Saturday, March 21, 2009

Desensitizing - what's your theory?

We were just talking about how to cure horses of certain phobias. For example, the SSP is pretty sure plastic bags will kill him. Every night, he has to snort anew at the plastic bag I have been carrying his brushes around in. I have let him sniff it and thoroughly investigate it. He still thinks it has teeth and eats mustangs for lunch.

I was trained to believe that when they're scared of something, you put it in their environment and make them deal. I've effectively used methods like hanging polo mallets in the stall so that they have to bump them as they move around, hanging a running clippers next to their grain bucket so that they learn to ignore the noise, and so on. So my instinct with SSP was to tie a plastic bag to the door of his stall so that he could bump it and learn that the crackly noise wouldn't kill him. He has touched it with his nose and jumped back but he's not panicking or anything so I'm going to leave it there.

A friend of mine brought up that she'd only had success with this kind of thing if it was done so that the horse had more control. For example, that if the horse was brave and touched the scary item, scary item was removed. This, of course, involves human participation - you can't just leave the thing they don't like in their stall or pasture.

What do you think? I mean, we've all seen the concept of "making them deal with it" go bad - like the story of the horse that someone tied plastic milk jugs with rocks to, who jumped the round pen and headed down the highway. Like anything, you can go too far and use bad judgment, but normally I'm still a proponent of "making them deal with it." There are certain things, like being hosed off, that I can't imagine any other way to teach. Or having to deal with livestock - living next to a cow, donkey or llama is really the only way I can think of to teach a horse that they are no big deal. I used to know a barn that had a pasture right next to train tracks. It worked - their babies didn't blink at trains.

On a related note, do you believe that horses can get too desensitized to the point where they become dull and react to nothing, or is that your goal? I think it kind of depends on how you use them. I think a dull horse is the easiest horse to sell and the most likely horse to find a good home. But obviously that horse isn't going to be your star athlete in a lot of disciplines. I know many people who believe, for example, that spooky horses just have a prettier jump and there's probably some truth to that. They are not going to risk their hoofies touching a scary rail, that's for sure. Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?


green_knight said...

I spent four years getting my horse desensitized to having his ears handled, and it stayed a hit-or-miss thing. (I'm sure he had his ears twisted instead of a twitch; his behaviour was consistent with that.) And I'd gotten to then point where he was sort-of-ok, but never good about it. Then I looked at the way he was learning otherwise, which was *not* to be left to work things out - he wasn't very brave on his own and easily thrown off course. So I put it on a command ('lend me your ear') and praised him.

It took three days before I could handle his ears with complete confidence and not the slightest resistance, and from then on, no more problems. But this was exactly the behaviour with scary things: I told him 'have a look,' he checked it out, he got a treat. The day he started checking out things that scared him on his own was a very proud moment indeed. (We also had 'careful' for things that might bite or make noise.That was an important distinction - anything I told him to check out was safe.)

Elly said...

I think it depends on who is handling them at the time of 'OMG - it's going to eat/melt/kill me'. There are severl horses on the yard where my horse is that are apparently scared of hoses and water. All I see is a horse that is taking the p*ss. My horse absolutely hated sprays (liek fly spray, show sheen etc.) - I had to just get on and start at the point of least resistance (tail) and work up to the head. It has taken 3 years and I can now get to the poll, but still not happy about the head (I can do it if I am correctly so only need to do it once!).

Asfor an over de-sentitised but dull, or a skitty fantabulous jumper I'm not sure. In some ways I'd rather have a scatty animal - at least you know where you stand from the off. My Horse is more toward the dull side - will go past dinosaurs (theme park we used to ride through), ostriches, pigs, wallabies, tractors, guns and bird scarers, but a coke can on the road...that's a different story :(

Serendipity said...

None of our horses are afraid of plastic bags because they learn pretty soon that's what goodies come in. They see the bag or hear plastic rustling, the head and ears come up and the knickering starts. It's a pretty standard Pavlovian response.

I will always be a fan of making them deal with it, in a controlled manner so it doesn't turn out like the instance you described. I don't believe desensitizing leads to a dull horse, and I don't believe it has anything to do with disciplines.

The point to desensitizing is to get them accustomed to interacting with 'scary' things without flipping out. Like standing quietly while their rider removes their raincoat and hangs it on the fence. If you get a horse that won't react to, say, part of the roof falling on them, then you have really screwed up.

A spooky horse might be more likely to tuck their hooves over a fence, but they're also more likely to bolt off the course. I'd honestly rather risk a few faults than be run away with. Besides, I've seen spooky jumps, and they look like crap.

Andalusians of Grandeur said...

I think you are right on with this one, Vlc. My Arab is suspicious of clippers, so I started with one of those buzzing massagers in my pocket. She acted really skittish for a while, but I let it run and treated her the same. Now, she loves to have it used on her all over. The BO teases me about my horse liking a vibrator. lol!

Anonymous said...

