Desensitizing // The Methods
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
The word "desensitizing" is thrown around a LOT in the horse world. It's because we are working with highly sensitive and reactive prey animals. They require training to be able to handle our high stimulus, always changing, noisy, rushed human lifestyle. Between trailering, showing, training, equipment, flapping bags, barking dogs, different riders, and various different homes over a horse's lifetime, it's no wonder most horses are either absolute stressed out messes or borderline catatonic. Compared to the quiet prairie what they were designed to be able to handle, our world is a constant senses overload.
Which brings us back to the word "desensitize" and why we use it. The definition for the word "desensitize" is explained as"to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent" or "to make emotionally insensitive or callous; specifically : to extinguish an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it". Honestly, when I read these definitions it's no wonder that the equestrian world has really leaned towards one form of desensitizing more so than the other.
When a lot of people picture a desensitized horse we picture a completely non-responsive animal to every outside stimulus except for us. This perfectly robotic animal that ignores everything except for our cues... which, by the way, we expect quick and precise responses to. We do this by shutting them down to the whole outside world, while hyper sensitizing them to our aids. And usually all of this is done through various types of fear and force based training methods. So...... essentially we want a responsively non-responsive animal. That makes a whole bunch of sense doesn't it?
You may sit here reading this and think "well I'm not like that." Well....... you probably are, as are most... and that's okay, as long as you're prepared to be open to the idea that you might be just like that. It's okay, It's normal to be "just like that", but don't get stuck there. Be willing to learn and to change.
Trust me, I know exactly what's going on in your head right now, just a year ago I would have said the exact same thing, I would have told you "of course I don't treat my horses like that." But while I was saying one thing, I realized I was telling my horses something else entirely. I was telling my horses that I wanted them to be robots, to do what they were told and nothing else. I wasn't telling them I wanted trusting and responsive working partners, and that I would help them cope with our high expectation human world through careful and patient training. I was telling them I wanted robots, deal with it.
But lets be clear here, this is a completely judgement free zone. I've been exactly where you are, and I'm sure even still I'll look back in a few years and think "man, if only I knew then what I know now." And that's exactly what I want for myself. What I hope to never experience again is looking back a few years and be saddened by my lack of "try". I don't ever want to get stuck, refusing to learn and to change.
It's unfortunate that in our horse world right now, it's completely normal and okay to be stuck doing things the way we've always done them. To treat horses like robots, to forget that they're living, breathing, and complicated creatures. To ignore the science and refuse to progress forward as a collective group. In fact, people who actually listen to their horses are considered abnormal and weird, they are scoffed at and shunned. Please, I IMPLORE YOU, don't get stuck in the past, lets be open to learning and changing for the better.
"Just because something has always been done a certain way does not necessarily mean it’s the best way, or the correct way, or the healthiest way for your horse, or your relationship with your horse, or your life."
- Joe Camp
The first and most common type of desensitizing method used on horses in modern times and all throughout history is a technique called "flooding". Flooding a process in which the horse is completely and utterly exposed to a stimulus that causes him fear. The horse is prevented from escaping the fear inducing stimulus due to physical restraint or confinement. Such as through ropes (even lead ropes or reins) or in an environment such as a round pen or arena. The horse is then kept with or exposed to this fear inducing stimulus until it no longer responds to the stimulus.
An example of a classic flooding situation would be.. lets say your horse is deathly afraid of plastic bags. In order to get your horse over his fear of plastic bags you tie one or a few plastic bags onto his saddle and then let him loose in a round pen. At first he will likely go from not knowing they are there to rapidly becoming aware of them flapping around in the wind. He will probably go from a walk to a full blown gallop, sometimes bucking and rearing, sometimes spinning, sometimes stopping before starting to run again. Eventually he will come to a stop, probably sweaty and breathing hard, but he won't be running anymore and will appear to have accepted the presence of the bags. Mission accomplished.
Another example might be when you're beginning to saddle break a young colt. He's never worn a saddle before, but you've done work with a saddle blanket and practiced putting the cinch around his stomach. He seems okay with that, so it's time to put the saddle on. At first he seems okay, but quickly he begins to panic and takes off running around the round pen. You wait for the horse to "buck it out", and when he stops, you say "good boy" and call it a day.. or you get on and hope he doesn't need to buck it out with a rider too.
