The 5 F’s - Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fidget, Faint

by Robyn Hood 

This could also be called, beyond fight & flight; since these are the usually associated with instinctive responses and the other three are rarely considered except in the context of behavior or attitude.

Over the years the "fight” and "flight” responses in horses have been recognized as a starting point in many training methods. We all have experienced dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations because of those instincts, and many humans and horses have been hurt because of these responses. The following scenarios are familiar to many of us:

This list goes on!  I imagine you could add a few of your own to the story, but the same basic characteristics are displayed by these horses: their heads go up, the adrenalin flows, their breathing pattern changes and these animals simply react instinctively.  They don't think.

The Flight or Fight Reflex

One of the main principles of the TTEAM work is to teach a horse to override the flight or fight reflex. We teach the horse to stop and evaluate a situation by thinking rather than by responding instinctively. While this instinctive response is the key to a horse's survival in the wild, it is no longer useful to the domesticated horse. It is, in fact, the cause of many dangerous situations.

In the wild, a horse's fight or flight reflex almost always triggered his flight from something threatening his existence. He rarely chose to stand and fight if there were other paths to safety. In his vastly different life of today, however, flight is not always an option for the horse. Thus, some individuals turn their fear into fight or aggressive actions. These horses may bite, kick and when pushed to the point of feeling cornered, attack. We need to recognize that even these dramatic responses are simply the horse trying to cope or survive.

Think about a horse walking over the top of a hill and seeing a wildly fluttering kite being flown by several running, screaming children. Threatened and frightened by this situation, the horse usually throws his head up. This posture activates the adrenal glands and over-stimulates the horse's entire nervous system.

As long as the horse's head is high and the neck and back muscles are tensed, adrenalin will pump into the blood stream, the blood is drawn away from the extremities to support the heart and lungs in preparation for flight. One  way to override this chemical countdown is to lower the head and normalize the breathing. It is for this reason that we pay so much attention to posture.

Biofeedback Research

Brainwave-biofeedback equipment has been used to monitor horses during TTEAM work. The data indicates that a horse is more likely to access the thinking part of his brain when he has his head in a relaxed position. For a young horse or a horse who is being re-schooled accepting these cues from the ground can be the first step to getting him to respond under saddle.

Freeze Reflex

While fight -flight is recognized, the freeze reflex is rarely considered. Think of what happens when a horse sees something in the distance, the head goes up, the horse freezes and often so does the handler. This is often the precursor to flight. There is a chemical released in the brain that causes the horse to freeze and the synapses stop firing. At this time, if we stroke the underside of the neck and front legs with the wand it helps start the synapses firing, helps to activate the triple warmer meridian (which activates the parasympathetic nervous system) and lowers the head. It also helps the handler start breathing and thinking instead of reacting.

We often see a "freeze" response, labeled by some people, as the horse being "stubborn" or "unwilling". This may happen when a horse is saddled or mounted and he stands stock-still as if "frozen" to the ground. At this point the horse is usually holding his breath and when the rider insists the horse go forward, the horse shoots forward or explodes bucking. The horse may become labeled as "needing an attitude adjustment".

Fool Around or Fidget

It was in the dog world that I first heard the term "fool around" used. You can think of dogs you have known that would respond to some situations by rolling on the floor or just "fooling around". It is a form of displacement behavior - taking the focus off of one situation onto another. For instance, if you are trying to groom some dogs, they may roll on the floor and grab the brush in play. It is a way of displaying concern that is often not identified because the dog is not shaking nor is the dog growling or biting. Some children, and adults, fall into "fooling around" when the pressure is on.

I started looking at horse behavior, i.e.: horses who grab the lead line, can't stand still, crowd or push with their noses.   I realized that this was simply a way of coping with the situation. Instead these horses are often considered to be displaying "alpha" or "dominant" behavior or are simply "bored". If you have a horse that displays this type of behavior, watch to see when it most often happens, notice what you are doing and change or stop doing it. Does the horse's behavior stop, and then start again when you resume your behavior? Interesting when you consider it from the point of view of simply a way of coping rather than have some other motivation behind the behavior.

