Paths of Desire


Sometimes, even though there’s a clear path to our destination, we prefer to choose our own route. All over the countryside, and in parks and green spaces in towns and cities, you can see little unofficial pathways. They might be a quicker way from A to B, they might be more scenic, they might go under shady trees or on drier ground. The name for these unofficial routes is Paths of Desire (or desire paths). There’s often nothing to see at first, just a few locals who know that there’s a different way to get to a specific place. As time goes on, and more feet wear the grass, the path becomes visible. Eventually it may become the main path: recently the builders of a new university campus chose not to put paths in until they saw where people wanted to walk.

Horse and human brains work a bit like this. Brains are able to connect “what just happened”, “what we did”, and “what happened next”. One neuron fires, it sets off another neuron, and then another. If they all fire in sequence a few times, a pathway is formed, and if this keeps happening, it becomes a highway. Neurons in the brain have lots of neighbours, but like us, they tend to choose familiar pathways and soon, when we’re in a familiar situation, we automatically do the same thing each time. It gets difficult to choose another pathway (a different behaviour) – we just get routed off down the well travelled path.

This happens for a reason. It’s part of the way we learn which behaviours get us what we want. Very occasionally though, it can work against us.

Imagine you have a new horse and you decide to clip him. The horse might have heard clippers before – he already has a store of experiences with clippers, some positive, some not. When you approach with the clippers, he tries a few different things: stepping away, raising his head, swinging hindquarters away. You think to yourself, “that’s not bad, just a little reaction”, you get a helper to hold the headcollar and work away. The horse’s worry doesn’t go away, so he makes his behaviour a little bigger: a few mini-rears, or a cow kick. Something he does eventually gets you to stop and he’s learned that clippers are worrying but it’s possible to stop the worry. Next time, he’s worried already when you approach, and acts up a bit sooner. The brain path for the behaviour that worked gets a little more deeply etched. This process is called sensitisation: the horse is becoming more sensitive to something that worries him. Just like having sensitive skin, it means that each time, the reaction happens a bit faster and gets a bit worse. The horse is still able to do other things – the brain pathway isn’t the only pathway yet, so there are still days when he doesn’t react much and tries different responses to get you to stop.

Eventually, if we persist, the horse learns to fear the clippers. You know this has happened when he reacts before the clippers are anywhere near, it’s a big reaction and it’s exactly the same each time. His heart rate will be up, his breathing will be faster and he’ll try very hard to get a safe distance away from the clippers. Now there’s a fast motorway between stimulus (the clippers) and response (escape or fight).

If the horse meets the scary clippers for the first time in a situation where he’s already a bit worried, this pathway can be burned in deep the very first time. At the same time, the horse learns an association with the clippers: every time the clippers are there, he feels anxious and afraid. So not only is there a brain pathway that leads to a specific behaviour, there’s also a brain pathway that leads to a specific emotion: fear.

Humans have the same way of dealing with anxiety and fear: when we get to the fear then escape stage, we call it a phobia. If you’ve ever had a phobia, you know you spend quite a lot of time making sure you never encounter the scary thing, so the escape response doesn’t get set off. I have a worm phobia. I don’t remember a specific trigger event, but spring a harmless wriggly thing on me (including worm shaped twigs and abandoned shoe laces) and my heart is in my mouth within microseconds. I know people who have bird phobias, plant phobias, claustrophobia and social phobias. All of them keep themselves comfortable by going to great lengths to avoid the thing they fear. Horses do this too.

If you go back to the idea of the desire path, it also gives you the key to getting rid of the fear. We know there’s a safe distance, where although the scary thing is out there somewhere, it’s far enough away that our anxiety levels are low. This is the key to a structured way of starting to deal with fear reactions that’s called Systematic Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning. Big long name, but in many ways quite simple: all it means is that you need grass to grow back on your fear response highway, while you create a lovely alternative pathway, bordered with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies.

Because it’s not a very useful thing to spend life terrified of lots of different things, our actions will often try to help us deal with phobias.  We avoid the unpleasant emotions associated with the things we fear by creating a mental map of the pathways, and we place a big “No Entry” sign near the one that we’ve learned leads to the fear.  For example with my wormy phobia, I learned that gardening wasn’t a good idea, but that hill walking was usually fine. Then, without consciously realising, I started to build up good experiences in areas that were slightly risky without ever allowing my brain to fire off the neurons down the bad pathway.  How did I do that? I started spending a lot of enjoyable time with horses!  Seeing a bit of wriggling at a safe distance in the field, while spending time with a lovely group of calmly grazing horses, was a pleasant rather than a scary experience.  Over time this built up, until yesterday, I was picking out my horse’s hind hoof in the field after a rain storm and a worm emerged out of the grass about 6 inches from my nose! I just looked at it, thought “wriggly worm”, and went on cleaning the hoof.  I didn’t feel a surge of fear, I didn’t leap sideways to avoid it, and it didn’t affect what I was doing.

We can use a structured version of this natural learning process to help horses deal with fears like clippers, farriers, trailers and baths (as well as a whole range of other things).  We need to do two simple things: first work out what our horse’s “safe zone” is – how close they can be to the scary thing without reacting (even subtly) or needing to escape, and second, start making the edges of that safe zone a very pleasant place to be.  We get them to the start of the pathway, within sight of the No Entry sign but not so close they feel they have to react, and then we do things they like.  We feed them, if they’re hungry.  We scratch them, if they ask to be scratched.  We massage them, if they enjoy a massage – and after a very short pleasant experience, we take them away.  All the while, we make sure they never even have to think about responding to the scary thing.  Once that start place is nice (and you’ll know, because they’ll be telling you they want to go there), you can begin to make a new pathway, a different route to the scary thing.  You’re building both a new response to the thing that’s been a problem as well as new set of emotions. You’re allowing grass to grow over the fear response pathway, and instead you’re creating a new pathway: eager anticipation and approach.

Dealing with phobias and fear responses (in humans and in horses) takes time.  If you work systematically and create your new pathway carefully and patiently, you will change your horse’s feelings about the scary thing. In their brain, the pathway that went “See Clippers… RUN!” hasn’t had hooves on it for ages, it has a nice covering of grass so that you wouldn’t even know there’d been a path there.  Right next to it, there’s a lovely new path: “Clippers… scratches, treats, dozing in the sun, feeling good…”.  The brain rewires itself, and eventually the old pathway is gone completely.

We’re lucky that we and our horses have the ability to remodel our brains this way.  It means we’re not prisoners of unnecessary fears and worries, and that we have the power and the motivation to change.  What’s even better is that the process of change, if we do it right, is so gradual and so positive that it’s a nice experience. It’s like landscape gardening: not only do you get to create a beautiful landscape, you also enjoy the journey.  That’s how horse training (and human training) should be.

Please do share this if you enjoy the ideas, start discussions with your friends – and tell me any thoughts or ideas it triggers off. I love hearing people’s stories about their horses and I love ideas for new blog topics! You can click “Follow” on WordPress or you can “Like” the HorsesUnderOurSkin Facebook page if you would like to get alerted when there’s a new post. Thank you for reading!


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