Still another example would be when your horse is afraid of a saddle pad, you untie the horse and hold it's lead rope. You then proceed to toss the saddle pad onto the horse's back then pulling it off repeatedly while the horse circles around you nervously. Sometimes this is at a walk, sometimes a jog, sometimes the horse is actively trying to pull away, but you just hang on and keep putting on and taking off the saddle pad. This process continues until the horse finally stops moving, you praise the horse then continue to tack up or call it a day.
If you read my last article about fear thresholds you should recognize that all three scenarios above included one thing, a horse that was above it's fear threshold. When you think about those scenarios in relation to all that science shows us about stress and anxiety and the horse's brain..... your immediate reaction to this technique should be distaste or at least concern. And yet, this method is still largely used in the horse community on a daily bases with horses of all kinds. So why do we do it? The answer is because it usually works, and it works fast.
The problem is that while it appears to work most of the time, it's not working exactly how we think it's working, and if it doesn't work you're left with an even bigger mess than before. Yes, your horse now no longer responds to those scary bags tied to it's saddle that it just ran crazy trying to get away from. Yes, your horse somehow managed to not lame itself and is now standing quietly, not being reactive anymore. Don't be fooled though by the lack of panic and assume your horse is no longer afraid of the bags. What has actually happened is that your horse finally decided to "give up". It got to the point where it was so overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety, and so mentally or physically exhausted, it just gave up. At some point your horse realized that it was unable to escape and so it should just stop trying. This is a state that is called "learned helplessness"
Learned helplessness is defined as
"A condition in which a person or animal suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression."
"When an organism (person, animal, etc.) is prevented from avoiding some aversive stimulus repeatedly (e.g., continuous electric shocks) the organism will reach a state in which it becomes passive and depressed because he believes that there are no actions it can take to avoid the aversive stimulus. Essentially, the organism just gives up trying to avoid it and just takes the aversive stimulus. Thus, the organism learns that it is helpless against the aversive stimulus."
Flooding works because it teaches our horses to become non-responsive. It triggers a heightened fear response, which usually takes them well above their fear thresholds, and then leads to a fight or flight response. When a horse enters a level so high above threshold it is experiencing an immense amount of stress and anxiety. Due to the mental and psychical responses your horse's body has to stress and fear, it is now producing the chemicals needed to keep itself alive, both in the moment and for the future. Which means.... you're not only putting your horse and yourself in danger, but there actually becomes an increased chance of hyper sensitizing your horse to the very stimulus you were trying to desensitize them too.
We also learned in the fear threshold article that when a horse is in such a heightened fear state it could unintentionally be causing the horse to fear other aspects of the situation, such as the environment or the handler. In other words, while you're trying to help your horse overcome it's fear of plastic bags, you could be teaching your horse to fear you or fear the round pen. It's the body's way of making sure this animal learns how to stay alive.
So yes, you can successfully teach your horse to not respond to things that are scary through flooding. But when you really understand what it is that's happening inside that horse's brain, you should definitely think twice.. three times.. even four if you have to. Is that really what you want your horse to be experiencing when it's working with you? Because there is really no quicker way to a shut down robot horse than through flooding in my opinion.
Here is an example of Flooding taken a long time ago with one of my horses. I no longer use flooding as apart of my training.
Suppression or Correction based "desensitizing" -
This isn't technically a form of desensitizing, but it's very common for people to correct a horse for behaving in a fearful way and then turn around and say the horse "is no longer afraid". So I've decided to include it in this article to explain more in depth what is actually happening when you use corrections to teach your horse "not to be afraid".
Lets go back to the example of the horse that was afraid of the saddle pad. If you remember in the previous example the horse was circling around the handler, trying to move away from the saddle pad the handler was tossing over and then pulling off of the horse's back repeatedly. This is considered flooding. However, if the handler were to yank on the halter, shout at the horse, or in any way reprimand the horse for moving away from the saddle pad (the stimulus causing fear) this would be considered "suppression." Eventually the horse might stop moving away, fearing further reprimands.
