Desensitizing the Good and the Bad


Desensitizing a horse has always and will probably always be an important part of my training program.  I do feel it is very misunderstood though. The idea of desensitizing is way more then getting a horse over being worried about a specific thing but instead is an exercise designed to teach a horse to deal with anxiety we cannot control. Things such as deer and turkeys in the woods are the things we can’t control.  So, yes you can throw a bunch of plastic bags in a stall with a horse terrified of them and in a few days it will not care at all about the bags, but that’s all you have accomplished.  Instead through getting a horse slightly anxious and teaching it that it can come down to a relaxed state we begin to train the horses brain to deal with an outside stimulation that may cause worry.  This is our goal in desensitizing. So let’s dig into common problems in desensitizing. 


The worst problem is the off switch.  Many very intelligent and sensitive horses may quickly learn to make the stimulus go away doing the signs of relaxation simply to turn of the stimulus.  You wave a flag the horses head lowers you take it away and he learns to make it go away but not actually to relax. These horses desensitizing does not work for and they will spook at many other things since they stay anxious inside. The bad part about this is we are also training the horse to hide it’s emotions from us. The best tool we have in training is reading the horse. They will always tell us when they are scared, mad, tired, or full of energy but we can teach them to hide this from us. This also puts the horse at a disadvantage as far as learning new things because it will cause the horse to begin to disassociate from us rather then engage us and use the problem solving part of the brain.  My next post will be on learned helplessness and we will get deeper into this depressive state of the horses brain. 


How do we keep this from happening? It’s simple but takes time.  First let’s talk about the process of desensitizing. We add a stimulus and wait till we have no response or relaxation and then take it away. This teaches the horse relaxing makes something scary go away. We get into problems though when we keep the time intreval between the time of our stimuli  application too short or our stimulus is to much.  We need to wait for a full let down in between our applications of stimuli. The idea of desensitizing is to get the horse to relax and we need to let that happen not try to force it. This may even take applying it once then completely stepping back and away or waiting long periods of time or both before going back to desensitizing.  We find out so often in horse training that less is more. 


Another thing to keep a horse from learning to shut down is to make sure it is relaxed before we begin desensitizing exercises. We always need to do this no matter what new thing we are teaching with our horse. The idea is to start a horse relaxed and end relaxed. We want the horse thinking and connected with us while desensitizing. I also may add little bumps to the halter just enough to get a horses ear to flick back or eye to engage me knowing he is mentally with me if I see his mind wander away. 


Desensitizing horses that are mentally blocking you out is almost completely ineffective and possibly damaging. Before we start just like we need a horse to be relaxed we need his focus and attention. The horses attention on you is so closely related to his relaxation that most often if you have the horses focus it will be relaxed. After all our goal is to get our horse to pay attention to us and not the scary banner on the show pen or the deer in the woods. A good start to ground work exercises is key to this. In teaching horses to respond to subtle cues they begin to look for us for the cue. In other words, don’t worry about starting desensitizing to early but have your horses attention and his brain used to problem solving first before you start.