We’ve all seen it, owners, trainers or friends working in round pens or rings, with a worried, sometimes terrified horse, waving a bag, a towel or some other object at the horse to “Desensitize the horse.” I understand some reading this think I’ve described an exaggerated scene, others will think it’s got to be done, and still others think they would never do that. I’m in that last camp—I would never do that or anything close. Nor could I recommend it.
“But they need to be taught a bag can’t hurt them,” some say. Or a pile of other explanations why “desensitization” is an important part of “training.” Training, another word I’m not real fond of. I don’t want to be “trained,” or “desensitized.” Do you? I’d rather be educated, or coached. Semantics, you think? No. Words should mean things, and they do. Take just a second here and truly ponder the difference you feel when you think, “train” ... or “educate.” They make you feel different inside don’t they?
So how do you help a horse understand flying bags and blankets, falling branches, loud noises and a mountain of other scary things won’t harm her? Easy. Education and confidence building. When a horse has confidence not much will frighten her. When she’s confident in herself, and her person, the scary things are simply, things—not life threatening monsters.
Confidence building is a long term strategy, and we can make it happen by being confident ourselves, and consistent in our manners, actions and support. Yes it takes longer than a weekend clinic on desensitization—which will surely get a horse less worried about the bag, flag, bucket or bang the weekend was designed to make unscary ... But in most cases it will not build confidence. What it most often builds is a worried compliance. I must point out that many horses are skilled in hiding their worry with compliance. But worry and fear can resurface in the blink of an eye, in a most dangerous way, when the next “scary thing” that had not been used to desensitize, suddenly appears out of nowhere. The weak link is the lack of confidence building.
It is totally impossible to desensitize a horse to every scary or worrisome object a horse and rider might ever encounter. And that is the flaw. And it is a big flaw, for when the desensitized horse has an incident after training, and the rider momentarily gets scared themselves and disciplines the horse for what is a natural reaction, the bond between horse and human suffers a strain, a little damage. That’s not a good thing. Not for the person, not for the horse.
Building self confidence within the horse is the answer. Conducting one’s self in a manner steeped in confidence, support and I might say mentorship, builds confidence in the horse.
Take time to understand the horse, as much time as she needs. When riding, doing groundwork, playing games, never push beyond what the horse is comfortable, confident with. Ever. In everything you do make sure the horse is ready to go to the next level. Revisit often things she has mastered, and enjoys doing. This will create layers, upon layers of confidence. Those layers of confidence will build a suit of armor ever present for any scary, unexpected or surprising thing that suddenly appears. And she’ll handle all the never-before-seens with inner strength of self-confidence—not suppressed fear.
Don’t desensitize your horse ... Empower her!
Gitty Up, Dutch Henry
To have a look at my latest book, "It's For The Horses, An advocate's musings about their needs, gifts, spirit and care," CLICK HERE.