The big freeze.

What are you like in an emergency? Are you all business, able to make an instant plan of action? Or are you the kind of person who runs for safety at the first sign of a crisis? These are examples of the fight or flight response, already well known to most of us.

There’s another less well known response to emergency situations, yet many of us will have experienced it. It’s the freeze. A sudden inability to act, or even think straight. The awareness of impending doom, and the sudden feeling that there’s nothing we can do about it. Time seems to slow, and we can feel that we’re watching what’s happening to us without actually being in our own body.  It’s the kind of thing that happens in traffic accidents, dog attacks, and surprisingly often to soldiers in combat situations.

Sometimes, we’re not even aware of it. We just find that we’ve been holding our breath, or that we haven’t been blinking, and that we’ve been so fixated on what’s happening (or about to happen) that we’ve had tunnel vision. Psychologists know that it’s quite easy to get people to act like this in a laboratory. Give them a simple task: “when you see an X on the screen to the right of the central picture, press the space bar”, and, at the same time, show them a series of pictures. Fluffy kittens and ponies with long flowing manes have no effect on people’s ability to respond to the cue. But flash up a picture of Hannibal Lecter, or an angry, drooling dog with bared teeth, and our ability to spot the cue letter disappears.

Many animals share with us a common response to a threat. The difference between horses and people is simply what each species thinks of as threatening. Our shared response goes like this: your eyes or your ears detect danger (e.g. a 10 ton truck hurtling towards you, or the sound of an explosion), and nerves start to pass the information to your brain. The message gets to the non-thinking, reflex part of your brain long before the thinking part knows you’ve seen or heard anything, and you react with a “startle”, where  your body automatically moves your head and neck backwards away from the danger. This takes about a 100th of a second! Then you “orient” to the thing you’ve detected – you turn quickly to face it and stare at it until you’ve worked out what it is. Sometimes, if it’s a bit far away, you move closer, to see better… and then you either say “hey, no problem”, or you make a fight, flight or freeze response. If you can run, you run. If you can’t run, you think about fighting… and if you feel in some way trapped, you freeze in the hopes that the danger will pass you by.

Have you ever seen a horse freeze? It’s very noticeable! You may be leading them when they startle (a spook), then fix their eyes and ears on something in the distance.   Horses  have much better long distance vision than we do, especially movement. Their head goes up, their neck becomes rigid, their mouth and nostrils tense and they’re as difficult to distract from it as the human volunteer helping out with the Psych 101 lab experiment with the picture of Hannibal Lecter leering at them! Like us, they’ve frozen in the face of a potential threat.

Here, Jackson and his friend have seen something moving. They’ve both oriented towards it, and Jackson is showing the head and neck up, ears and eyes fixated posture. His friend is peering at it, and might be about to take a step or two towards it to get a closer look (she’s quite brave).

They’re like us in another way in danger situations. In a natural, group setting, horses spot danger and react to it by startling, then orienting to it, and then by approaching to investigate and then running, or by simply wheeling en masse and galloping full pelt in the opposite direction. Their preference is for flight. We can change that preference by adding a headcollar and lead rope. We train young horses that pulling away from a lead rope results in pressure on their head, and that the only way to release this pressure is to submit to the direction of the rope. This training makes them easier for us to control, but at the same time, they learn that they’re restrained which means that instead of running off we get a horse who freezes.

Despite the fact that we (inadvertently) trained it, we get really frustrated by this! We have a human concept of what fear looks like, and it involves a horse leaping around, snorting, with rolling eyes, covered in sweat and trying to flee. A horse who’s stuck, rooted to the ground, tuning you out completely while staring at something in the distance that you can’t see is very very annoying! There’s nothing worse than being ignored, is there? So we tug and we pull and we wiggle lead ropes, we tickle and flick with schooling whips, we shout and hiss and generally get very annoyed, but the horse is still stuck as firmly as if their hooves have stuck in quick set cement. With every tug and flick, we increase the threat level from the horse’s point of view, sticking them in a loop of “detect threat, freeze, scan for danger, feel pain and discomfort, can’t escape… detect threat, freeze, scan…”. At the same time, their learned response to the lead rope and headcollar has ruled out flight, making the freeze last even longer.

There’s another similarity between horses and humans. Member of both species who are already a bit stressed are more likely to get stuck in this state (called hypervigilance). If you already have a high level of stress going on from something else, be it from work, housing or social stress, a freeze response is more likely to happen. In humans, this has been linked to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In horses, we just say they’re extra spooky, reactive, balky, stubborn or scared of their own shadow. They’re the horse who repeatedly spooks at the corner of the indoor arena and then naps. Or the horse who freezes half way across the yard from their stable and can’t be moved, the horse who stands at the bottom of the trailer ramp for 40 minutes without moving. In more extreme cases, the horse will even lie down, and may be difficult to get up again. You also see a kind of freeze in horses who are being trained to lie down by having one leg tied up: the trainers often say “they stayed down for 20 minutes after we took the ropes off, so they must have been relaxed about the process”. In fact, what’s happened is a specific sort of freeze a bit like when humans faint as a result of a shock.

There’s a way of dealing with freezing in humans. Let’s see if it might work with horses too. When humans freeze in response to danger, it’s often in situations where they feel there’s nothing else they can do. Freezing is a passive coping mechanism: “just endure it, it will end eventually”. But this coping method isn’t good for our mental or physical health: it leads to ulcers, lowers our immunity, and can lead to mental health problems. It’s better to help the person to find an active way of coping: doing something, rather than nothing, might just resolve the situation, but even the belief that we’re trying helps us to feel more in control of what’s happening to us.

Horses can also choose the passive coping approach.  But there are things we can to help.  On idea would be to teach them a well learned, automatic set of “things to do in an emergency”. Something they know really well, a set of movements that have pleasant associations but that are so well learned, they’re an automatic response to our cue. Then, when we think a freeze situation is about to happen, we cue them: touching or following a target, where that’s been associated strongly with reward, is one idea, but finding things that your individual horse likes to do would be a good place to start. Let’s all be prepared with warm ideas to thaw the big freeze!

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One thought on “The big freeze.

  1. Best way out of the freeze is follow your horse’s attention. Once they know you know what’s out there, you can both agree to get on with whatever. As long as your horses think you are an oblivious fool, they aren’t going to believe you when you say no danger. And they might feel they need to get very large and loud to get their point across.

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