Desensitizing to commonly seen objects and events is a good idea - but I think sometimes we're more of the problem than the horse - we expect the horse to spook or overreact, so they do! If we ignore the scary object or event, after the initial spook (hopefully, in place), usually we can go right on with what we're doing. This of course doesn't apply to a horse that has been "trained" to fear an object or certain handling by mistreatment - here careful, slow desensitizing is needed.

But I think desensitizing has its limits - it's more important to help the horse learn how to deal with being scared - it's OK for them to spook or feel scared or uncertain, but they need to learn to trust you to guide them safely through the scary situation. They need some learned responses that you can use when scary things come up, because you can't desensitize to every scary thing that might possibly come up.

The only truly dull horses I have seen are those that are shut down due to being "forced" or punished for trying, or sometimes horses that have been imprinted - they are sometimes lacking in normal responses to stimuli which can make them hard to work with.

Deer Run Stables said...

No doubt about, it; flooding works as a psychological conditioning tool. It's even the method of choice for dealing with human phobias, according to research on effectiveness.

I'm with your friend who prefers to have the horse participate-- mine learn that they can turn the scary clippers off by turning to look at them (while loose in a stall with me standing outside), which then progresses to turning off the clippers by touching them with their nose, then lowering their head while the clippers rest against their bridle path, etc.

I think that dullness might come from flooding that has no release. I base that on the old (and tragically cruel) psychological experiments where rats that were on an electrified floor that they had no means of deactivating (by pressing a lever or whatever), would fairly quickly stop expending energy trying to run around and escape, and instead would just sit there listlessly, being shocked and not moving.

I don't think humane desensitization has anything to do with general dullness to cues, though. For my natural horsemanship studies, Tucker (who's not an overly responsive horse to begin with) must be able to stand perfectly quiet and relaxed while I swing a rope or whip over his head so fast that it whistles, but still depart at a snappy canter onto a lunging circle when I lift my hand and point in the direction he's meant to go.

He's never had a problem determining that one thing is meaningless commotion, and the other means "it's time for me to split on outta here, or my butt's going to become intimately acquainted with a leather popper in about 2 seconds".

Heather said...

There is a very important difference between tying a plastic bag to a feed bucket and tying a plastic bag to the halter. In the first situation, the horse chooses to get over the bag. In the second situation, the horse is unable to make a decision. When a horse can't make a decision to learn, he will shut down. When he shuts down, you have a panic moment and end up with a horse running down the highway. I like a horse to know a plastic bag won't kill him. He can be rubbed with it and eat with one tied near his bucket, but he still may spook at a bag out in the pasture on a trail ride. The point is, he has learned to rationalize his reaction to some bags and when he sees a scary one in a new situation, hopefully he has the tools to rationalize his way through that one too.
I,personally, don't want a horse to be totally dead to anything, but then again, I ride Arabians and that would defeat the point, right? :)

Sagebrusheq said...

I don't make a fetish out of desensitizing my horses. What serves the purpose of getting them tacked up, stand to mount, and ridden without a fuss will do. But getting that far can sometimes amount to a lot of fussing. As usual, it all depends. I'll spend some time with young horses letting them get used to various things but increasingly I expect them to go forward regardless of their fear. My object with youngsters is to build their confidence and obedience, more than it is to introduce them to everything under the sun that might be scary to them someday. But it's a little of both. When stuff happens the maxim still holds true: ride your horse forward and hold him (as) straight (as you can).

A long standing phobia is another matter. Chances are that the person that produced it, or the last one who tried to fix it, went about doing so ineptly, in a manner that bears an outward resemblance to well known techniques. So you often need to find a fresh approach that avoids past associations, someplace else to start from. That can be a real poser and generalities seldom apply. First, do no harm.

Regarding the question of dull vs sharp, a strong sense of self preservation is a good thing in a horse: a dull knife cuts the cook. I've had one dull one 'sidepass' right off a cliff under me (when he actually did wake up and take exception to something-a log). Though I'm usually reluctant to bail out it seemed like the right thing to do at that instant and he tumbled down without my guidance. Yes, Doofus was unhurt (the horse, that is)- but none the wiser either. Too often people mistake blasé or lazy for bomb proof.

Another mistake I've noticed a lot of people make with some green horses is misinterpreting their lack of response to spooky things. How many times have you heard someone praise their young horse for his fearlessness after a first ride or two? Then a week later they're raving that he's messing with them because he now spooks at everything he once passed by intrepidly. The truth, I suspect, lies in the horses total bewilderment on his first few trips, then he settles down a bit and starts to notice things and shy. It takes as many well spent years and miles to make a good trail horse as it does to get to Grand Prix and, similarly, not every horse is up to it mentally and physically.

Karen V said...

Andalusians of Grandeur said...
My Arab is suspicious of clippers, so I started with one of those buzzing massagers in my pocket...

What a GREAT idea! I have two mare that think that clippers eat horses for lunch! One will let me do the bridle path, but nothing on her head. The other is a big "HELL NO!!!" and won't even stand in the general vicinity!

As for the plastic bags.... I NEVER tie anything to the horse! Bridle - fine. Saddle - fine. Scary stuff - no way!

