Volunteer Guide – Horse Fight or Flight

""This subject, horse fight or flight, gets its own page because it’s the most important thing to remember. Plant this in your brain so you’ll think of it every time you’re at Swingin’ D: Horses are first and foremost prey animals. It’s in their DNA to constantly be on the lookout for things that will kill and eat them. Their lives literally depend on their keen senses.

That means horses spook at sights, sounds and smells that you or I might never notice.
No matter how trained the horse, when it’s in fear for its life, or when it’s focused on food, it’s more than 1,000 pounds of sheer determination, and nothing you can do or say can change its mind once it’s lost focus and control.

A horse that loves you can still kill you.

Remember that most of our horses come from kill pens where they had to fight for their survival. Many have gone weeks without food, so they become desperate at feeding time. Be careful to never carry feed or treats into a crowd of horses. If we give treats, we put a fence between us and the herd, just in case “horse fight or flight” kicks in.

Our herd also consists of mostly males, so when mares are in season, they all act like mindless fools. If a gelding approaches Aubrey while she’s standing near you, her reaction could set off a dangerous chain reaction.

Horses live in fight or flight modeWinston’s Fight-or-Flight Story

I’ll never forget the day Winston nearly broke my back with a totally unexpected kick.

He was only 9 months old when we saved him from slaughter. He’d never been haltered or led, and he’d likely never been handled. He was skin and bones and scared of everything. Imagine being a baby and being dumped on a kill lot with hungry, huge, many wild adult horses. Poor Winston had known nothing but terror, neglect and hunger his entire life until he arrived at the D.

After weeks of desensitizing and spoiling Winston, I entered his paddock to feed him. Instead of making him back away from the gate, I allowed him to crowd me, and when he saw I was carrying feed, he lost control. Something made him rear up and kick as I walked past Winston. He landed a powerful kick in the middle of my back. Thankfully, I wasn’t seriously injured, but I learned an important reminder that stays with me today.

Horses are unpredictable and incredibly powerful. No matter how much you love them, you cannot trust them. Maintain a safe distance, and remain in fight-or-flight mode yourself.

We don’t say these things to scare you, but to impress upon you the importance of always being aware of horses’ body language. Remember the phrase: Horse Fight or Flight. Think like a horse and become hyper-aware of your surroundings. Avoid situations that will spook the horse until you’re in a controlled setting where you can work through its fear.