What is a horse that has shut down?
A horse that has shut down has developed this behaviour as a coping mechanism for stress.
In stubborn horses it can be seen as stubbornness but it also shows up in the more flighty horses where their brain disconnects from their body and is shut off to their experience. This kind of horse copes, copes, copes and then explodes and the rider is left asking where the heck did that come from?
A horse that has shut down emotionally is the end result of desensitisation gone wrong. They have been taught to react to nothing, rather than feeling, because feeling would include fear and anxiety and they are not allowed to react. Instead, they have just shut off emotionally.
While desensitising is important for our horses, relationship built on trust has more of an impact than any amount of desensitisation. If my horse is unsure of something I want it to be curious and investigate it, not just shut off to it. Being shut off to it is “safer” than the mad, hairy bolt away from it but eventually something will trigger your horse to react and it will be years of pent up anxiety behind it – and probably a thousand times more dangerous.
Some of these horses may also be shut down due to pain. If a horse is sore and made to work no matter what, the best way to go on for some of them is to just shut down. (Click here to read about the sacroiliac pain the quiet lameness)
Again we eventually get to the point where the pain is too much to bare and then they react (these horses are the most often to be called dangerous and unrideable because the novice rider, trainer or instructor didn’t see it coming and labels the horse as “unpredictable”).
We don’t want our horses internalising their pain or their emotions and just cope with being ridden. Firstly because that’s not a partnership and secondly they can only internalise so long before it all blows up in our face.
Our best chance for getting a good working relationship with our horse is to open up a two way conversation where our horse can tell us if its uncomfortable or unhappy (in ways other than bucking, rearing, bolting, biting, kicking) and with being there for them when they do feel stress and pressure. (Read here for getting our horses to relax and breath with us).