Another example would be a horse that is deathly afraid of going through water or over a jump. If a rider reprimands the horse for refusing to go through the water or over the jump with a crop, kicks of the leg, or rough use of the hands, this would be punishing the horse for being afraid. Again, the handler is using correction based methods to forcibly make the horse "overcome" it's fear.
The definition for the word Suppression is
"to put an end to the activities of (a person, body of persons, etc.)" or "to do away with by or as by authority; abolish; stop (a practice,custom, etc.)."
When you correct a horse for acting fearfully, you are attempting to suppress the fearful reaction and it is no longer considered just flooding, since now the horse is not even allowed to choose when to give up the fight. Instead the handler is forcing the horse to ignore the frightening stimulus in exchange for a more frightening stimulus.. the handler. The handler is now more frightening or concerning than the original stimulus the horse was afraid of.
Unfortunately a lot of people consider this being the horse's "leader", or being the dominate one in the relationship. But even if this was the case, what kind of leader punishes someone for being afraid? Let's say you had a severe phobia of spiders and someone decided to punish you until you held out your hand to have a spider put on it? At some point the level of punishment outweighed the fear of the spider, but I doubt you would be any less afraid of spiders following the experience. Instead you would likely be afraid now of two things now... the person that punished you and the spiders... You may even fear spiders more following such an experience, or at some point if this type of training went on you may feel it's pointless to be responsive/reactive to anything at all since you'll only be punished for it, so you shut down and drop into a state of "learned helplessness", like we discussed before.
Hopefully you understand now why this method isn't actually true "desensitizing", but rather suppressing behavior. You can also suppress other behaviors as well, but we are specifically addressing fear responses/behavior right now.
"You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear. There will always be something that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you, what to do when he is afraid."
- Antoine de Pluvinel
Operant Counter-Conditioning -
Operant counter-conditioning is the opposite of suppression or correction-based "desensitizing." When a horse is in a situation where it may become frightened or is presented with a frightening stimulus, you can create a kind of "distraction", but preferably a positive one or at least a "neutral" one. Depending on how it's used, operant counter-conditioning could be a form of desensitizing and could also be considered a type of conditioning or stimulus blending.. which we will discuss more indepth in a moment.
When using operant counter-conditioning you will actively engage your horse to interact with you by cueing behaviors that the horse finds calming and or mentally engaging enough to distract him from whatever might be frightening. The "distraction" could be extremely mild or extremely powerful, but it's important to remember that the goal here is not to completely overwhelm the horse to the point where it's forced to listen to you. The goal is to gently and positively offer the horse an alternative behavior to perform to keep their mind busy, and to be really successful .. keep them below threshold.
An example could be, your horse is nervous about having it's feet handled, but the farrier is coming out and the horse is in desperate need of having its feet done. You've been working routinely on the horse holding it's feet up in a calm relaxed way, but it's just not quite there yet. So, to help your horse stay calm you ask the horse to perform a behavior like targeting (touching an object with it's nose) while the farrier works. Not only is your horse actively engaging in something it finds very comforting, it's also something it associates with positivity. Gradually the horse may learn to associate the positive distraction with the stimulus it fears, effectively counter-conditioning. And over time you should be able to reduce the use of the "distracting" stimulus and effectively have "blended stimulus".
One more example of operant counter-conditioning is let's say your horse is nervous about some activity going on near by. You could work to distract your horse in a way the horse feels is relaxing, which might be to walk them back and forth (at a relaxed pace) around the facility until they are able to calm down, perhaps even stopping to allow grazing. Alternatively you could practice a known behavior (this is not the time to teach something new) like backing, or turn on the forehand etc. Anything the horse finds sufficiently distracting, but in a calm positive way should work. You may not be directly desensitizing, but by allowing your horse to not become overwhelmed in a situation and keeping them below threshold, they are likely to respond in a less reactive way in the future to the same kind of stimulus due to the careful handling.
Here I have an example of using target training to operant counter-condition the process of getting my filly used to being sprayed with water. She doesn't care to have water on her back legs, but she very much enjoys targeting. She gladly stands at liberty (un-restricted) to allow her back legs to be sprayed since the positive "distraction" far outweighs the frightening stimulus.
