Sensitize or Desensitize?

When working with your horse you actually want to do both: sensitize and desensitize him.  However, if you make the wrong move at the wrong time you may end up sensitizing him to something you want to desensitize him to or visa versa. That’s why timing is so important when working with your horse.


When you cue your horse, it would be great if he would do what you want with the lightest cue.  To achieve this you must sensitize your horse.  The concept of sensitizing is simple. You apply pressure to your horse.  Your horse moves away from the pressure.  You release pressure.  However, applying this concept can be a little tricky.  At first your horse may not know what the pressure you’re applying means for him to do.  He may move the wrong direction, and if you stop applying pressure here, he will learn to do the wrong thing.  Or perhaps your horse has moved ever so slightly in the direction you are asking, but you didn’t feel the movement so you don’t release the pressure.  This can confuse your horse.

To properly sensitize a horse you must apply a cue only until your horse makes an effort to perform what is being asked.  As soon as any effort, no matter how small, is made all pressure must stop.  Then basically repeat, repeat, repeat, until your horse responds with just the slightest cue. Here’s an example.  You want your horse to move smoothly into a trot from a walk.  You bump your horse’s sides with your legs and continue to bump him until he starts to trot.  The first step he makes that is a trot, you stop bumping him.  He may only take a couple of steps at a trot and slow down into a walk.  Once he starts walking again, you need to bump him again until he starts to trot.  As soon as he breaks into a trot, stop bumping.  Eventually, he will put it together that when you bump his sides, you want him to trot.

A mistake often made is that a rider will continue to bump their horse once he is trotting.  By doing this you will desensitize your horse to the cue.  If you don’t reward him by stopping the application of pressure, he will learn to ignore the cue.  What benefit would there be for him to trot if you are just going to continue to bump him.


Desensitizing should be a major part of any training program.  When desensitizing your horse, you basically repeat the same action over and over until you get no response from your horse.  When I start training my horses, I first desensitize them with a rope.  I rub a rope all over their body.  At first most horses will move around and try to get away from the rope, but I will continue to touch the horse all over with the rope until he decides  the rope won’t hurt him and stands still.  I will repeat this with a brush, then a plastic bag, a saddle blanket and whatever else I find laying around.  Then I will take and twirl a rope around and swing it onto my horse’s back.  Again, I will do this until he decides there is no threat and stands still.   I will also take a saddle pad and rhythmically pat it on my horse’s back until he stands still.  Exercises such as this help your horse become confident that you aren’t going to  hurt him and tell him that you want him to stand still.  The most important part of these exercises are that you stop when your horse stands still.

I’m always doing something to desensitize my horse.  The more your horse is desensitized the safer he will become to ride, and the less likely he will spook.  Friends that ride often with me are use to me twirling my reins around and making goofy noises in an effort to desensitize my horse even more.

The most common mistake made when desensitizing a horse is when the rider or trainer stops applying pressure when the horse moves instead of when the horse stands still.  Let’s say you are wishing to desensitize your horse to having a saddle pad thrown on his back.  You start to swing the pad and your horse moves, then you stop swinging the pad to settle your horse down.  Because you stopped when your horse moved he thinks that is what you want him to do. Now you have sensitized your horse to the swinging pad, and he will move when you swing the pad at him.  It is very important to continue with rhythmic swinging until he stands still.

You can improve your riding time with your horse by properly sensitizing and desensitizing him.  With a horse that is sensitized to cues, you won’t have to try to pull your horse where you want him to go, and riding him will become less work and more enjoyable.  By desensitizing your horse he will become safer to be around.  He won’t worry about you touching him, and he will become less likely to spook.

Dropping the Head

Whenever I bridle or halter my horse, I ask them to drop their head and flex it to the side.  This makes it much easier for me to bridle or halter my horse.  Now I could get my bridle on even if my horse wouldn’t drop his head for me, but honestly I like to make my job as easy as possible.  Why should I have to work so hard on getting the bridle on when it’s so much easier for my horse to just hold his head a little lower for me.  Pictured to the right is my daughter, Minandah, preparing to bridle Dollar.  Mirandah isn’t a real tall gal.  She’s only around 4 foot 11, but notice how Dollar has his head lowered for her.  This is how I like all  my horses to position their head when being bridled.  Getting your horse to do this begins with teaching them to drop their head.

To start with let’s talk about where to place your hands when training your horse to drop his head.  I take my right hand and place my fingers on the horse’s pole.  They will be applying pressure in the same place your halter or bridle will sit behind your horse’s ears.  My left hand will be on my horses nose with my thumb on one side and fingers on the other.  Now we have our hands in the correct position, let’s get started.  You will start by applying downward pressure with both hands.  Don’t try to pull your horse’s head down.  Just hold steady pressure downward.  At first your horse will probably try to lift his head or move away.  It is important that you do not stop applying pressure if he does this.  Just continue to hold steady pressure until your horse makes an effort to lower his head.  The second he lowers his head any amount release all downward pressure.  Let him rest a couple seconds and think about what happened.  Then resume applying downward pressure.  When he lowers his head slightly release.  Continue to repeat this until he lets you lower his head to the ground.  The time range of this exercise depends on the horse.  Some horses figure it out right away, while others take a little longer.  Just don’t try to rush it.  One day you may only get your horse to lower his head about half way down.  Just come back the next day and work on it some more.   Eventually your horse will figure out what you are wanting.

