Desensitize Your Horse to Common Encounters

Rider hanging onto spooked, bucking horse.
Rider hanging onto spooked, bucking horse.

Although horses have certain characteristics that make them very trainable, they also are prey animals which causes them to react in life-preservation mode at the slightest hint of any object or movement resembling a predator.

A horse categorizes everything he encounters as either something to run from, or something not to run from. Because of his exceptionally perceptive and sensitive nature, he has the ability to detect sensory stimuli of which humans are unaware, especially on the trail or in unfamiliar places and this often surprises the rider or handler.

When attempting to desensitize a horse, the complex nature of the entire horse needs to be considered. Is the saddle uncomfortable on his back? Does the rider send conflicting messages? Does the horse trust the rider based on past experiences? Does the horse feel safe in his general settings? Does he have any physical pain or irritations?

All of these facets of the horse's physical being and emotional state have to be taken into consideration when it comes to desensitizing him to common encounters that cause him to spook. When a horse doesn't feel safe for whatever reason, his instincts take over.

When SmartPak did a survey on things that spooked customer's horses, they listed a variety of "spooky" objects:

  • Weed whackers,
  • ATVS,
  • Flapping caution tape,
  • Dogs running out and barking,
  • Deer jumping out of the brush
  • A port-a-potty
  • Doors swing open,
  • Logs,
  • Wheel barrows,
  • Ear mites
  • And, of course, plastic bags or nearly anything blowing/moving in the wind or within the horse's view

As Linda Parelli notes: "The more unsafe the horse feels, the more he spooks, which means the safer he feels, the less he will spook. It is up to us to teach our horse to feel safe when in our presence no matter what else is going on. Gradually this will affect him in other parts of his life as he becomes a more confident, trusting and settled animal."

Patience, patience, and more patience is required. Besides desensitizing the horse, you're also building a trust relationship so when you tell the horse later that some object or obstacle is safe, he'll believe you. He'll rely on you as the herd boss. - Jorene Downs

"The horse is one of the best, most successful prey animals on the planet. He has survived millions of years of threats from predators with his capacity to detect danger, his quick reflexes and his ability to outrun predators. Being spooky is critical to survival in the wild, but it is often the reason people lose confidence and sell their horses. Yet with a little savvy you can help that spooky horse be your perfect partner."

Horses live their entire lives on alert. They must always be ready to flee or else be eaten by a predator. The one and only reason our domestic horses spook is because something has triggered their genetic sense of survival.

According to Julie Goodnight, "If we expect our horse to learn how to live confidently in our world, we must not only take the time to sack him out with clippers, horse trailers, raincoats and bicycles, we must in turn sack ourselves out. We must take the time and use our superior intelligence to thoroughly understand the horse's mind and use that knowledge in conquering our horse fears."

Goodnight suggests a quiet approach using an advance/retreat philosophy that programs relaxation and acceptance into the horse's behavior. With this method, she advances one of the stimuli toward my horse slowly 'say the extension cord' until he shows a sign of acceptance or relaxation.

Positive signs in the horse include relaxing tense muscles, lowering his head, releasing a deep breath, or showing forward interest in the clippers. According to Goodnight, "The moment I see that acceptance, I retreat, or remove the stimulus from his comfort zone. It's really all about timing; to teach your horse to accept a stimulus, you must remove it at the exact moment you see a positive response to it."

A fearful horse may take 20 to 50 repetitions before accepting any strange or new stimulus, while a braver horse might only take five to 10 encounters. The duration of the process really depends on the horse.

Horses are also rapid learners and desensitize very quickly to frightening stimuli. Since a horse uses flight as the primary method of defense, it is necessary for them to quickly desensitize to things that will not harm them, otherwise the horse would be in perpetual flight.

When desensitizing a horse, be consistent in what you're doing, until your horse can tolerate and eventually ignore the stimulus. Once the horse relaxes and becomes unresponsive to the stimulus, show him that you appreciate his new tolerance of the object or situation by kind words and positive physical interaction.

Plastic bag - Seen as predator by a horse

Plastic bag - Seen as predator by a horse

Exposing the horse carefully and casually to the object that spooks him will enable him to investigate the object and with adequate knowledge of what the object is, the horse will accept it as an everyday occurrence.

According to Clinton Anderson, noted clinician, horse trainer and competitor,"Most people fail when it comes to desensitizing their horses to scary objects because they're sneaky and overly cautious. They slowly walk up to the horse with the object hidden behind their back, and then very carefully try to touch the horse with it."

"Of course the horse gets scared and moves away because he assumes that if you're being cautious, you must have a reason. I have a saying, "Heart attacks are free, so give one to your horse." Or, in other words, don't tip-toe around your horse and be afraid to scare him. In reality, trying to protect your horse from objects he's scared of only makes the situation worse. As a trainer, your goal is to desensitize your horse to as many objects that move and make a noise as you can. You can't get that done if you're afraid to scare him."

According to Jorene Downs of COE Ranch, "Patience, patience, and more patience is required. Besides desensitizing the horse, you're also building a trust relationship so when you tell the horse later that some object or obstacle is safe, he'll believe you. He'll rely on you as the herd boss."

Monty Roberts approaches desensitizing a horse to a plastic shopping bag because they are extremely light and therefore can't physically cause the horse any harm. He advises attaching several bags to one end of a discarded rake handle or a small wooden pole approximately five feet in length. It will be scary at first, but when the horse relaxes and accepts it, the bag is moved away and the horse is able to relax.

Exposing the horse carefully and casually to the object that spooks him will enable him to investigate the object and with adequate knowledge of what the object is, the horse will accept it as an everyday occurrence. In some cases, the trainer may, depending on the scary object, show it to the horse, rub the horse with the object while talking softly to help the horse understand that the object, such as a plastic bag, is completely non-threatening.

Soon the horse will accept other scary objects if the trainer stays relaxed and the horse begins to trust that nothing painful will happen.

Recognizing that we are dealing with the true nature of the horse will soon produce a non-spooky individual.

Nanette Levin of "Horse Sense and Cents" advises that desensitizing a horse may not be a lasting strategy, but "Spending time with your horse in the stall, the pasture, on long lines, exploring areas around the property and beyond with a halter and lead rope and watching your horse without bothering him are more productive ways to build rapport and gain insight than forcing him around a 20 meter circle."

Levin also notes: "Oh, and if your horse is terrified about an obstacle you face while riding, consider hopping off his back to be the first to show no fear or harm in passing. There's no shame in providing a more comfortable experience to a new challenge."

Spooky horses are usually taught to be so. To undo the damage, the trainer needs to get personal and view the horse as an individual. If you as the trainer are not willing to customize an approach to meet your horse's indicated needs, you will not be able to build a trusting, confident and mutually respectful relationship that will help the horse overcome his fears and focus on the good times you are having together.

Sacking Out - Another term for desensitizing

"Sacking out a horse" is another term for desensitizing. This is typically performed with a green horse as an early part of the "breaking to saddle" process, and is popular training for youngsters prior to saddle age. It can also be applied to "spooky" horses who require a more thorough desensitization than what was initially received in basic training. The process can be slow and tedious with some horses, but well worth the time invested in the long run!

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EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.