claustrophobic horse

All horses, by nature, are claustrophobic to some degree. Understanding why your equine partner reacts this way will help you develop a program to make him feel more comfortable in tight situations.

Because they’ve evolved to be free-roaming beings, most horses have claustrophobic tendencies. But some display it more than others. At times, it can be difficult to determine what’s happening with a particular horse – whether it’s a phobia or behavioral issue. If you know what you are looking at, though, certain situations will highlight the horse’s reaction and give you very specific insights into which it could be.

It’s important we take the whole horse into consideration, including his breed, personality, environment, history, and handling. To understand our horses’ needs, we must first understand them.

Teaching to give to pressure

More than a decade ago, I was training a horse to load during a natural horsemanship clinic at Monty Roberts’ Flag Is Up Farms in California.

I didn’t know my equine partner intimately, so I began our session, first in the round pen to gain a connection, and then with some halter work. We used the Dually halter, which is one I still use today. It is a very effective pressure halter specifically designed to teach horses to come off pressure.

Horses are innately “into pressure” species. It is a well known fact that you have to teach them not to lean into pressure, but instead “come off pressure” by moving away from it. With a little coaxing and correct timing, they learn very quickly to move out of discomfort and into comfort.

Listen to the horse

I began the loading lesson by showing my horse the entrance to the trailer. Our style of training includes leading the horse into the trailer; if he has trouble entering, you remain in the trailer, asking him to step forward towards you. It can be an extremely effective method, but precision of body language, posture, feel, and timing are crucial. Given the voice and the opportunity, the horse I was working with eventually began to load, albeit reluctantly.

My methods include unloading horses once they have offered to load, thereby giving them instant rewards through the release of pressure within the trailer itself, and the freedom to walk away. Pressure is not only created through direct manipulation of the halter, but also through situations, environments and locations. A trailer is an enclosed space and allowing the horse to exit, breathe, and reenter multiple times is empowering for him.

It took approximately 30 minutes to load the first time. During that time, every “try” had been rewarded in multiple ways. This was followed by a second and then a third lesson, each taking approximately 20 minutes.

Common “non-loaders” will typically improve dramatically, loading with rhythm and ease, constantly building on their previous experiences to the point of eventually loading themselves. This, however, was not the case on that particular day. This horse voiced his concerns without extreme panic. He would load, but remained “sticky” and resistant, trying to share his story in the only way he knew how – through his actions.

So I voiced my thoughts. “This horse is trying his best,” I said, “but something doesn’t add up.”

My student finally revealed a key piece of the puzzle. “We drove here from Arizona,” she stated. “The temperatures were soaring. The butt bar burned his rear on the way here – those are the marks you can see.”

It had not dawned on my student to share this crucial piece of information prior to the lesson. How precious this horse was for putting up with our training session and expressing his fear the way he did! It was just another example of how forgiving horses can be, and a great lesson in recognizing equine behavior. Although known to be naturally claustrophobic, this horse was not displaying claustrophobic tendencies – he was simply telling his own story.

Leila’s story

Leila, on the other hand, was a completely different situation. During the Reach Out to Horses Holistic Horsemanship Certification Course this past summer, this Spanish Mustang’s guardian expressed concerns about her horse entering shelters, arenas, and trailers. Despite years of habituation and good handling, Leila was exhibiting classic signs of claustrophobia and there had been little improvement.

We prepared Leila with a week of Reach Out methodology, which included roundpenning, T.L.C. halter work, in-hand obstacle course work, spook-busting, ground-driving, and loading experiences.

We also supported her specifically through her intense fear of enclosures during the behavioral modification day of the course. I set up a three- paneled round-pen stall in the indoor arena with the fourth panel acting as a potential gate if all went well. I knew Leila was familiar with these particular panels, as we had restarted her under saddle in the very same environment the previous year. I then began to instruct students to lead her in and out on a loose line, giving her plenty of room for expression.

Maintaining pure intention, clear focus, and soft guidance, Leila accepted her task quite naturally. We incorporated praise and she expressed her recognition and appreciation of this praise throughout the entire experience.

Past problems

In my experience, if there is little to no improvement during a training session, and a potentially violent outbreak from the horse is still possible, it’s worth considering his past. It may have included abuse, PTSD, or claustrophobic tendencies. In such cases, it’s advisable to go slow and build in a particularly compassionate and alternative approach.

The stimulus was gradually strengthened with added parachutes to the sides of the panels, thereby removing Leila’s vision and slowly enclosing her. With clarity and consistency, she continued to accept our requests. The roof was added in stages and the gate closed once she was ready. It proved to be a highly successful training session.

As simple as it may sound, this single session helped Leila comfortably frequent her outside shelter. And the lesson stayed with her as she loaded into the trailer to go home!

Sometimes all that’s needed to change a horse’s life is creativity and patience.

Signs your horse might be claustrophobic

Here are some examples of how and when claustrophobia may show itself:

• Pulling back on halters during leading, ponying, or when tied

• Entering narrow spaces, stalls, barns, enclosures, and trailers

• Unprovoked flying back out of a trailer, chute, stands, or other restrictive spaces

• Freezing, bracing, and rigid responses when restrained