Desensitizing // Calm & Confident
Updated: Mar 1
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.