It is also possible that much of what we see in the realm of fool around is a kind of language. In Turid Ruugas' book On Talking Terms With Dogs she considers "displacement behavior" as the way dogs communicate with each other. Sometimes when a dog sniffs the ground, scratches or yawns it may be more than it appears. When you start to watch animals in situations where they may be a bit concerned you will see this behavior (and many more) frequently.


This is a response that is not seen as frequently as the others. We have seen it in trailering situations where the horse is really pushed goes into freeze and then just lies down or kind of collapses. Another situation could be a horse that is harnessed with a bitting rig with an over-check and side reins and is being asked to go forward. With some horses this posture prevents forward movement because of the tightening of the underside of the neck and the back. While some of these horses will go up and over backwards, some of them will simply lie down and give up.

Years ago I read a book titled One Brain by Gordon Stokes and Daniel Whiteside, about dyslexia  in humans.  The authors say that whenever you come up "against a wall" while learning a new task, it is a form of dyslexia. In the learning process, whenever there is pain, fear, or fear of pain, there is a release of a stress hormone called ACTH. It causes the animal to access the reactive or reflexive part of the brain rather than the thinking part. In this situation an animal may perform a particular function, but is not necessarily not able to recall the action and repeat the skill at a later time. This, as a teacher, has helped me to better understand the behavior of many people and animals in stress situations.

Many people will say their horses are resistant or dominant because they have performed a task before, but "won't' ' repeat it on command. I believe usually the horse performed the task originally by accident, without thinking, rather than learning how.

While some trainers can cause a horse to perform tasks by using good timing, it does not mean the horse is learning. With the TTEAM method we strive to teach both horse and handler to think or "act" rather than simply react.

In teaching riding, when an instructor continually shouts at a student rather than finding ways to communicate the request in a way the student can understand, learning is difficult and frustrating for both pupil and teacher. The student's brain is unable to learn because of the stress. The same holds true for animals - if the level of ACTH is too high then learning will be blocked.

Feeling Safe

Years ago I traveled in Australia with Marty McGee. She gave me some food for thought. We were discussing the TTEAM perspective that much behavior is the result of fear, pain or fear of pain. However, there seem to be some animals that do not appear to be in pain nor fearful. In fact, the animals that are described as "dominant", "top dog" or "alpha" may come across as quite the opposite. We started talking about Maslov's Hierarchy of Human Needs - one of the basic needs is to feel safe along with the physiological necessity of food, water, air & shelter. How can that relate to other animals? In the case of domestic animals, humans are responsible for meeting most of their physiological needs and also creating an environment where the animals will either feel safe or unsafe. Perhaps there are some animals who feel "safer" giving up control than others. The feeling of safety may come from having a person who you trust be consistent and fair and one who "listens". If the animal does not feel safe and control is simply taken, as in the case of dogs who are pinned on their backs or "dominated" in some other way, then it appears that every individual person, who deals with the dog, needs to repeat the action in order for the animal to "submit".

The horses that may fall into a different category are those that have been imprinted and/or overhanded at a young age without the socialization of a herd. Some of these horses simply don't seem to know the difference between humans and horses and can have rather inappropriate behavior.

The analogy I use is to ask how many people prefer to be the driver? Many people will raise their hand - the reason generally given is that they feel "safer" when they are in control. If however, you trust the driver, not only in their skill in handling the car, but also that the driver would listen to your request if you should  feel unsafe, then "giving up control" of the car is not a problem.

When you show an animal that you are a trustworthy being and that you are paying attention to the animal's needs then those animals who appear to be "wanting to be in charge" are more able to hand over the reins, so to speak, and follow your direction. Perhaps it is still fear, the fear of giving up control, that triggers some behavior that humans feel so threatened by.

We are not looking to justify an animal's behavior by considering these possibilities, but rather if we can see things from another perspective we can avoid taking things personally and have ways to be proactive rather than reactive.

Published in TTEAM Connections November-December, 2001  Volume 3, Issue