I love going to the cinema, and I usually go about once a week with a close friend. She and I have explored all kinds of films, from fantasy to art house, via the occasional action adventure and including the occasional horror movie. She knows I’m not a great fan of horror movies, so when Saw V is on, she goes with someone else. We have seen a few scary movies together – I can distinctly remember having a few watch between the fingers moments during The Descent, and The Others has left me a bit wary of things that go bump in the night (as well as of small children singing nursery rhymes…).
I occasionally buy a DVD to watch at home, and last year I bought a copy of The Orphanage. I told my friend – and she immediately said “don’t watch it on your own!”: it seems she knows me well. But it’s interesting that, in saying that, she also highlighted something that we share with our horses.
Take three situations involving scary movies. First, there’s me and my friend having a nice evening at the cinema together. We watch the movie and then head home, walking from the cinema through town to the station. The next situation is me, sitting at home, watching The Orphanage on my own – and the last situation is myself and my friend watching the scary movie at the cinema together, then splitting up and walking to our respective stations on our own.
Three different situations, and three different levels of the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline (also called epinephrine). In the first situation, she and I watch the film, and we are both a bit scared in a pleasant way – humans, and our horses, quite enjoy being “thrilled” in a situation where we feel secure. Humans choose to watch scary movies, and horses will sometimes approach, run off, approach and run off with their friends when they see something new and interesting in their familiar field. Both species quite like a little excitement – psychologists call this increasing our “level of arousal”, and when we control the situation, we find it quite stimulating.
When my friend and I leave the cinema, we’re both still feeling a bit spooked, in a fun way. We walk through the quiet dark streets together, chatting about the good and bad parts of the film: we might be a little more vigilant than usual, but we’re feeling good.
There’s a slightly different situation when I watch the scary movie at home on my own. I’m in my familiar environment, but my partner isn’t there… Humans, like horses, are gregarious and social. We don’t have herds, but we have evolved to like having others of our species around, and this makes us feel more secure: the burden of making sure we stay safe is shared. The scary movie raises my adrenaline, and although I know my home is safe, once the film is over and I’m getting ready for bed the funny creaky noises that my house always makes seem louder. In fact, they seem oddly like someone (or something!) walking quietly around the upper part of the house. It takes me a while to get to sleep, and my hearing seems much better than usual – I can hear the owl hooting outside, and the tap dripping in the bathroom.
Finally, the situation where my friend and I go our separate ways after the movie, and walk through the dark streets of town on our own. We’re not in our familiar home, and we’re not with a friend. Our adrenaline levels are up because of the movie, and suddenly, we develop eyes in the back of our heads. We look carefully down dark laneways for movement, we jump when we bump into someone coming the other way around a corner – and all the time, we’re prepared to break into a run if the thing that made that wheely bin rattle turns out to be a mugger, not a cat foraging! Things that are boringly normal in daylight and in company take on a air of threat – and we walk a lot faster than usual.
People often comment on how silly their horse is, spooking at a robin sitting in a hedge when out hacking – don’t they see robins all the time in their field? And cows, surely they live next door to cows? Wheely bins! Umbrellas! We can spend ages “desensitising” our horses to these things in an arena, only to find them spooking and trembling at the same things while out. Similarly, horses often walk reluctantly outwards, but then jog anxiously home – and horses hop happily into their trailer on the way out to the show, but won’t go near it when it’s time to load to come home.
Like us, horses find situations where they are outside of their normal environment, and situations where they are away from other horses, arousing and stimulating. Like us, they often quite enjoy a little mild stimulation, but again like us, it pushes them towards the threshold that separates “diverting and entertaining” from “worried and a bit scared”. Things that would be harmless in the “diverting and entertaining” state can take on threatening properties once you flip into the “worried and a bit scared” state. And when you push adrenaline levels up into the “worried and a bit scared” state, it takes quite a while (hours, not minutes) after the scary situation is resolved before they return to their normal levels. This means that after a scare, we (and our horsey pals) stay a bit more reactive than usual for quite a while, and so more likely to flip back into the “worried and a bit scared” state than we normally are, even in non-scary situations.
Densensitisation is often held out as the answer and we’re told to do lots with our horses: but although I am perfectly well desensitised to wheely bins normally (I spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time wheeling them in and out of my driveway), when it’s dark and I’ve just left my friend (and I’m still thinking about that creepy child singing in the movie) I’m quite likely to jump out of my skin if I pass a wheely bin in the street that seems to move of its own accord.
Does that mean it’s not worth while desensitising? Not at all – but it’s worth adding something to your desensitising: don’t just make the things you work with “neutral”: make your horse think they represent good things. Let’s say they’re very familiar with wheely bins, and they’re aware that touching a wheely bin with their nose gains a reward. This means they will find wheely bins less worrying, even in a situation that might otherwise be worrying. I’ll just finish off by admitting that there is a down side to this approach. Riding out on bin day, when your horse asks to touch every bin you pass, can be a slow process (especially when you have an over achiever, who feels that not only should he touch the bin with his nose, but that flipping it open and checking the inside for tasty banana skins is always worthwhile). On the plus side, though, we can walk past the recycling lorry as bins full of bottles are tipped in to it with no more than a “I saw that in a film once and nothing bad happened” air of bravado 🙂