Let’s talk about thresholds:

Understanding your horse’s thresholds and the body language that goes along with the stress levels is an extremely important skill.
I tend to break thresholds down into 3 colours for simplicity:

🟢Green Zone: The green zone is when your horse is feeling safe, they are showing no signs of fear or anxiety. They are showing signs that they are calm and relaxed.

This is the best zone to work with your horse in. They are much more receptive to listening, learning, and remembering (we will go into why below)

🟡Yellow Zone: The yellow zone is we start seeing signs of fear and anxiety. This is where we need to show caution and be vigilant because once your horse is here, things can escalate to the red zone rather quickly.

When your horse is in this zone and is showing stress signs it’s best to calm them down and bring them back to the green zone before things escalate.

🔴Red Zone: The red zone is where the sympathetic nervous system gets activated automatically (i.e., its involuntary) and your horse enters Flight, Fright or Freeze mode.

•Flight: This is your horses primary defense mechanism. A horse will begin to run blind with no regard for their safety.

Note: This reaction is sometime used in traditional horsemanship and the process of “breaking” a horse.

•Fight: This tends to be a secondary defense mechanism with horses. This looks like animated feet, kicking, rearing, turning their hind ends towards the stimulus.

•Freeze: This state happens when the parasympathetic nervous system dominates the sympathetic nervous system. Besides immobility we will also see bradycardia (a slower than normal heart-rate.) The horses head tends to go up and their neck becomes ridged typically with their eyes fixated on the stimulus. Sometimes horses can come out of freeze with violent responses.

When your horse enters the red zone, it goes into survival mode, their stress systems become activated, and several different stress chemicals begin circulating throughout their body. Just like with humans, heightened stress has been shown to impair the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for decision making, attention, and the ability to learn and incorporate new information. Additionally, with the over production of cortisol we begin to see memory impairment. Some behavioural neuroscience research also shows that chronic elevation in cortisol can have long term and lasting side effects to brain cells.

Simply put, once a horse begins to produce stress chemicals their ability to learn rapidly decreases along with the very obvious safety issues. If you are working with your horse in the upper yellow or red zone your horse is not going to be a receptive learner and you are treading on a dangerous line.

This is a skill that takes careful observation to work. You need to be well versed in the stress signals of horses as well as their calming and displacement behaviours. Understanding your horses body language and being able to measure their thresholds, in my opinion, should be a vital part in training