me so aware of the different environments we’re in. It’s not that I wasn’t aware before, but I’m better at it. Luckily, it doesn’t result in me being hyper-alert or more fearful.

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