You'll notice I also remove the hose water when I go to reward her, so I'm combining negative reinforcement (release of pressure aka the frightening stimulus) as well. So really this is an example of Operant Counter-conditioning combined with Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement to Systematically Desensitize her to being sprayed with the hose water.
It's worth noting that it's vital to stay below fear threshold with the frightening stimulus when using Operant Counter-conditioning as a desensitizing technique, or the value of the positive will not outweigh the fear. If you work on gradually increasing the intensity of the frightening stimulus while continuing to apply the use of the Operant Counter-conditioning this will become a form of systematic desensitizing which we will discuss further in a moment as well.
Stimulus Blending -
The process of stimulus blending is a fragile one, as it requires a careful balance of two types of stimulus happening at the same time. One of those being the frightening stimulus, and the other being a stimulus that the horse is not afraid of but is of equal or greater intensity to the frightening stimulus.
Personally I find this very close to Operant Counter-conditioning, the only difference I see being that the horse doesn't notice the frightening stimulus being applied at first. Then gradually the two stimulus stimulus swap places in intensity levels, effectively desensitizing the horse to the frightening stimulus without them ever knowing it. It sounds confusing, but let me explain.
Lets say your horse is afraid of spray bottles, like fly spray, but your horse is completely comfortable being hosed down for a bath and so on. You could begin by having the hose on and washing your horse actively, while very gently activating the spritzing of the spray bottle (away from your horse to begin with most likely). The horse shouldn't even notice the spray noise, and should just be aware of being washed. Very gradually you'll be able to increase the intensity you're using the spray bottle at and the horse will hardly notice anything has changed. Over time (almost subconsciously) the horse will become desensitized to the sound of the spray bottle and should no longer fear being sprayed.
Unfortunately I don't have any video examples of this type of desensitizing, but I hope to in the near future as I wish to explore the effectiveness of this type of training. I have however used the idea of fading out a stimulus when using Operant Counter-conditioning, as mentioned above with targeting, and have found this to be extremely useful.
"Counterconditioning is a type of therapy based on the principles of classical conditioning that attempts to replace bad or unpleasant emotional responses to a stimulus with more pleasant, adaptive responses."
The use of counter-conditioning is an extremely effective technique that involves gradually changing a horse's response to things it fears by associating positive emotions/actions with the fear stimulus. In a nutshell, you're changing your horses mind on whether or not it should fear something by turning that thing it fears into something it will love. To do this you will give the horse something it needs/loves/desires during exposure to the fear stimulus. The exposure should start off at an extremely low level and increase in intensity as the horse becomes more and more comfortable with the stimulus. The horse should always stay below it's fear threshold during counter-conditioning.
An example could be, you have a horse that is afraid of the sound of clippers. First you can start by just holding the clippers in your hand, while you feed it a treat or its dinner. When the horse is completely comfortable you can start to rub the horse all over while it eats its dinner or receives treats. Then you might hold it in your hand again, away from the horse and turn the clippers on, all while it's eating. The process will continue step by step until your horse is completely relaxed having the clippers used on and around it.
It's important to remember a couple things about counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is extremely powerful, but to use it effectively you must be giving or allowing the horse to do something it thoroughly enjoys while exposing it to the fearful stimulus. Often something like petting and scratches can work, but for some horses or for some very frightening stimulants it may not be a strong enough positive to overcome the negative. Also, this process requires patience. You can only move as quickly as the horse is comfortable with or you won't be using it effectively.
On one last note.... "conditioning" is similar, the difference being you can condition a horse to respond in a certain way to a particular stimulus or environment that it feels neutral about or even already enjoys. For example, you can condition a horse to associate coming into the barn with receiving dinner. It didn't ever fear the barn, but now it knows that being brought in equals receiving food. You've conditioned the horse to associate being brought into the barn with food. Alternatively, you could condition a horse to associate the arena with work it dislikes (or just hard work) by every time you go into the arena the horse works on tough things or does work it doesn't find rewarding. The arena will become something the horse associates with negativity. You have conditioned your horse to dislike the arena.
