Desensitizing - Calm & Confident
Updated: Apr 9
When working with horses, young or old, we have to remember we are working with prey animals; animals designed instinctively to respond by flight or fight to anything that is even slightly out of the normal. Some breeds of horses are known for being a little less “spooky”(reactive) than others, but regardless of breed we all know the age old joke about horses being afraid of their own shadow. We laugh and make fun of them, but in all honesty this is real life for our horses. Horses are programmed to be afraid of everything, so they don’t get eaten. Their survival depends on how distrusting and scared they can be. Lucky for us though, they are also programmed to habituate (desensitize) to everyday life and stimuli so they don’t absolutely lose their minds. To put it in a nutshell…. If we expect our horses to maintain any semblance of sanity in our ever changing and overly stimulating world, while also not turning them into lifeless robots, it’s up to us to help them feel at ease in our world.
In my recent article “Desensitizing // The Methods”, I went in depth about the different methods of desensitizing horses and how they are used, but today we are going to get a little more specific about the methods I personally use. If you haven’t ready my previous article on desensitizing I highly recommend you do that before continuing on. And for those of you that have already read it… continue on.
While working with my horses there are always two things I keep at the top of the priority list. 1. That my horse is willing and eager to be working with me. 2. That my horse is calm and never over stimulated or above threshold. These two goals are priority, and if ever at any time I recognize that one of those two are missing we stop everything and start problem solving. This is every day, every session, every time I handle them. I don’t care if it’s just walking back out to the pasture or jumping a Grand Prix course. My horse absolutely cannot trust me if I don’t take its basic mental state into consideration during our time together.
Of course there will be unexpected situations that arise that will be out of my control. I may temporarily be forced to work with my horse above threshold, but this should never be every day training and the goal should be to avoid it at all costs, and this is where diligent and patient desensitizing comes in. The more you work on desensitizing during controlled situations the less often you’ll find yourself working with a horse above its fear threshold. This is also where reinforcing calm behaviors comes in.
There is a limit to how much you can prepare a horse for. You cannot desensitize to every single possible frightening thing your horse will ever come in contact with. Also, desensitizing on its own won’t necessarily teach a horse to be calm during every day handling and training. Desensitizing will not teach your horse to be relaxed during feeding time, or when walking out to the pasture, or even when preparing for a barrel racing run. Desensitizing will only get you as far as teaching your horse not to be scared of plastic bags or loud noises. There is more to this than just asking your horse to walk over some tarps or stray plastic bags.You have to build your horse's confidence and sense of security.
By teaching your horse to feel confident and in control of it's surroundings, you can train a horse to feel less afraid of new surroundings and objects. You'll begin to change your horse's initial response from "OH MY GOSH!" to "Oh hey! What was that? Lets go look at it!" or even "It's all good, no need to worry." This is a different response than you would see from a horse that is taught to not respond at all to anything frightening, less they be forced to suffer the consequences of being punished or flooded. A horse that has become a lifeless robot or too afraid to respond probably would have an internal dialogue along the lines of ".......................(empty space)......................" or "Yeah, I see it, but i'll get punished for acting afraid. My handler is far more frightening than that thing." The problem with the second type of response should be pretty obvious, but encase it's not I'll explain.
The second horse is still afraid, it's just more afraid of the human. Or, in the case of the "empty space" horse, the horse has been taught to not think at all, not respond at all, and to have no feelings or reactions. I don't know about you, but I personally don't want my horse to be afraid of me, and I want them to think! How else are they going to learn? I want them to think, just think calmly and confidently.
This all brings me back to how I personally work with my horses to develop this calm confidence and sense of trust. It all begins with paying attention to their natural instincts, lifestyle, their fear threshold, and to the methods I'm using. (please read my article about fear thresholds)
First, I would like to go over some aspects that could be affecting your horse's ability to calm and relaxed.
Horses Mirror Us
One of the most important parts of working with horses is to remember that they mirror us. If we are anxious, worried, or tense, they will be too. It's vital that you maintain control over your own body and mind before expecting your horse to be able to do so. If you see a plastic bag flying through the arena and immediately you start to worry your horse will become upset, you're going to cause your horse to become upset. Horses are sensitive herd animals that are programmed to be extremely aware of their surroundings.. which includes humans and other horses.
Though the dominance/alpha/herd leader theory is out, according to updated science, we work tirelessly at creating a relationship with our horses that encourages them to rely on us for guidance. Which means it's up to you to guide them and their responses.
