What Stressed-Out Horses (and Humans) Need

In anxious times, we can learn a lot about what we need to survive by applying lessons from the horse world.
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A roan horse wraps his neck around clinician Julie Goodnight.

Clinician Julie Goodnight says horses can teach us a lot about what we need in order to calm down when we’re under a lot of stress.  

Extreme stress can cause us to behave in extreme ways. The pressure of overwhelming anxiety can hobble our thinking, leading to irrational actions that just make things worse. 

That causes more stress, and the cycle continues.

You know what I mean.

It’s the same for a horse. What a horse or human needs at that stressful point is a way to calm down, to come back to the self and find a way to a more productive frame of mind.

At one of her teaching sessions, clinician Julie Goodnight met a horse that reminded her what it’s like to feel completely, totally stressed out.

“He was a mess,” she recalls of the gelding. “Pawing, stomping, head-butting his handler, screaming at the top of his lungs, tossing his nose in the air, hurling himself to the right and then left, bouncing off the end of the lead.”

As his owner struggled to contain him, her face showed shock and embarrassment.

“He’s not normally like this!” she told Julie. “When I ride him at home, he’s perfectly calm and does everything I ask.” But it was the gelding’s first trip away from home—and his pasture-mate.

“I’ve had him for only a few months,” the woman went on. “He came from a rescue, so I don’t know much about his history. He may’ve been abused.”

Julie could see deep lines of fear-sweat around the gelding’s eyes, in spite of the crisp mountain air that morning.

“This horse had forgotten everything he knew about his training,” she says. “He was getting angrier and more frustrated by the minute, crying out for help in the only way he knew how.”

What the horse needed first was a way to return to feeling safe and secure.

“Only when his mind was calm and relaxed would he be capable of learning and growing,” Julie explains, adding that the same is true of humans, as well.

“When our own minds are in a state of stress and turmoil, it’s hard to get any clear thinking done.”

I’ll vouch for that!

[RELATED: How to de-stress with horses.]

The clinician asked to take control of the gelding for a moment. She knew what would bring him relief.

“It took just 10 to 15 minutes of guiding his energy—directing him where to go, how fast to get there, how to act in the process—to calm him down. I provided him with structure, guidance, and praise—making all the decisions for him so he didn’t have to think.”

Then, when the horse began to soften and come back to himself, the world started to make sense to him again.

The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need: Care, Training, and Rehabilitation for Rescues, Adoptions, and Horses in Transition

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[RELATED: Julie’s ‘eureka moment’ in horse training.]

Clinician Julie Goodnight rubs the face of a sorrel Paint horse.

Julie says it’s important to remember that horses are emotional creatures—“perhaps even more emotional than humans.”  

Julie’s story made me think about how I respond to stress in my own life. As long as I stay focused on what’s upsetting me, I stay locked in a swirl of anxiety.

But when I turn my focus to some routine thing—a mundane daily task in the house or barn—I can find relief. I can relax into whatever I’m doing because I don’t have to think about it. And when I do relax, it breaks the fixation of whatever upset me, and I can begin to think it through more calmly and rationally.

I try to remember this when I’m dealing with others who are upset, too. That is, don’t focus on the issue at hand straight off the bat. Instead, create a little spot of normalcy to give the person’s mind a chance to unclench before any problem-solving begins.

I think this is why the British are so fond of a cup of tea, offered at any tricky juncture. It’s like wiping the slate clean, before addressing the issue at hand.

Humans and horses benefit from the same strategy.

“Horses are emotional animals, perhaps even more emotional than humans,” observes Julie. “When they’ve reached their limit and their emotions boil over, it can be a scary, daunting challenge for us. “But what horses need at that moment is to be understood. They need kindness, patience, and a release of pressure.”

That understanding and release from pressure is something you can provide for your horse, for yourself, and for your friends and family…whenever stress levels soar.

[MORE FROM JULIE: Train your horse to ‘stand still and chill.’]

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