However, counter-conditioning is usually when you are working on reversing the feelings of fear or anxiety. You are changing out an already developed negative response for a more positive response. Using the arena example, lets say you have a horse that hates going into the arena. You could counter-condition this response by making every experience in the arena from this point forward a positive one. The horse will gradually be re-conditioned, or counter-conditioned, to associate the arena with an enjoyable experience.
Systematic Desensitization -
Systematic desensitizing refers to the gradual habituation to an arousing or frightening stimulus. Essentially, all forms of desensitizing are attempting to achieve "habituation", but through very different techniques. Habitation is "the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus." Which is exactly what we want. We are trying to desensitize our horses to particular stimulus that we don't want them to fearfully or reactively respond to.
When using systematic desensitizing you will gradually and repeatedly present a stimulus your horse finds frightening. The main difference between this and flooding is that the stimulus is only ever presented at a level or intensity that the horse doesn't find frightening, then gradually increased as the horse's confidence increases. The horse should always remain below threshold when working with systematic desensitization, and it should be given all the encouragement or assistance it needs to learn "self soothing" techniques. Meaning helping the horse learn how to respond calmly when presented with new or frightening stimulus.
Systematic Desensitizing can also be combined easily with positive reinforcement and clicker training, or it can be used with negative reinforcement (pressure and release), or a combo of the two. I will give you some examples to help explain how this type of desensitizing works as well as how to use it one or both positive and negative reinforcement.
Lets go back to the previous example of a horse that's afraid of a plastic bag. In the previous example we talked about tying the bag onto your horse then letting them loose to figure it out on their own in the round pen. However, with systematic desensitizing you'll slowly introduce the plastic bag, always making sure your horse is under threshold. You could go about this in a couple ways, one being tying the plastic bag to a post or fence far away and then begin leading your horse towards the plastic bag. Before the horse show's signs of anxiety, but about when he recognizes the presence of the plastic bag, you'll ask your horse to stop and either wait for him to become uninterested and calm again, or you can help your horse by asking him to perform a "calm" behavior such as lowering his head. It will be absolutely vital though to make sure your horse is actually calm before proceeding though, not just faking it. You can at this point ask your horse to walk forward again and continue the process.
When using this same situation and type of desensitizing in combination with negative reinforcement you would perform the whole exercise in the same way, except this time when the horse shows the appropriate calm behavior after recognizing the stimulus you will actually walk your horse away from the frightening stimulus (the plastic bag). This is the "release" of pressure. You might walk your horse away from a few steps or even a few minutes before turning back towards the stimulus and approaching it again. This is the "applying" of pressure, asking the horse to approach the frightening stimulus again. Systematic desensitizing with pressure and release.
Okay, now lets talk about using systematic desensitizing with positive reinforcement. Begin again with the first scenario explained. This time, as soon as your horse to shows disinterest or calm behavior you will praise it or click/reward. You will be positively reinforcing this calm behavior, therefore increasing the chances of the horse responding calmly again and probably much quicker in the future when presented with a frightening stimulus.
Alright, last variation with this plastic bag example. To combine both negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement you will praise (or click/reward) as well as walk away from the frightening stimulus when they horse responds calmly. In this way you will be both encouraging a calm response through release of pressure (walking away) and through positively reinforcing (scratches, verbal praise, food reward) the exact moment the horse responds calmly (a head lowered, relaxed facial features, paying attention to handler etc.). I find that it is often extremely powerful to combine the two, and as long as you are working with your horse below threshold they should never experience the feeling of being trapped or frightened. But even if unintentionally you find you're working with your horse when it's over threshold (because of an unexpected situation etc.) combining these two methods will likely make a bigger impact together than separate.
Briefly I want to share a different example scenario that I find is usually the way I approach introducing new stimulus to a horse. In this example we are back in the round pen and we want to get our horse accustomed to (habituated to) having a saddle pad put on. Beginning with the saddle pad in your hand and your horse standing quietly with you, begin by presenting the stimulus in a very gradual way, always staying below threshold. You could us negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, or a combination of the two.
With negative reinforcement you would pick up the saddle pad and present it to the horse at a level it was comfortable with. That could be holding it far out in front of the horse, or as much as putting the pad up against it's side. As soon as the horse was calm you with withdraw the saddle pad, then repeat. Gradually you would build up to being able to throw the pad over the horse in all kinds of strange ways to make sure the horse was completely comfortable with the stimulus.
