Methods of Desensitization

Methods of Desensitization

Nearly everything we do with our horses in some way or another is desensitization; because they are prey animals, they are naturally wary of everything. So we have to train (desensitize) them to do the things we need them to do. We use desensitization to get an array of different results, from accepting a saddle to jumping through a hoop of fire. There are six methods of desensitization that I will discuss. I will explain each method and give a brief example. While practicing some of these methods it is important to remember that your body language must be calm and that especially while standing still your body should be relaxed, and not queuing the horse to move unless you want them to move.

Approach and Retreat

horse desensitization

This is probably one of the most diverse methods of desensitization. It is approaching your horse with something that makes them uncomfortable or approaching a part of their body that makes them uncomfortable, then retreating when they show signs of relaxation (such as standing still if they moved). For example, place a saddle pad against the horse’s body and wait until the horse stops moving. When the horse stands still and relaxes take the pad away, thus relieving the pressure. Horses learn very quickly that if they are relaxed and still that the uncomfortable stimuli is nothing to worry about and it will go away. However, do not take the stimuli away before the horse relaxes because they will learn that they can escape it. If they feel relief escaping something they will think that is what they are supposed to do. Try and find a rhythm in your movements while doing this, you don’t want to be choppy or sharp.

Overshadowing

Let’s say you and your horse walk into the arena and somebody else is already in there riding around and carrying a big flag. Your horse is scared of it, but you can’t control this scary stimuli to desensitize your horse to it. The best thing to do for situations like that is to overshadow it, which means to get your horse’s mind and attention on you. Do some ground work and be spontaneous to keep your horse guessing and focused on what you’re going to ask of him next. When your horse has gone a few minutes focused on you, let him rest in the middle of the chaos, and chances are he will have come to terms with it. If he gets scared again, just continue to get him focused on you, giving breaks every few minutes. The once scary situation will have just turned into part of the background because you didn’t make a big deal about it and didn’t allow him to make the decisions. Don’t ever give your horse the opportunity to decide whether something is scary, because most horses will play it safe by reacting fearfully; they don’t want to make the wrong decision, in case they end up getting eaten. This method also works great for introducing your horse to a new place, like an arena they have never been in before.

Habituation

habituation

This takes probably the longest method of desensitization, but it also takes the least amount of effort. It means to let a horse come to terms with something scary over a period of them seeing it constantly until they are no longer afraid. For example, if your horse is scared of a tarp you can place a tarp in their pen, maybe lay some hay on it or attach it to the fence so it blows in the wind. Since your horse sees it everyday, he will eventually be fine with it. The one thing to keep in mind with this method is that horses don’t generalize as well as people do. We may see a tarp in our house and then see one the street and know it is the same thing, but horses don’t always make that connection. So it’s important to keep in mind that if your horse is fine with the tarp in its pen, it might not be fine with the same tarp in the arena.

Counter Conditioning

This works great for a variety of different things, although it is most effective for desensitization to stationary objects. Say your horse is scared of half the arena, it could be for multiple reasons but he doesn’t like to go over there. Counter conditioning is when you make the horse work and get tired away from the uncomfortable stimuli and then rest them by it. So if your horse is scared of half the arena, ride him in the half that he isn’t scared of until he’s tired and needs a break. Then rest him in the half that scares him. Soon your horse will be begging to go to the area that once scared him because he has a good association with it.

Stimulus Blending

This is when you take the uncomfortable stimuli and combine it with one that the horse is comfortable with. For example, if your horse is scared of being sprayed with the hose but not a carrot stick, you can rub their leg with the stick then spray with the same spot with the hose. Then you slowly increase the amount of time you spray and decrease the amount time with the carrot stick. Eventually you will be able to spray with the hose first, and the horse will be fine with it.

Flooding

This is one that I do not use but I decided to include it because some of you might. Horses are prey animals so they have a strong survival instinct. Flooding is when you purposefully get the horse into a state of life saving panic only for him to realize that he cannot get away from the thing that is upsetting him. Sometimes we cannot help but use a bit of flooding, like when the saddle is strapped on for the first time. But we should do everything in our power not to get them into that state in the first place. Flooding can work quickly to desensitize a horse, but if he manages to get away from the thing you were flooding him with, he will never let himself get into that situation again. It can backfire very quickly and get you into more trouble than you started with.

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Horse related activities are inherently dangerous and caution should be used at all times.