What is Desensitising?
When your horse is introduced to something they have never seen or are unsure they may take flight. This is a natural response to danger that has evolved over thousands of years in order to keep them safe from predators.
Desensitising is the process of making a horse less susceptible or sensitive to physical, emotional or environmental stimuli and aims to overcome the horse’s flight, fight or freeze responses to perceived threats. Most desensitising happens naturally as you start to handle and ride a horse but as a trainer who aims to have a safe, willing and trustworthy horse to give back to my clients, I expose horses to situations that can induce a manageable amount of flight and teach the horse to look to me for answers rather than reverting to their natural flight instinct.
Do we need to use Desensitising?
I have tried my training program with and without this process and I keep coming back to it. Not every horse needs it and therefore I sometimes doubt its necessity but then I come across a horse that just won’t quite settle. I go through some desensitising work and straight away I feel the horse improving. I also believe that the process builds a partnership because relationships are based on understanding and experiences, especially those where you help someone out of trouble!
Some people say that you should never deliberately induce flight in a horse. To me this is tantamount to saying that you have to create a world where your horse will never get spooked or frightened, which is completely unrealistic because we cannot always control our environment when we step out of our yard. It also means that when your horse does take fright of something, you and your horse are completely unequipped to deal with the situation; you don’t know how your horse will react, you have not taught him to look to you for answers and his flight instinct will take over. I accept and understand the fact that horses will in some circumstances become nervous; it is not “if”, it is “when”. It therefore seems logical to me to teach my horse that at the point where they want to flight, there is another option to take that keeps them safe. Therefore, I believe the only sensible approach is to carry out desensitising work in a safe, controlled environment such as a round pen or arena at home.
I have spoken about the effect of practicing this process on horses but the effect on you as a handler is also profound. If you can stay focused on how to help your horse when they are worried then you will remain rational and a good leader and your horse will repay you by being more thoughtful, less flighty and your partnership will flourish.
How to desensitise your horse
Stage 1: Dealing with flight
I will have my horse in a safe space, such as a round pen, in a rope halter and long lead. For my ‘desensitising equipment’ I like to use a bag on a stick, though I might start with just the stick. The important thing is that I must be able to “turn it on and off” by being able to introduce it and take it away with ease. The first stage involves introducing the bag into the horse’s space. If the horse flights, I deal with this reaction by disengaging the hindend through giving pulls on the halter until he is facing me. It is vital that you stop whatever you were doing that started the flight (i.e. in this case, introducing the bag) and to not hold onto your horse when he looks at you, even if they are going backwards or are at the end of the rope. Having your horse look at you is the key to the process and they must feel relief from any pressure when they are doing so. When the horse has settled again, I will reintroduce the bag and repeat the process until he stays facing me without any flight. With each stage of the process, it is important to do the exercises on both sides of the horse.
Stage 2: Stand and relax
Once your horse realizes that looking at you gets them relief, your horse will try to keep looking at you while they are still trying to move away from the bag. Now is the time to keep the bag in their space and waiting for him to realize the object is not getting any more or less threatening if he keeps moving. The horse will then look at the option of stopping and when they do I immediately take away the bag and let them rest and relax.
Stage 3: Contact
By this point your horse will want to stand when you introduce the bag so now you can start to make contact. This is important because for a horse to truly accept an object and not see it as a threat, they will want to touch it. They do this by sniffing then putting their nose on it. This is important because the thoughtful side of horse’s brain is now being engaged and they are becoming curious. This part of the Desensitising must be done carefully by constantly advancing and retreating and if your horse goes to flight again you simply go back a step. To start with I just give the horse a rub while I hold the bag. Then I look for them to have a sniff of the bag before giving them a rub with it on the muzzle before working down the neck. At regular intervals I take the bag away before starting at the beginning again and moving along the horse a little more each time. I do this until he is confident with contact all over his body, avoiding the highly sensitive areas of his legs and ears until they are fine everywhere else.
Stage 4: Move with distraction
The horse will now be confident and relaxed with the object when they are standing. Now I ask the horse to move one or two steps with the bag on him, watching to see if he becomes distracted. If he moves away from the bag in any way, I go back a step get their confidence before repeating this stage. When they can walk a straight line without rushing or going past you, they have learnt the process of Desensitising.
Stage 5: Repeat
This process must be repeated because the horse’s survival instinct of flight, fight and freeze (FFF) is much more powerful than the thoughtful or curious side of a horse’s brain. Each horse has neurological pathways and the more you use a certain pathway the stronger it becomes. By following this process you will start to use therefore creating a new habit. By repeating this process with different objects in various environments you are aiming to use the flight pathway less and this new pathway more, thereby creating a new habit of wanting to turn and face their handler and investigate rather than flighting.
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