What is desensitising?
This is the first in our Intelligent Horsemanship Groundwork Series. Aimed at teaching you the basics of moving your horses feet, gaining confidence and control as well as building a solid partnership with your horse.
This is a term bandied about in horsemanship circles quite a lot, along with the opposite term “to sensitise” your horse. The Dictionary definition is probably a good place to start.
Present participle: desensitising, desensitizing
- make less sensitive
- free (someone) from a phobia or neurosis by gradually exposing them to the thing that is feared.
So what is desensitising when you are referring to horses?
Do you need to do it?
And if so how do you do it?
What & Why
First some basics – horses are prey animals, they have evolved to run first and ask questions later to avoid becoming dinner for a predator. As humans have intervened and bred specific types of horses we have bred in traits that make horses more useful to us eg. draft horses to pull plows for farming or race horses for sport. Along with the physical traits humans also want horses that are less spooky, but still responsive and are therefore safer to be around both on the ground and under saddle.
We have been quite successful in doing this and most of our domestic horses are now enjoyable companions, but we must remember their heritage and understand that a horse sees fearful objects as life threatening, they are not just trying to get out of work, or trying to put one over you when they react to a scary object.
Desensitising is something horses do naturally as a flight animal, it is a learned process enabling them to understand not to flee in the face of harmless objects, they would spend all their time and energy running and shying, not very efficient!
Our domestic horses live in our world and we have an obligation to ensure they can cope with the various situations and objects that they will come into contact with.
We want our horses desensitised to dogs, traffic, plastic bags, rugs, other humans etc. the everyday things your horse might encounter in his yard or when out and about with you.
On the other hand we want our horses to be sensitised to our leg and rein aids and also pressure applied on the ground. One example is if you have ridden one of the old plodders at a trail riding centre you will understand riding a horse which is not sensitised to your legs results in a lot of kicking and not much action. Conversely we have all seen the Police Greys standing quietly while hooligans yell and scream and throw things, they are desensitised to the many different scenarios they may encounter in their work.
There are quite a few ways you may read about which I believe have no place in desensitising horses such as flooding or systematic desensitising and I won’t go into them here as we will discuss the various ethical and effective ways you can create a calm partner.
Dr Andrew McLean provides the clearest direction I have read on how to desensitise properly and with the best results:
“Therefore to me it is clear: Do as little as possible to induce fear and as much as possible to remove it.”
Dr McLean has coined some very clear terms to explain how to desensitise your horse which I will share with you through the rest of the article.
This is something we are all doing on a daily basis but you may not be aware you are already doing it. This is simply when you prevent the horse from moving away so when you tie him up to groom and saddle.
This is the foundation of the desensitising I am going to teach you. You will introduce the scary object or noise and while allowing your horse to move his feet, you do not allow him to move further away from you and the object.
Keeping in mind that we are not trying to scare the living daylights out of our horse (flooding) and we definitely do not want to push him over into absolute flight/panic mode so that he breaks free and leaves us as this can become a learned response.
You introduce the stimulus, let’s say a plastic bag, you might allow the horse to sniff it if he is a little curious, you gradually rub it all over him and only stop and remove the bag when the horse is showing signs of relaxation and acceptance of the bag.
Remember from our earlier training – horses don’t learn from the pressure they learn from the release.
When you remove the bag (pressure) is crucial to your success. You must watch you horse for the slightest sign of relaxation. If your horse can’t initially keep his feet still, you will allow him to move around you safely, don’t try to prevent your horse from moving, the aim is for the horse to offer the behaviour you seek not for you to prevent him, but don’t let him get further away. Once the horse stops all four feet you will remove the pressure immediately.
If your horse doesn’t move his feet but still appears uncertain or fearful you continue to move the bag until he shows signs of relaxation which could be a slightly lowering of his head, glancing towards the bag, being able to hold his gaze, blinking, resting a hind foot, licking and chewing.
You must remove the bag immediately. As you progress and your horse can stand still and show signs of relaxation you can leave the bag longer.
This is not about the bag, it could be an umbrella or a pool noodle, this is about teaching your horse the correct way to respond to any stimulus.
This form of desensitising replies on the idea that an animal that is chasing something becomes braver or at least not as afraid of the object.
One way you might use this is to walk away from your horse swinging the plastic bag and have them follow you. You will eventually slow and then stop allowing the horse to come closer to investigate.
Another example is by introducing your horse to a horsemanship ball. The aim is to eventually have your horse kick or nose the ball away from them and have them follow it. Your horse may initially be afraid of the ball, but if you gently nudge the ball in front of you and continue to encourage your horse closer he will eventually push the ball away and gain confidence in the fact that he can do this.
This is the practice of making you more important than the scary object. Horses, and humans for that matter, cannot concentrate on two extreme stimuli at the same time. A choice must be made between which one to concentrate on and you are teaching your horse that your command is the correct choice.
One example is a high energy horse has got loose within the arena, your horse may be scared and looking towards the bolting horse. In this instance you can’t remove the stimulus as in the response prevention, nor can you have your horse chase the stimulus as in approach conditioning.
You would immediately set your horse a task and insist with as much pressure as necessary for them to do it. I suggest you practice at least two tasks and have them solid before you try this technique, as you may need to swap from one to the other. So say immediately I set my horse trotting on a circle, very quickly within say 3 strides, I ask him to change directions to keep his mind focussed on me and I keep doing that until my horse settles.
My actions have overshadowed my horses response to the bolting horse. I have become more important than anything else which is happening around us. This is not simply distracting my horse it is teaching him a better way to deal with his fear than concentrating on the object and possibly fleeing himself.
Hoofbeats Magazine featured a brilliant article by Dr Andrew McLean, check out the article here for more information on overshadowing.
So What is Desensitising?
It is a crucial training technique to make your horse braver , calmer and bolder in all sorts of situations.
By helping your horse to overcome his fears you are building a partnership and a bond that becomes unbreakable, as your horse understands you will not let any harm come to him and he can trust you implicitly. We have put together some other articles you might like on how to gather together some of the equipment and tools you can use when desensitising your horse:
If you enjoyed this post and would like to check out the next step click on Article 2 – Disengaging The Hindquarters.
And as always if you give any or all of the above techniques a try please comment below and let us know how you went. Also of course if you have any questions or require any further clarification please comment and we will do our best to help you.