FEAR, the orienting response, the flight response and training a default ‘safe’ space

Posted in: Clicker Training, Equine Training, Positive Reinforcement Training, Young Horse Training

Would you like to create a bombproof, non-spooky horse? One who defaults to your side at liberty when it experiences anything frightening?

Orienting Response

This picture is the visual representation of the orienting response or freeze response.

It is an involuntary physiological and behavioural response to an aversive stimulus which threatens to disrupt physical or psychological homeostasis.

What you can’t ‘see’ here are the physiological changes going on inside the horse, preparing it for flight or fight – the innate and involuntary stress responses of a prey animal. These changes include elevated adrenaline levels, increased respiratory rate, increased heart rate, increased cortisol levels, the horse may defecate and empty the digestive tract in preparation for flight.

Externally, this picture is what we do ‘see’ while those physiological changes are occurring; elevated head and neck, ears orientated towards the aversive stimulus, nostrils flared, tightness of the lips, muzzle and jaw as well as eyes more triangulated.

If the aversive threat doesn’t diminish at this point, the involuntary response of flight (or fight if flight is not an option) will be activated by the relevant neural pathways in the brain firing. The horse doesn’t have an active cognitive choice as to whether or not it responds because they are hardwired in them; 100% involuntary.

However, we can rewire those pathways through the brain and instead of them running through the FEAR centre (amygdala), by training using appetitives, we can form new pathways running through different areas of the brain (areas producing pleasure and calmness). With repetition and always remaining below thresholds in the training, aversive stimuli which once would have produced this orienting response and the resulting physiological changes, will instead produce a completely different neurochemistry and thus a completely different external behavioural response – one of bold, calm curiosity as opposed to flight.

The addition of appetitives in our training results in us as well as the space next to us becoming a ‘safe’ space, thereby triggering neurochemistry resulting in relaxation and reassurance. They will actively choose of their own free will to seek out that ‘safe’ space when frightened so as to lower their arousal levels. Any FEAR they were experiencing dissipates rapidly once in this position.

Watch this in action…

The orienting response, followed by the flight response…straight into that ‘safe’ space!