One of the ways to best do this is to control your breathing. If you pay close attention to when you become anxious or afraid your heart rate begins to increase and your breathing becomes more rapid. If you can control your breathing with slow, deep inhales and exhales you can manually slow your heart rate back down as well as gain a sense of control over your fear.
When working with horses, especially easily frightened ones or horses that are already above or at their fear threshold, I spend a lot of time and effort on regulating my breathing. I also make sure to do it loud enough so that my horse can hear, even when distracted, in certain situations. This can help bring the horse's attention back to it's own breathing and also remind them "hey, why are you so worked up? look, I'm cool as a cucumber, no need to worry." This may sound ridiculous to some of you, but trust me, your horse will respond.
Probably the area that has the most weight on whether your horse responds calm and confident or anxious and afraid is it's lifestyle. A stressful, restricted day to day life versus a natural pasture life can have serious impacts on your horse's mind and emotional state. You can't take a prey animal built to graze 24/7 out on an open prairie with constant access to self exercise, trap them in a 12x12 stall with an hour or two of daily exercise at best, and expect them to keep themselves calm and cool.
Besides the mental benefits to having free access to exercise there are countless physical benefits. Many studies have been done on both the health and mental benefits of allowing horses to live like horses, I'll link a few of them for you.
We could argue over the minimum exercise requirements for a horse, or the pros and cons to pasture life... or we could even get as particular as what kind of pasture (since it could be argued that horses standing around a hay bale 24/7 no matter the pasture size only makes for chubby un-stimulated horses too).. but I don't want to go into great detail on this subject in this article. For now I just want you to be aware of your expectations versus what is realistic if your horses has limited access to a natural lifestyle. For most horses it's completely unrealistic to expect them to respond calmly to even just every day life when it's being purposely stalled and restricted to conserve energy and limit exposure.
Also, socializing and stimulation have a lot to do with a horse's ability to regulate it's fear reactions. Studies have been showing that horses with limited stimulation throughout their day take longer to learn than horses that are mentally engaged frequently during the day. Behavioral vices are also linked to limited stimulation.
Horses Living in an Enriched Environment Have Better Welfare and Stronger Relationships with Humans - M. Valenchon, F. Levy. C. Neveux and L. Landsade (Abstract from 64. Annual Meeting of the European Association for Animal Production)
Consequences of Stall Confinement - Nancy S. Loving, DVM
Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Horses to Initial Training; A Comparison Between Pastured vs Stalled Horses. - Rivera, E., S. Benjamin, B.D. Nielsen, J.E. Shelle, and A.J. Zanella. 2002. Applied Anim. Behav. Sci. 78:235-252
Nutrition and Exercise: Working Together to Build Strong Bones - Brian D. Nielsen
Comparison of Bone Mineral Content and Bone Metabolism in Stall- Versus Pasture-Reared Horses - KARl E. HOEKSTRA, B. D. NIELSEN, M. W. ORTH, DIANA S. ROSENSTEIN*, H. C. SCHOTT II" and J. E. SHELLE Depart. Animal Science and *College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University
When horses are in pain they can react in a hyper sensitive way to even the most basic actions or most unusual stimuli. Sometimes handlers will have a horse for years, thinking their horse is just a nervous excitable horse, only to find out later that their horse was really just experiencing pain that was causing a hyper reactivity.
Some common pain causes that can result in nervous reactivity are head/poll/neck pain, back pain, intestinal pain, and mouth pain.
Some other non "pain" related, but still physically related, areas to check for are vision and neurological disorders. It's always a good idea to have your horse cleared by a vet, and preferably also by a massage therapist and osteopath or chiropractor. Don't just assume your horse is not in pain, check and make sure.
"According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, anxious humans commonly have related pain disorders, such as arthritis, migraines, or back pain. We know from equitation science research that horses feel and react to pain, too, says Carissa Wickens, PhD, equine Extension specialist and assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Animal Sciences, where she conducts research on horse behavior, welfare, and nutrition.
Anecdotally, Wickens says, it’s no surprise that veterinarians, equine body workers, researchers, and equine behavior experts also find associations between anxious horses and chronic pain, such as that caused by navicular syndrome, arthritis, or gastric ulcers. “Just like with any species, if a horse is experiencing pain, it can disrupt their whole behavior repertoire,” she explains.
