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Desensitizing

- February 5th, 2020 - Trainer Tips

By Sheryl Lynde | Horsetrader columnist

Over the years, training has continued to evolve. We change our training methods and techniques to benefit and bring out the best in each individual horse—instead of making the horse fit our own personal goals as well as expecting unreasonable results from an inflexible training program. I remember years ago taking instruction from a trainer. He said something that has always stayed with me. He told me that if I would come back to him in a year’s time and he is still teaching the same thing, then I should find myself another instructor.

We want to improve through awareness how to communicate better with our equine companions. A horse does not learn when they are afraid. Out of a survival instinct, they may offer the result you are looking for, but not because they have overcome their fear or confusion of the lesson. They may be merely looking for a release of pressure and an end to the lesson. The unwanted behavior will continue to surface until you have taken the time that needs to be taken for the lesson to be absorbed, to introduce the stimulus at the correct level of pressure for the horse to successfully understand and overcome their fear.

For example, an antiquated method to desensitize a horse to an object would be to ride the horse up to the object and make him confront the obstacle and touch it. This may be the end result you would like to have your horse be able to do, but you don’t start with your goal. If you would like to be a partner that your horse can trust, there are steps that need to be taken beforehand.

If I feel my horse is getting fearful over a particular situation or object, I want to be proactive. Instead of allowing his anxiety to build to a spook, buck, bolt or rear, by getting him to move his feet in the direction and speed I have asked that I am redirecting his attention to me—instead of outside circumstances. Allowing a horse to work through their fear by moving their feet allows a building pressure to dissipate.

Just like a tea kettle building pressure over a burner, if you block the spout from releasing steam there will be an explosion just like forcing a horse to stand and face whatever is causing them anxiety. Let’s say you are riding in an arena that is new to both you and your horse. He begins shying from a banner that is attached to the arena fencing. You choose to ride your horse up to the banner and make him stand there, look at it and touch it. Fasten your seat belt, you may be in for a bumpy ride if the wind picks up and causes the banner to move in your direction or make an unexpected noise. Now you have shown him that a scary object will make a move toward him at any given or unexpected moment. Just like a runner waiting for the signal to start the race, the horse will jump the gun so to speak when his flight response is triggered in anticipation of a real or perceived threat. The rider also begins to accept and legitimize the horse’s behavior by pronouncing his fear of banners to anyone that will listen. Now the horse is training the owner. The owner will start to tense and send signals to the horse that may be imperceptible to the owner, but the horse can read the slightest change in body language and interpret it as a warning. This is the signaling of a fractured relationship between horse and rider, each feeding on the fear of the other. But instead of placating your horse’s fear, seize the opportunity to move your horse forward by building trust.

I start by working in an area of the arena that my horse is comfortable in. I begin by working on exercises that my horse knows such as serpentines, trotting or loping circles but I will change direction frequently. Then when I feel my horse relax, I will continue moving his feet as I expand his area of comfort in the arena until I can ride by the banner without him showing concern. After a good work out, I may walk him by it and allow him to rest near it, but only after I have allowed him to release some of his anxiety by moving his feet. I want to set him up for success by working him on exercises I know he can do and has done, drawing his attention to my guidance. I haven’t forced him to face it, or physically put him in a position for the banner to come at him, I have changed my training to fit this situation on this horse, building trust, not fear.

–Sheryl

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