Panic Vs. Fear: Spot The Difference


fear vs panic

Understanding the difference between panic and fear makes all the difference in how you handle the situation.

Your horse doesn’t want anything to do with the shiny new trailer you’ve just bought for him. You picked it out specially with his comfort in mind – it’s an inviting space with lots of windows, and a bright interior. He’s always been good going up over platforms and onto the wooden bridges you’ve built for him. But now he’s got his feet planted at the foot of the trailer ramp, and he’s refusing to go another inch forward. Anytime you’ve managed to get him to move, it’s to prevent him trying to get back to his pasture mates.

Does it Matter?

So here’s the question: is your horse afraid or in a panic? The answer does matter because it will help determine the most effective course of action you can take to get him to walk willingly and easily onto the trailer.

So what’s the difference? We often use the words fear and panic interchangeably. You’ve gone to a friend’s barn for a weekend trail ride, and your horse all but runs over top of you trying to get away from the llama he’s seeing for the fi rst time. Later, when you’re telling the story, you say he was in a panic.

Seven Core Emotional Systems

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp would disagree with your use of this term. Panksepp has identified seven core emotional systems. To emphasize how basic these emotions are, he capitalizes them. Here is a quick reference for the seven systems:

SEEKING:
Panksepp refers to the SEEKING system as the “granddaddy” of all the systems. You have to fi nd the resources needed for survival. It is why so many people love to shop. The SEEKER circuit is being activated even if they are just window shopping.

RAGE: Someone wants to take your resources so you have RAGE.

FEAR: Other organisms want to eat you, so there’s FEAR.

LUST: You need to reproduce, which then leads to the evolution of the next system,

CARE. CARE: You need to care for offspring. Panksepp adds that this system is generally stronger in females than males. Perhaps this is why there are so many more women than men horse owners.

PANIC: The loss of your caregiver and protector triggers this system.

PLAY: Animals need social engagement, which is manifested in play. PLAY is the last system Panksepp lists, and he gives it special signifi cance. It is through play that the neocortex becomes integrated.

The Clicker Connection

This list is of particular interest to me. I’m a clicker trainer. That means I use a marker signal – in my case a clicking sound I make with my tongue on the roof of my mouth. That sound is a “yes answer” signal. It tells my horse he’s done something right. When he hears it, he knows a treat is coming. The click becomes a predictor of good things. My horse wants to get me to click so he can earn more rewards. That means he’s going to be more likely to perform whatever behavior was occurring just as I clicked. It’s a wonderfully reinforcing loop. We’re both happy – I’m getting more of the behavior I like, and my horse thinks he’s got me all fi gured out! He knows how to make that magic click happen.

Clicker training is a fun, effective, horse-friendly way to train. When I look at Panksepp’s list, I understand even more clearly why my horses and I enjoy it so very much. Clicker training activates both the SEEKER and the PLAY systems. I’m not relying on FEAR to move a horse out of my space. In fact I actively work to avoid triggering FEAR, RAGE or PANIC.

The Difference Between Fear and Panic

Panksepp makes an interesting comment: mammalian infants cry when they lose their care system. However, when infants are afraid, they are silent. PANIC and FEAR are two very different systems. I’ve seen both in horses. With Panksepp’s discrimination in mind, you want to know which emotional system is being triggered in order to come up with an effective training solution.

If we think about the difference between FEAR and PANIC, we may find it very much affects the training choices we make. Consider the horse that doesn’t want to get on your new trailer. Is he fretting because he’s being separated from his pasture mates? Or is he uncertain about the strange smell of the new rubber mats on the trailer floor? Can you see that these call for different training solutions? If you think the issue is fear of the trailer when really you’re dealing with separation anxiety, you could spend a lot of time getting your horse used to walking through narrow chutes and stepping up on ramps, yet still have issues getting him on a trailer. If he’s worried about his friends on the other side of the fence, making him board a trailer could end up “electrifying” it in his mind – making it a much more terrifying place than it would have been if his friends had been with him when he fi rst got on. You may have begun with only PANIC, but now you’ve got FEAR layered on top, making the whole training situation that much harder.

Developing a Training Plan

Before you begin any training plan, it’s worth considering the underlying emotions you are dealing with. Does your horse fret over having his feet worked on by the farrier because he’s in the barn by himself and he wants to get back to his herd? Or is he afraid of the farrier because he’s not very well balanced and the farrier has hit him – hard – when he’s shifted around? For your training to be most effective and effi cient, you want to choose a training solution that fi ts the emotional system that’s being triggered. As a clicker trainer, I’ve learned how to trigger the SEEKER circuit and turn training into play for both my horses and myself. At any point where the training begins to feel like a chore, it’s time to rethink what I’m doing. I want to come up with training solutions that don’t just manage my horse’s fear and anxiety. I want to turn the trailer, the farrier, the scary end of the arena, into a source of play and social engagement for my horse. I want him actively seeking out opportunities to engage with me and the environment.

Behavior and Brain Chemistry

When I think about Panksepp’s list, I wonder what happens in the brain when different training methods are used. Two trainers could be working towards the same end goal behavior. On the outside you’d see the behavior emerging. But inside the brain – what is happening?

Clicker trainers talk about their horses being different. Panksepp’s work seems to support this. When we use clicker training, we’re very much activating the SEEKER circuit. We’re engaging our animals in PLAY, and we’re avoiding FEAR and PANIC.

You can train a horse with a whip, spurs and a pat on the neck. Alternatively, you can train with a clicker and treats. Panksepp’s work would suggest that very different systems are activated within the brain. So yes, when we say our clicker-trained horses are different – at the basic level of brain mechanisms – it turns out they truly are. So, if play is critical for integrating the neocortex, what is this saying about our animals? And what is the effect on us as we participate in the process? Anyone who clicker trains can easily answer that last question.


Alexandra Kurland is a pioneer and leading voice in the development of clicker training for horses. She is the author of clicker training for your horse, the click that teaches: a step-by-step guide in pictures, the click that teaches: riding with the clicker, and the click that teaches video lesson series. Ms. Kurland earned her degree from Cornell University where she specialized in Animal Behavior. She has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s. A pioneer in the development of humane training methods, Ms. Kurland began clicker training in the early 1990s. She very quickly recognized the power of clicker training for improving performance, for enhancing the relationship people have with their horses, and for just plain putting fun back into training. theclickercenter.com

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