Shut down horse?

Hi all, this is Amira, your friendly amateur horselady and webmaster.

I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic of “shut down”. When I first heard the words “shut down” regarding a horse, I thought it just meant they were depressed. Maybe sluggish. Like the opposite of forward.

Not quite…

Shutting down is when a horse can’t cope with something scary so it essentially closes its eyes, plugs its ears, and sings “lalalalala”.

OK, so now we can recognize it in humans, but what about horses?

When a horse “shuts down”, it freezes in place. The legs might feel like they lock up or stiffen up. The head and neck don’t move.

A shut down horse just looks like a calm horse that is bracing and not moving

The horse unexpectedly goes from zero (seeming perfectly calm) to 100 (bolting, rearing, lashing out).

Normal horses increase their reactions as the environment gets scarier. For example: looking around > snorting > balking > moving away >running away > panicking.
In a shut-down horse, if the environment is too scary to ignore, your horse goes from seemingly calm to panicking.

An example of this 0 to 100 behavior is riding your horse into a new and scary arena. The horse stops repeatedly, and you kick to make it move forward. After several stops, something moves in the periphery and your horse loses its mind, bolting away uncontrollably.

Shut down doesn’t fix itself. A big problem is the horse is not observing the environment while it is shut down. There is no learning. Desensitization isn’t happening. Something has to be done about the shut down before you can progress.

An example is spending five minutes sacking out a perfectly calm horse, then the horse seems to jolt awake (sometimes with a big spook or twitch) after you stop. The shut down horse was not home during that entire exercise. A clue is that the horse won’t show any signs of relaxation (licking, chewing, lowering the head, etc) throughout the five minutes. Afterward, the horse doesn’t show any benefits from sacking out.

Warwick Schiller videos on groundwork helped me understand what was going on. In a few of his videos he mentions the shut down phenomenon. He recommends doing extremely gentle desensitization while keeping the horse in motion (if they are moving, they can’t go into la-la-land).

Here are several Warwick Schiller videos that I found very helpful to understand the concept of shut down in horses.

This video gives principles for increasing mental resilience of horses
This video talks about detecting shutdown and working through it
Talking about managing anxiety in horses, recognizing shut down indicators

One warning: When a horse starts to come out of “shut down”, they begin reacting to things. So if you were counting on your horse stopping and standing when something happens, and now they are bolting instead, it can be pretty scary.

Remember that new reactions are a good sign. The horse is thinking now. They are able to start processing their environment and get braver.

Equestrian Movement – How to tell if your horse is shut down.