Josh Zacharias, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, who treats Western and English sport horses in Fort Collins, Colorado, says he often sees performance anxiety—such as hesitation to go into the arena, acting up in the box (in roping horses), or simple head-tossing—in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain." - Managing The Anxious Horse
Diet and Hormones
If your horse is chemically or nutritionally imbalanced it could be harming its ability to learn or maintain control of it's nerves. Too much sugar or calories in its diet could be causing energy spikes and drops. A mares cycles can have a huge impact on her ability to focus or calm herself. A gelding with too much testosterone or a stallion could easily become distracted by their hormones as well, causing a lack of ability to control their mental state. Diet can also affect a horse's hormone balance too.
It's extremely important to discuss your horse's diet with a professional equine nutritionist, as there could be imbalances that could be easily fixed by portion control, a different brand, or even simple supplements like magnesium or vitamin B1.
Likewise it's important to talk to your vet about your horse's hormones and possibly checking for chemical imbalances.
Now that we have discussed some of the reasons that may be causing reactivity in your horse, I want to go into a little more detail about the specific ways that I train my horses to cope with frightening situations, environments, or just how to help them not be so anxious in general.
Reinforcing calm behaviors comes into play all throughout handling and training with my horses. Whether we are working on desensitizing to a particular stimulus or just every day handling, and it's especially important when I know the environment is overwhelming. Instead of focusing on the negative and just waiting for the moment your horse reacts, it's absolutely vital to begin focusing on the calm and the good behaviors, even if that's rare and far between in the beginning. Gradually your horse will learn to get better at remaining calm and relaxed, even when faced with frightening stimulus, and it will learn that you are there to help it respond calmly.
To do this you'll need to understand the difference between frightened responses (when the horse is above threshold) and relaxed responses, and in particular you'll need to focus on your individual horse's expression of fear. In the beginning it'll take some practice, but the good news is that horses tend to express fear and relaxation in pretty clear and uniform ways all across the species. Some of the "calm behaviors" I look for are...
a lowered head (no head in the sky horses, even for the conformationally upright necked)
deep breath/exhale (no sorting, rapid breathing, or holding breaths)
relaxed movable mouth/muzzle (no stiff and hard mouths/muzzles)
soft eyes (no whites, no hard expression)
relaxed ear movement (not ridged forward or frantic movement)
relaxed tail set (no lifted tails or wringing)
the ability to pay attention to handler (and not because it has to, but because it chooses to)
These are some of the behaviors we do want to see from our horses, especially in response to something they would normally find frightening, and we reward these responses. For example... lets say I'm working with a horse and a plastic bag goes flying across the arena unexpectedly. Thankfully this horse only lifts its head and snorts a little, surprised. I wait patiently for the horse to either offer some calm behaviors or I ask for a calm behavior (like head down, if the situation is right) and when the horse drops its head and takes a deep breath I click/reward or verbally praised and stroke its neck.
The idea is that I'm reinforcing the moment the horse chose not to become reactive, this is not coddling or bribing in the least. Because the reinforcement came after the horse made it's decision, it's purely a reward for making the right decision; therefore increasing the chances that the horse will respond similarly in the future to other frightening situations.
Every horse is different, so while "horse A" might respond like the example above, "horse B" might find that whole situation extremely frightening and may go above threshold without warning. In this case, the handler will have to do it's best to regain the horse's focus in a calm and patient way and then go about looking for an opportunity to reinforce calm behavior. Even if it's a good while later, you still need to find an opportunity to tell the horse "yes! that's a good response!" Even if it's just a slight sign of calm, jump on the chance to reward it! With time and practice the time it takes for them to return to calm will decrease and soon you'll have a horse that responds like "horse A" of even better!
Another example of using this idea of reinforcing calm behaviors would be during training. Lets say I would like my horse to learn to lunge at a trot around me, but the horse becomes excited and worked up by the idea of lunging and runs around with short fast strides and a high head. In this state of mind my horse can not learn effectively and also can not use it's body in a way that will allow it to develop a stronger topline. Instead, I want a nice, calm, steady trot so that we can begin working on improving the gait quality from there.
First, I would go back to a controlled walk (even if it meant retraining the lunging behavior all together) and begin by reinforcing any calm relaxed behaviors at the walk with a click/reward or verbal praise, scratches, and rest. You might have to ask for the calm behaviors to at first, like head down (click here to watch how I train head down), but once the horse had established the ability to really relax and be responsive at the walk, we would move on to the trot.
