So what is desensitisation? Well the opposite of sensitisation! And that’s the tricky bit, you must be very clear of what you’re doing as you might accidentally do the opposite of what you want and sensitise your horse! To desensitise your horse to a stimulus means to reduce its response. Horses are flight animals and can be very reactive to things in the environment. This is necessary when they’re roaming around in the wild, but can cause problems if you happen to be sitting on them when they have a massive response to a plastic bag flying past! We can desensitise them to common objects they will encounter, such as plastic bags, loud noises, whips etc. In all our desensitisation training we’re teaching the horse to stand still when something scares them, and this is the opposite of what they would do in the wild. But after a while this becomes their response to any scary stimulus as they develop a trust that you will look after them and be calm and steady yourself. Then a totally new scary object that you’ve never trained them to accept can appear while you’re riding and they will stand still. Magic! That’s what we all want.
So if you’re working away at desensitisation and your horse becomes fearful, that is, increasing its response, STOP, that is not the goal. At no point should your horse feel fear. Your job is to be checking your horse all the time looking for signs of worry – the ears back, tail swishing, eyes bulging/black/fearful, frowning, lifting the head, bracing the neck etc. The moment you see signs of worry back off and repeat the previous step until your horse is happy before progressing again. Your job is to not push the horse over the line into fear, if you do they will no longer learn as they can’t think when they’re afraid, plus that’s where you can actually sensitise them instead of desensitising and that’s not what we want. This is a great exercise in itself, as it really trains the human to feel and see what’s happening for the horse.
Every horse is different so you need to know how your own horse expresses worry. One horse I work with always has a calm eye but his tail starts swishing like mad if he’s worried, so I’m always looking there when introducing something new to him. But for the majority, it’s the eye that shows how the horse is feeling, so start there.
Some ground rules – never tie your horse up when introducing a scary object and hold the lead rope yourself, so you can move with them if need be. Let them smell, lick and explore the scary object with their mouth. Touch the place where you’re going to start with your hand first, giving it a rub and a few pats, this will make it less sensitive. With most horses I find the shoulder the best place to start but this can vary. Then calmly but confidently touch with the scary object and remove it before the horse shows fear. If you watch your horses’ signs you should be able to see this. Gradually extend the time you stay there and then start moving it over other parts of the body.
So, let’s say you’ve introduced an object and didn’t notice the signs and the horse starts moving away. Safety first, so if it’s dangerous get out of there. If it’s safe try and stay with your horse while they move, that’s why you’re holding the lead rope. Keep them in a small circle around you, holding the object touching them until they stop moving and then immediately remove it. Sometimes you may need to show them the solution to the problem with a little stop pressure on the halter. Repeat, repeat, repeat and you’ll find after a while you can touch them with the object and they’ll stand still. What we want to show them is that the scary object goes away when they stand still, NOT when they’re moving.
Once you’ve learnt these principles with an easy object, apply them to other situations. Hosing, spray bottles, plastic bags, tarps, plastic bags and umbrellas are some things you can use but it’s really only limited by your imagination. Have fun, get creative and playful and reap the rewards of a confident fearless horse.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles