Thursday, April 9, 2020

Anyone Else Experiencing Trigger Stacking?

I recently had someone ask about how to address trigger stacking with horses. First, a discussion of what it is. 
Trigger Stacking is a non-scientific term to describe what happens when an individual is exposed to multiple stressors all at once, and reacts in a way that exceeds the way they would react to just one of those stressors. Observers might only see one of those stressors, and thereby think the individual was over-reacting. 

An example might be a horse who spooks dramatically when a dog appears. The horse might be familiar with dogs, and might even be familiar with that particular dog. They might live at the same place and have had lots of exposure previously. So a person's response could be, "you've seen that dog thousands of times! Don't be so silly!" What the person might be missing is how many other stressors the horse is dealing with at the same time. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable saddle fit and the person doesn't know it because normally the horse doesn't overtly react (that's the yellow block in the photo here). In addition, the horse has gone away from the barn with the person. Again, that may have been done many times before with cooperation. But a horse alone often feels less comfortable than in a group. So there's your orange block. On that day it also happens to be windy, which interferes with a horse's hearing AND makes things in the environment move. Now you've added the red and green blocks. And that's when the dog appears. If the horse was dealing with any one of those stressors individually, they could still appear calm and responsive. He might even be able to deal with two, three, or four of them stacked. But add that final stressor of the dog appearing when the horse is already uncomfortable from the equipment fit AND is out alone AND they can't hear well AND the branches and grasses and loose bit of plastic are blowing around; and it becomes too much. If it's a block tower, it comes tumbling down. If it's a horse (or dog or human or cat or giraffe or...), there may be 

I think many of us can sympathize with this right now. We are living in a time when stressors abound. Many of us are dealing with:
  • novel uncomfortable equipment (masks, gloves)
  • lack of access to our supportive friends/family 
  • a threat as invisible as the wind (until we see the damage)
  • limited resources (real or perceived)
So when one "little" thing happens, such as the appearance of others in the environment who may not be taking precautions, we may blow up. Ahem, true story.

Now that I have hopefully given you some empathy for your animal, what can we do to help? With all good training, we need to break it down, but there are many things we can do. And lessons we can learn for ourselves. 

First, what can we do to give our horses more choice and control? As humans, we are experiencing a lot less choice and control in our lives than we are used to. We need to figure out what we do have control over. How should we spend our time? How much news and social media is too much? Who should we focus on for information? What will we eat and drink that supports us long term, rather than momentary pleasure? 

Figuring out what our new choices are and taking control over them can be a breath of fresh air these days. But what about our animals? Last summer I wrote a blog post called Lessons Learned about helping a horse on stall rest and turnout restrictions. In it, I wrote of how I searched for ways to give him choices in his limited confinement. Just having choices can make a world of difference. My husband happily stays on our farm every day, all day. But he said just knowing that we were supposed to be staying home in this virus outbreak made him want to go somewhere! People have come up with lots of ways to distantly socialize these days- virtual chats with friends and family, meeting for walks or hikes when you can keep your distance but still "be together", sitting outdoors at safe distances to visit with good friends. 

Does your horse have others to socialize with? Activities for when you are not there? Look for equine enrichment ideas such as hay bags and trees to chew in my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Make sure there is opportunity for movement and exploration in a safe setting to give your horse confidence. Regular positive reinforcement training sessions keep brains busy and hearts happy. I recently posted this example of things you can do with your horse which should all be non-stressful. Share with me on social media or in the comments if you use this!

Once you've done what you can to give your horse the best welfare physically, mentally, and emotionally, then you can work on the stressors themselves. The first step is to identify as many as you can. Is the equipment you use all comfortable? Ditch the rope halters that bite into faces and substitute a flat, even padded halter. Have someone knowledgeable with bridle and saddle fit check yours on your horse. Keep your equipment clean so that buildup doesn't make sore spots. And try to find the most comfortable mask you can for your own face when you go out these days. You can find some with pretty prints, but let's be honest.  Does your horse or dog really care about bling or color? Put comfort first. 

What about environmental conditions? We have no control over the wind and precipitation, but we can honor our animals' preferences in those conditions. Start by letting them choose (more choice!) where they would like to go. Give them plenty of time to learn that you will listen to their requests. Once they know they have a voice, you will probably find them much more willing to take risks with and for you. Only ask for a little at a time. If the environment is a stressor, start with literal baby steps and make them reinforcing ones. Give them a target to head for, reinforce when they get there. Repeat until they are comfortable and confident. Then move the target a little further. By advancing slowly but steadily, over minutes, days or more, you will give your horse the foundations to be successful at greater distances.

What about specific things in the environment? Do you know what things your horse finds concerning? Watch that body language: ears, head height, muscle tension and more. One of the things on my bingo card is to write down 10 things your horse looks at. Doing that will inform you about what is worthy of their attention. Is it something they want such as companions or grass? If so, what can you do to use that as a reinforcer? Is it something they may be frightened of? How can you present new and unusual things in a mild enough way that they are interesting but not scary? I wrote a blog post about this called Desensitization Continues in which I describe putting things into the environment every day to show my horses that new things might pop up, but they don't need to be concerning. 

If you can present your horse with some of their stressors in teaspoon amounts that don't scare them, they may begin to generalize to other stressors and new things in the environment become less frightening. Then you have minimized the triggers in the stack so when something unexpected happens, they are better able to handle it. 

Here are some examples of things I've put out for my horses in the past week. And be aware of your own stressors, try to minimize the ones you can, and take control of the choices you do have these days. Be well, my friends. 

Grain bags with more grain bags inside:
 bright colors, crinkly noise, move in wind

A rain sheet out to dry lifts its "wings" when the breeze blows

Poles which were familiar last summer but
have been put away all winter and never
higgledy piggledy on a chair like this
and then the wind blew it all over!

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