Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Equine Behaviour Term of the Week: Flight response

Flight response: A horse’s instinct as a prey animal, to flee from perceived danger.

Dr Andrew Mclean says “A structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala, sorts out stimuli as to whether they are fearful or not. Fearful stimuli receive special recognition by the brain in terms of remembering - unlike other information, once learned fearful responses are not forgotten. You can layer new responses on top, so they become less easily retrieved, but forever after, fearful responses need careful training to keep the lid on them.”

A horse doesn’t get a 2nd chance in nature to make a judgment error – when a threat is perceived he flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there. Thus, while most skills are learned by trial and error, it only takes one trial for him to learn something through fear.

“The flight response is extremely variable. It's like a dimmer switch on a light - it can be fully on or partly on. The flight response shows up in various behavioral ways too. For example, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying, tension, running, hurrying, jogging, rushing,” says Mclean.

Mild to maximum expressions, flight is self-generating -the faster a horse’s legs, go, the more afraid he becomes. That’s why, when afraid, a horse will run right into a fence!

So…it makes you think about the idea of letting a horse “get it out of his system” on a lunge line or chase him in a round pen until he focusses on the handler. If practice makes perfect, what does practicing a fearful situation do?

On a human level, what about rehearsing our fears and fretting over problems? More thoughts on this next post!

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/21496790@N06/2806670329/">milos milosevic</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photo pin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>

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