Never Enough Desensitizing

In my opinion, you can never desensitize your horse enough.  There will always be something new you can introduce your horse to.  And even with massive desensitizing there is still no guarantee that your horse will not spook. No matter how broke or old a horse is they still can spook.  However, we can  lessen the chances of your horse spooking by desensitizing them to many different “scary” things before we start riding.

After my colts are leading well, are comfortable with me brushing them everywhere and will let me touch them everywhere on their legs and body with the rope and a blanket, I break out the scary stuff:  plastic bags and tarps.

First I will work with the plastic sack because it is smaller than a tarp and easier to handle.  Begin with it wadded up in your hand and only a small portion sticking out.  Let your horse see it, and then crinkle the plastic a little so the horse can hear the noise it is going to make.  Warning:  this make spook your horse, so be sure to have a good hold on him.  Let your horse sniff the sack, then starting on your horse’s neck rub the bag all over his body.  Take your time.  If you rush you may cause your horse to get uncomfortable or to spook.  If he starts to get a little antsy, back up to a place where he was okay being touched with the sack.

Once he is comfortably being rubbed with the sack wadded up, unfold it a little and go through the process of letting him see it, sniff it and then rubbing it over his body.  After you’ve done this you can attach the sack to a stick and repeat the process once again.  Make sure to take your time.  If he is ever uncomfortable go back to a place where he is calm then work from there.

Desensitizing your horse to a tarp can be slightly more of a challenge, mainly because the tarp is a little more awkward to work with.  Also because it is a little bigger it can seem more threatening to your horse.  I start with a tarp that is around 8 X 10 feet in size.  When I first start introducing it to my horse, I fold it up so it’s a pretty small square.  Then I preform the same steps I use for desensitizing my horse to anything:  First I show them the tarp;

Next I let the horse sniff the tarp;

Then I will touch my horse’s nose with the tarp;

I then proceed to rub the tarp on the horse’s neck;

You need to be aware of your horse’s body language.  In the following photo you can see by Cobain’s body language that he is becoming extremely uncomfortable with the tarp.

When my horse starts to get nervous like this, I back off and let him sniff the tarp again and start the process over.

After your horse lets your rub one side of his body pretty easily with the tarp, repeat the process on the other side.

Notice in the last picture above how Cobain’s head is lower.  This is a sign that he is starting to relax.

Once I am able to rub the folded up tarp all over my horse on both sides of his body, I partially unfold the tarp and repeat the process on both sides of the horse’s body.

The ultimate goal here is to get your horse comfortable with the tarp touching anywhere on his body.  Eventually you will be rubbing your horse with the tarp completely opened up.  You are not done with this process of desensitizing until you can have the tarp opened completely and pull it over your horse’s back, head and through his legs.  It may take you several days to accomplish this.  Take your time.  Don’t get in a rush and skip desensitizing your horse thoroughly. After you’ve moved on to ground driving or even riding your horse, you may want to come back and work with the plastic sack or the tarp just to help keep him trusting you and well desensitized.  Remember you can never do enough desensitizing.

 

 

Desensitizing — Sacking Out

When I first start messing with my colts I like to really desensitize them to everything I can think of.  Horses are prey animals and are always on alert that something may be coming to eat them.  I want to expose my horses to as much as possible so they will be less likely to spook later on.

I like to start by desensitizing my colts to the everyday tools I will be using.  I take the object I’m desensitizing my horse to and first let him sniff it.  The first object I usually use is my lead rope.  I  rub him on the forehead with the rope, and once he relaxes and doesn’t seem to mind the rope touching his head, I rub the rope down his neck.  I then proceed to rub the rope all over his body.  If I come to a place that he is starting to act a little spooky, I just move back to a place where he was relaxed.  Let’s say you are rubbing his neck with a rope, and he is nice and relaxed with that.  Then when you start to move down his shoulder onto his leg he starts to move around.  I simply go back to rubbing the rope on his neck and work my way back down to his shoulder then onto his leg.  Again if he starts to act up go back to rubbing his neck.  Eventually he will be okay with the rope touching his legs.  You also need to make sure to desensitize you horse to everything on both sides.  Something may be okay with your horse on one side and completely freak him out on the other.  The following pictures are of me desensitizing Cobain to a rope.  Notice how in the first couple pictures he looks a little unsure.  Then in the bottom picture he seems completely relaxed.  It is at this point I will either quit for the day or move on to another object to desensitize him to.

Every time I introduce my horse to something new I go through the same process.  I let him sniff it.  I rub his face with it.  Then starting at the neck I rub it all over his body.  I feel that desensitizing is a very important part of training and is a step that your horse can never get too much of.

Here I’m desensitizing Cobain to a brush.  Because Cobain was born in the wild, everything he sees he thinks is a potential threat.



Next I desensitize him to a saddle blanket.

I can’t stress how important it is to desensitize young horses to as many different things as you can.  While you can’t expose them to everything,  the more you do expose them to the better horse you will have.  Take your time in during the desensitizing process,  the results will be well worth the effort you put into it.

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.

Sensitizing

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

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.