Horses Can Teach us How to Deal with Fear. After All, They’re Better at It than We Are

Horses and humans both have built-in flight responses for reacting to stress. But humans have a lot to learn from horses about managing flight, fear, and the stress of everyday life.

Have you ever seen a group of horses in a field get spooked? Maybe it started with a scary sound—even something as simple as a branch cracking in a tree 20 meters away from the fence. Whatever it was, they were convinced that there was something to be stressed about. And wow, are horses good at getting stressed.

But you know what? So are humans. We get spooked and stressed over sometimes really minor things, too. Like getting an invitation to a work meeting, having to take an exam, or getting into an uncomfortable conversation with a spouse. But if you think about that branch near the horse pasture? It’s highly likely that it didn’t crack under the feet of a vicious predator (and you know that even if the horses didn’t). As for that work meeting or exam? Well, you might not know it yet, but it’s probably not going to rip you to shreds, either.

Yet, the fear response gets triggered all the same.

Spooked horses might take off in a frantic gallop across their pasture, cortisone and adrenaline running through their bodies like crazy. Anxious humans might wring their hands, talk too much or not at all, overeat or stop eating, sleep badly, and plague themselves with stories upon stories upon stories in their heads about what’s going to happen in that upcoming meeting or exam—which might be days or even weeks away.

While the humans are still fretting, to the detriment of their physical and mental health, the horses have long since given up their fear. They’ve stopped running; they’ve burned up a good bit of that stress energy. They’ve turned their heads back to check for danger. They’ve snorted out a lot of noisy air from their nostrils back at whatever scared them. They’ve listened intently with perked ears for a few seconds and haven’t heard anything else scary.

And then, they’ve let go.

Suddenly, they’re back in the present again. Grazing, softly nose-blowing, swishing their tails at flies, taking calm steps through the grass. Breathing peacefully.

They’re not afraid anymore. They’ve pushed through their fear.

Meanwhile, the humans are still tormenting themselves with everything that could possibly go wrong, giving in to their fear and sometimes letting it just take over their lives completely.

Honestly, how on earth did we ever survive as a species, accumulating all that fear from the past and apprehending everything that might happen in the future?

Horses could never have survived that way. Just like us, they’re hardwired to have a flight instinct. But unlike us, they’ve evolved to let that fear go. If they hadn’t, they would have destroyed themselves out there in the wild long ago, worn down with chronic stress, fatigue, ulcers, and lack of nutrients from refusing to eat or drink. They’d have been killing themselves off faster than if they were getting killed off by predators!

Horses have evolved to deal with fear by pushing through it and living in the present.

Clearly, humans haven’t. While horses only deal with the fear from things in their environment, we humans make things worse. We’re a little bit afraid of what’s in our environment, and we’re very afraid of the stories in our minds. That hasn’t prevented us from surviving as a species, because we have so many other skills that maintain our survival. But our fear and stress management is sometimes so bad, we wonder how we, as individuals, can survive from one day to the next.

We can learn a lot from how horses handle fear, though. When we get that “butterfly” feeling in our guts that tells us there’s something to be afraid of, we can manage that fear by pushing through it. Just like horses do.

Instead of being afraid, we can transform that stress into a very similar emotion—excitement. We can do something with that excitement, burning up that energy with physical exercise or mental exercise.

And then we can stop, turn around, look back at whatever scared us and sort of “snort out” at it, and then let go. Go back to the present. Get back to doing whatever we’re good at doing, whatever keeps us peaceful. And we can remind ourselves that, for the now, for the present, we’re just fine.

And if we hear another branch crack, well, we can move away from that one, too. But until that happens, we can be calm, knowing that, in the here and now, in the present and at this very moment, we have nothing to fear.

Share on Facebook
Share by email