At first when changing gaits the horse might get a little excited again, but by now we will have established a foundation and hopefully some cues to encourage calm behavior and will be able to right away start reinforcing calm.
The same goes for any situation, everything I do with my horses I want a calm and responsive horse working right there next to me. Exiting the stall, walking back out to the pasture, working at liberty, during feeding time, trailer loading, walking into a show arena, on trail rides... every.. single... day.. every.. single... moment... I'm looking for a calm, responsive, and confident horse. If the horse isn't acting that way, then we need to stay right where we are at that moment and practice calm behaviors. Don't rush your horse if he isn't ready, that's the opposite of what you want. A rushed horse is a nervous mess, don't try and make your horse behave when its scared or over excited. Patiently work with the horse you've got this very moment, even if you had a totally different horse yesterday. Yesterday is irrelevant in every way, except for trouble shooting possible causes for today's set back. Tomorrow is the day you should be focused on. What are you doing right now to help your horse have a better tomorrow?
In this category falls every possible thing we can think of to do desensitizing work with. All kinds of surfaces/footing, new environments, various sounds, traveling, show grounds, working with multiple or new handlers, other animals, medical care, tack, you name it. If your horse will experience this in it's lifetime you should work on exposing the horse to it in a controlled, safe, calm environment before it's expected to just be able to "handle it". Unless your horse was born into it, around it, or on it, it is completely your responsibility to help your horse learn to not fear it, even if you haven't done all of your horse's training.
That being said, the way I most often choose to expose my horses to new forms of stimulus or new experiences is through a combination of systematic desensitizing, approach conditioning, counter-conditioning, and positive overshadowing. With all of these I use positive reinforcement primarily, with some negative reinforcement and focusing on reinforcing calm behaviors.
In my article "Desensitizing // The Methods" I explain each of those specific types of desensitizing in detail, so I'm not going to go into great detail here, but I do want to help explain what it might look like to combine all of those different types together or what an every day session working with a horse for me might look like. Every situation is different and every horse is different, so the way I choose to use them and in which order may change from time to time, but often a situation will look similar to this next example.
Lets say I have a horse that is terrified of cattle. In the beginning I'll explore the horse's fear threshold level by walking the horse towards the cattle, making sure they are clearly in sight and the horse isn't suddenly surprised by their presence. As soon as the horse begins to show signs of recognizing their presence, but not showing fear yet, I'll take this opportunity to remember the "distance" at which the horse began to show it could be worried about the cattle. Simultaneously I will check my breathing (making sure I'm physically encouraging confidence in the horse and not making this situation a bigger deal than it really is), and ask the horse for a calm behavior or reinforce any calm behaviors in the horse with a click/reward (positive reinforcement) and then turning and walking away from the cattle (negative reinforcement). When the horse is no longer thinking about the cattle we will turn back and walk towards them again, aiming to walk just a step or two closer if possible repeating the previous process
. This whole process will become one positive experience (counter-conditioning) to the horse and with a patient gradual repetition (systematic desensitizing) the horse will both learn to respond calmly to frightening stimulus and will learn not to fear cattle.
With the same scenario as explained above I might and/or choose to use positive overshadowing, in which case I would probably use something like targetting if the horse was already trained how. We would walk towards the cattle in the same manner mentioned previously, but this time periodically asking for the horse to touch the target (click/reward). Once we reached the point where the horse began to notice the cattle, but wasn't afraid yet, we would stop and do a bunch of targetting practice. Probably walking back and forth or in circles, slowly making our way towards the cattle as long as the horse remained well below threshold and was completely at ease.
I might also use counter-conditioning, which would look like finding that same distance where the horse was below threshold but knew the cattle were present and then feeding a small portion of or their whole meal. I would do this with every meal, each time getting just a little bit closer to the cattle. You could also use a "jack pot" style reward as a kind of counter-conditioning (though really all of this work is so positive for the horse it could all be considered "counter-conditioning"). With the jackpot style you would do any of the work mentioned above (except feeding meals), and when the horse was nearest to the cattle you would offer a much larger than normal amount of reinforcement (preferably food). The horse would eventually begin associating being near the cattle meant really good things happened, eventually learning to love being around the cattle.
The only reason I don't usually jump right to counter-conditioning is that it doesn't necessarily develop an overall confidence in the horse, it just works on undoing any fear associations with that particular stimulus. It does work wonderfully for already developed deep rooted fears though.
