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.