The Ladder of Fear


Have you ever heard someone say of their horse "he's not scared, he's just being naughty"? And you can substitute the word "naughty" with any number of variations: taking the mickey, like this to show me up...... But what behaviours does a horse have to show us before we will believe that perhaps he is scared? Do we need him to be rearing and bolting before we start to take notice? Or can we learn to pay attention to much more subtle signs?

"The Ladder of Aggression" was developed by dog behaviourist, vet and expert witness Kendal Shepherd to explain the concept that fearfulness and aggression were not opposite ends of a canine spectrum but actually different rungs on a ladder. If you ignore the expressions of fearfulness that a dog displays then you are very likely to end up with increasing displays of aggression.

And so it is with horses. They are continually displaying tiny signs and behaviours that we are pushing them too far. Yet, because the signs are sufficiently minor that they do not cause us inconvenience, we often ignore them. Gradually the horse starts to use less subtle signs and we wonder why he "has suddenly started to do that".

We are developing a similar concept for horses: The Ladder of Fear. The lower rungs are the tiny, subtle signs that are often missed. The higher rungs are the big, dangerous behaviours that we wish to avoid. This project helps us to do that.

Over the coming months we will be obtaining video footage showing those tiny signs of horses starting to step up the ladder. We will obviously be monitoring and listening to those horses and only ever let them just start climbing the ladder of fear. We will also record the heart-rates of the horses so that we can compile a large data-base of behavioral responses paired with physiological responses. This will help us to show you the effects of our activities on our horses.

Preliminary Videos - Introducing Horses To Novel Objects

We have made a series of videos of horses being introduced to a balloon. The balloon was sufficiently aversive to the horses for them to display low level expressions of fear and distress, without causing them the need to flee. All of these expressions of fear are seen regularly in horses all over the world as they undergo their normal work and the majority of horse owners are unaware of their significance. With so many "behavioural problems" rooted in fear, owners need to recognise this low level stress so that they can adapt their training and not push the horse into displaying more dramatic and less safe behaviours. When a horse is afraid he will adopt one of the "4 Fs", flight, freeze, fidget or fight; aggression is likely to result if we prevent the horse from engaging one of the other three responses.

We emphasise that, had the horses in the videos displayed any stronger expressions of fear, we would have discontinued the exercise. As it was, there were times when the horses were sufficiently distressed that we made the exercise less aversive by holding the balloon still and being ready to give them a break in their stables. While the yard was enclosed, the stable door remained open each time and the horse was free to retreat the stable; the horses spend only up to 4 hours a day in their stables and have been allowed to see them as a place of refuge where positive things happen.

We have added captions to indicate the moments of specific behaviours which we considered relevant. There may be others which we missed. There were also moments of possible displacement behaviours which, by definition, may have been coincidental and not connected with the balloon. But it seemed important to include all possibilities and give all horses the benefit of the doubt, rather than risk ignoring something which was important. Typical behaviours that we highlight are muscular tension, licking and chewing, movement, immobility, ear movements, abnormal breathing, displacement behaviours.

Each of the horses expressed their fear in different ways. Some needed to move, others to avoid, others to investigate and this changed over time. None of these behaviours are more or less valid than others. It is also really interesting to compare the "yard videos" with the subsequent "field video" when the horses had much more space to move and could remain within the security of the herd.

Next Steps

We still want to do some similar tasks using heart rate monitors and compare the physiological data with the observations that we describe above. If you are a university academic, or student looking for a thesis project, and would like to work with us on this project then we would love to hear from you. Failing that, does anyone have a heart rate monitor we could borrow, please? EBTA is run on voluntary effort and no funds whatsoever! Thank you!