Not only do I find this head lowering exercise good for training your horse to lower his head while being bridled, but it also helps get him in the right frame of mind for more training.  Since we are applying pressure then releasing when he does what we want (moving away from pressure), we are building a base for other training that we will be doing.  Pretty much any training I do with my horse involves applying and releasing pressure.  Once your horse understands that when you apply pressure you want him to move away from it, his training will go a lot faster.

Foot Positioning: Where to Cue Your Horse

If you use your legs when you ride, it will be easier for your horse to understand exactly what you want him to do.  When training my horses my main objective is to teach them to move away from pressure or give to pressure.  I will apply pressure in some way (such as pulling on a rein, or tapping his body somewhere), and when my horse responds to that pressure, I reward him by releasing the pressure.  Leg cues are a form of pressure I use on my horse, and where I apply those leg cues will tell the horse to move in different ways.  I will refer to foot positioning in many of my training posts and videos.  When I ask my horse to do anything, I’m using a foot cue.

Okay the names of the foot positioning can be hard to remember.  Are you ready?  They are position 1, position 2 and position 3.  Okay maybe they aren’t that hard of names to remember.  First let’s look at neutral foot positioning.  Here you can see my legs hang down from my hips.  There should be a straight line running down from your ear, through your shoulder and hip to your heal.

In position 1 your foot will close to where the front cinch is.   When your foot is in this position you are asking your horse to move it’s front end, in turn crossing his front legs.  This is the position you will have your feet in if you are doing a maneuver like a pivot, spin or roll back.  Remember we want your horse to move away from pressure. Cuing here with your right foot will make him step toward the left.

With your foot in position 2, it will be in the middle of the barrel of your horse.  Position 2 is use to cue your horse to move both sets of feet at the same time.  This is use to preform moves such as side passing.  Pressing on the left will make your horse side pass to the right.  This is basically where they should sit when you are in a neutral riding position.

Position 3 is located at the back of your horse’s barrel where your back cinch would sit.  Cuing here tells your horse to move his hind quarters which will result in him crossing his back legs.  This cue is used when you want to your horse to perform a pivot on his front end or at times when you need your horse to disengage his hind quarters.  When you combine proper foot positioning with the right rein, movements you can literally get your horse to move in any direction you wish.  As you progress with your horse, you will find it easier to get him to do exactly what you want when using the proper foot positioning.  Remember these.  They will be referred to in many of my training posts.

Spended time with your horse

In the past I’ve had people ask me what the most important step in training your horse.  Is it the ground work? Or teaching them to whoa or back?  To me the most important thing you can do to create the best possible horse, is simply spend time with him.  What do I mean, “spend time with him.”  I mean, make it a point to go out and hang out within your horse like you would any of friends.  A time when you do nothing but just spend time with you horse. This is a time that you don’t ask anything of your horse.  Much like a marriage, if you don’t spend time together, it is hard to maintain a good bond.

What to do with this “quality” time? When I go out to hang out with my horse, I typically go into the pen with him.  I usually bring him a treat of some sort, whether it be a handful of grain or a horse cookie (yes I feed my horses by hand, but if they respect you it isn’t a problem).  Normally I don’t take a halter with me.  I will just go in and brush him or practice my equine massage.  I hug on him and touch him all over his body.  Other times I’ll catch him, take him to the arena or round pen, then let him go, and we just play.  What do I mean by play?  I literally play with my horse.  If you ever watched horses in the pasture, you’ve seen them running around chasing each other and kicking up their heels.  That’s what I do with my horse.  I’ll start out in the middle of the pen and ask him to move out.  Then I’ll cut him off and make him switch directions.  I’ll run after him, then run away from him.  My horse loves this.  You may think this sounds like I’m just ground working my horse, but believe me it is different, and he knows it.  During this play time, my normally mellow gelding will kick up his heels as he runs along, put his tail up in the air, snort and just have fun.  Then when I relax in the middle of the pen, he comes right up to me wanting some love.

How much quality time do I need to spend with my horse? Really this depends on the horse.  Some horses like to have you hanging around them as much as possible, others will stand by you for only a couple minutes then be done with you.  I go just hang out with my horse at least once a week.  In the winter it is a little more often, because riding conditions aren’t always the best.  I will spend anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour with my horse.

What if my horse doesn’t want to hang out with me? This could be because he doesn’t realize that you are there just to spend time with him.  Maybe every time you catch your horse,  you’ve made him work.  If your horse won’t just stand freely for you in the pen, the first couple of times you go out you may need to tie your horse up.  Then the next couple of times halter your horse and just throw the lead over the fence and see if he will stay.  Next let the lead sit on the ground.  Then try just going in without a halter.  If you do this you will be amazed at the difference in your horse.  He will start becoming more excited to see you, and want to hang around with you.  There are times now when I’ll feed my horses grain,  and one of them will wait buy the gate while the others are eating just to get a little bit of one on one time with me.  I’ll pet him on the forehead and give him a quick hug, then he’ll go over and join his horse friends.In the pictures on this page are a couple of the horses I’ve had in the past.  See how at ease they are with the kids walking around them.  Their bodies are relaxed and they would follow these kids anywhere and let them touch them anywhere.  These are kids that have never been around horses, so they were a little noisy and made tons of quick movements, but these horses couldn’t get enough of them.  Spend some quality, none work time with your horses, they will become better for it.