When introducing new objections or situations to a horse that I know commonly cause reactivity (like saddling, blanketing, or trailering for the first time) I will progress slower than I may even need to, absolutely insuring that the experience is a positive one. I would rather introduce something slower than is necessary than to run the risk of triggering a negative reaction. It's much easier to prevent fear than it is to undo fear, so it makes sense to stick to the cautious side.
This doesn't mean I turn little issues into big issues, or worry over how my horse will respond, it just means I approach things in a systematic patient way, always reinforcing the responses I want to see in the horse, always being aware of the horse's fear threshold, and progressing only as fast as the horse is ready. For some horses that will be no time at all, and for some it will take much longer, but no matter the situation, the process looks the same.
When The Situation Gets Hairy
Like I mentioned before, there will be times when I'm forced to work with a horse that is already above its fear threshold and is no longer in a state of mind where methods such as counter-conditioning, or systematic desensitizing will be useful. At this point I will be doing what you could consider "damage control".
My goal will be to do everything in my power to minimize the amount of trauma the horse experiences during this particular moment to reduce the severity of future fear responses. As I said before, it's much easier to prevent fear than it is to undo fear, but when things go unexpectedly you just have to do the best you can to minimize the after effect.
First, remaining calm is of utmost importance. If you are not calm, I'm not sure how you can expect your horse to remain calm. This is when that breathing and slowing of your heart rate we talked about before becomes really important. Keeping your voice soothing, low, and calm is also important.
Next, keep your focus on your horse and forget about everything else. It's all about returning to calm at this point, and it's going to take your concentration to regain your horse's focus.
If your horse is pulling away from you or running frantically in circles around you, don't try and stop them so much as redirect them. In a very relaxed way I ask them to do something simple like maintain a non frantic circle around me, drop their head, change directions, or touch a target. This is not a punishment, this is a mind exercise. This is a teaching moment. In this moment you are teaching your horse to return back to you and trust you to take care of it. You are going to be looking for any moment the horse even appears to be focusing on you, offering a shadow of a calm behavior, or performing the behavior you asked. Usually the horse won't receive a reward at this point, due to the level of anxiety, but you can verbally praise the horse for responding if it wont.
The goal will be to continue this until you can "wind" your horse back down into a calmer state, and ideally (if the situation allows you to), find a good note to end on and then let the horse be finished. There is no reason to continue to drill and train if your horse is continuing to jump above threshold, causing potential harm to himself or to you. Just the act of regaining some focus is sufficient if safety is at stake or if your horse is in such a mind set that it will not be work peacefully that day. You can even put the horse away for a time and try again in a little while, however I would choose to work on something different that day or ask for much much less so that you don't risk sending the horse above threshold again. If it was a noise or an uncontrolled stimulus (such as a bag in the arena) that caused the panic, take note of it and remember to start desensitizing work with that stimulus very soon.
Here is a video showing how I handle an unexpected moment with my filly when she suddenly goes above threshold. This is just a short example, and I plan to create a much more in-depth video about helping a horse recover from going above threshold. This video is intended to be just a brief look at the process.
During this video my focus was to bring her back to me and to stop the running back and forth. She had minimal training involving pressure and release and the halter so I was using a target to encourage her to re-engage with me, trying hard not to pull on her head or cause more panic. Once she did what I asked (stand calmly and touch the target), after some time, I removed the halter and let her go. Later we came back to the same location and practiced a minor form of the same behavior with absolutely no panic and ended on a great note. She hasn't had a problem since.
In the rare situation where a horse's fear response becomes dangerous and uncontrollable corrections may be necessary. But they should be extremely brief, humane and avoided if at all possible. In any case where I have to correct a horse I always remember that something is missing in the training if I had to correct them and I take it on myself to do a better job preparing my horse for the situation I put him in.
To read more about corrections and how to use them, or when, please read my article "Corrections In Horse Training".
Putting It All Together
At the end of the day the goal of having a calm, relaxed, reliable horse requires not only just training but a balanced lifestyle and a healthy horse. Training however does play a huge part, and it's important you really understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. My goal (and hopefully yours too) is to encourage calm and confident behavior, and trusting of the handler. I do this by focusing on positively reinforcing the behaviors I want to see, and doing my best to avoid causing behaviors I don't want to see.
However, like you saw, situations do arise that require careful handling, but even still I never want to punish responses that are only natural. It's up to you, the human, to prepare your horse for the world you want him to live in.