When using positive reinforcement you would begin as before, but this time praise and/or click/reward clam behavior before progressing to the next step. Slowly increasing intensity but never faster than the horse is ready for.
And finally, when combining the two you would use the same scenario as the negative reinforcement example except you would also praise or click/reward the second the horse showed calm behavior. The order would go something like this; present saddle pad, horse shows awareness but is not alarmed, soon horse appears completely relaxed again, remove saddle pad and simultaneously click/reward.
Here is an example of using systematic desensitizing (combined with positive reinforcement and some negative reinforcement) with a nine month old filly. I'm looking for moments where she changes from acknowledging the stimulus to relaxing again or ignoring it.
Even though she is below threshold this whole session, I ask her at one point to drop her head by placing my hand gently on her halter downwards (a known behavior) because I want her to begin to learn appropriate responses to frightening stimulants. "self soothing" so to speak.
Approach Conditioning -
When using a method called Approach Conditioning, you will be tapping into and encouraging a horse's natural sense of curiosity. The theory is that nothing that could be threatening will "flee" from a horse's approach. There appears to be a few different schools of thought on how to use this method when desensitizing horses, so I'll mention a few examples as I see them used.
The first form of approach conditioning can be used when you have control over the movement of the stimulus the horse finds frightening. For example, lets use the plastic bag again, but lets have a second person holding onto this plastic bag. You will begin by having the bag start moving away from the horse and then asking your horse to approach plastic bag, essentially you will be asking your horse to follow the bag. Over a period of time the distance between the bag and horse will be decreased as long as the horse remains calm and confident. If the horse ever approaches its fear threshold the distance between the horse and the stimulus should be increased until the horse relaxes. This will continue until the horse will calmly approach the stimulus.. or in this case the plastic bag.. and investigate it.
Positive reinforcement can also be applied in this situation much in the same way as the examples during systematic desensitizing. With positive reinforcement you will praise or click/reward any time the horse returns to a calm state, as well as positively encourage the horse to continue approaching/following the object.
Another type of approach conditioning is actually the first example I mentioned above in the Systematic Desensitization category. I put it in that category because really I feel that is it's primary spot, but it could also very clearly be categorized as approach conditioning since it's encouraging your horse to bravely approach objects it fears.. but through the use of systematic desensitizing. However, if a horse right off the bat boldly approaches an object it fears or is encouraged to without the use of the "systematic" approach (the little bit by little bit part) then this is really just approach conditioning and isn't necessarily systematic desensitizing. I find horses that are more naturally curious or bold will take to approaching things they fear very easily, especially once their confidence has been built up using systematic desensitizing.
Here is an example of approach conditioning. The filly in this video is naturally a very curious and bold horse, so she takes to this method really well and has no problem following the scary bags around.
In the very beginning I ask her to approach the bag as it's stationary on the ground, this is the second type of approach conditioning mentioned above. After that I have her follow me around the round pen as the bag moves away, this would be the first type of approach conditioning mentioned.
If you're still reading this, I applaud you. This is a lot of information to take in, but I firmly believe it's absolutely critical that horse handlers/owners/riders/trainers understand why they are doing what they are doing when training their horses. If you are going to use a particular method, you should be able to explain to anyone at any time why you are choosing to use that method and how the method works. If you really understand your options and how they work you will have that many more tools in your toolbox to pull from. You won't be stuck doing what you've always done, just because that's the way everyone else does it or because that's the way you've always done it. You will also be able to watch other trainers and handlers work with their horses and be able to see what methods they are using, which will in turn make it easier for you to turn around and apply it with your own horses or be able to help suggest (if they want it) new approaches for them if what they are doing just isn't working.
I'm hoping to very soon follow up this article with an in-depth look on how I personally approach desensitizing with my horses, and the ways I find are most effective for helping create a calm and confident horse. If you have any questions don't hesitate to comment below, drop me an email, or message me on Instagram. And! If you read this whole article, and didn't skip, DM me on Instagram and I've got a little surprise for you. ;) @thewillingequine