Tie the plastic bags on either side of the water tub, where a little breeze will move them around. Tie them to his grain bucket - only if you don't top dress with a liquid (it can go rancid). Tie them all around the inside of his pen/stall. Everywhere you can think of - high, low, in the middle.

And here a tip - do it while he's IN THERE!!! Otherwise, if you tie the bags up and try to lead him in, he may just decide not to go into his stall.

He'll probably stand square in the middle, afraid to move. He'll get over it.

After a day or two, when he starts to relax, up the ante! Put an oscilating fan outside his stall so it blows in there and moves the bags around.

Having said all this - watch his water intake and don't let him get dehydrated. If he's not drinking, you may need to remove the bags from around the water. He can survive without food for a day or two, but not water.

Another "fun" trick, is to take a longe line and loop it through several plastic bags, a trash bag 1/2 full of aluminum cans, a piece of carpet, milk jugs wil rocks. Turn him loose in the arena, then pull the mess around the arena. Just walk. (Or if you have a "Steady Eddy" that you can ride, have him drag it.) Ignore the snorty one, just drag it around.

Michelle said...

I don't like "flooding" as a desentization method. With flooding, in many animals you get such a strong stress response that the desired result is the animal thinking it will die so it just gives up, just like a prey animal in the jaws of a lion, they stop struggling and go away mentally, giving up. You may get the desired result, but at some point in the future the animal can have "flashbacks" and then you have no warning at all when they will blow. It also wreaks havoc on the endocrine system, the animal is in a constant state of heightened stress hormones, and down the road can lead to health problems (ask any abuse survivor).

I use clicker training, or "operant conditioning". The horse has the choice, and when they make the correct choice they are rewarded. They don't have to make that choice, they are free to go (do not have them on a lead when we work on this, I find they tend to be more worried about something if they are "trapped" by halter/lead but if they know they can get away at any time, they are more apt to check it out). But the curious nature of the horse makes them want to please and do the right thing. Depending on what the scary object is, I may give them a click and treat ("c/t") for acknowledging that I have something scary. Then after a few times of that, I will progress to c/t for looking at the object, then coming closer, then touching the object. Depending on what the object is, I might encourage them to play with it. If it could be dangerous, like a piece of machinery, we stop at touching it and not being scared of it. I dont' want them climbing on something that they can get hurt on.

I do think that a horse can become too dull and over-desensitized. I want my horses to think, not be dead. I want them to stop, take the time to look at something, and decide if its scary or worth investigating or ignoring. I don't want to have to desensitize them to every single thing in the world by making them dull to it. I want them to use their brains, extrapolate that 99% of the time scary stuff isn't so scary, so this time, lets take a look at it first instead of waiting for me to desensitize them to it. I like a horse that thinks for themself (mostly *s*). I also want them to get me the hell out of Dodge if there really IS a bear around the corner!

Jesse said...

No offense, Fugs, but your last question is a dumb one: "Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?"

Either will keep me out of the ribbons in my discipline (hunter/equitation and occasional low level event). If my horse is dull, she'll hang her legs, knock a pole, and not point her toes at the trot. If she is edgy and spooky, we're not going to get the flowing lines between our fences, we won't get the bend in the corners, and her neck will be up like a giraffe. While it's true that if she's a little looky at the jump, she'll jump it prettier, but that's why hunter courses are covered in more flowers than a parade float.

I want focus. I want whenever I'm riding, my mare to focus on what I'm asking her AND her environment. I want her to notice things, and react in an appropriate manner, while still listening to me. For example, I want her to notice the hole in the ground before she steps in it, but if I ask her to jump a ditch, I want her to do that too. I don't want an OMG IT'S A HOLE!!! response. I want her to be relaxed and listening to my aids. Without that I'm not going to be safe.

fuglyhorseoftheday said...

Jesse, the reason I made that point is because lately I have been hearing a lot from people who are in disciplines I don't know as much about who tell me they want their horses to be super alert and that too much desensitizing results in a horse that is too dull.

It's only recently that I've heard anyone say that, so I wanted to bring it up for discussion. Most of the time I've been in horses, the goal has always been to produce as close as possible to a 100% spook proof animal that can be ridden anywhere and is unlikely to have a violent reaction to anything.

I do agree that the ideal is always a horse that trusts YOU to tell them what is or is not scary, but in the real world, many if not most horses are ridden by riders who don't have that kind of confidence - which is why I said that the horse who's been trained/has the personality to ignore most things has the best chance of finding and keeping a good home.

moosefied said...

Maybe it's partly a matter of context. A well-trained trail horse is alert, looking and thinking about a safe place to put his foot, but he's not stressing over stimuli like a running creek or even deer sightings. Whereas a show jumper is alert in a totally different way, gauging the jumps and the course spacing, but he wouldn't necessarily be ready for some unusual distraction that isn't normally on a jump coure, like someone's loose dog, for example.

I agree with what Kate said about teaching horses to learn to deal with being scared, and to trust the person to guide them through a scary situation.

My ideal is a horse that is eager to go to work, but not anxious or easily freaked-out about sudden stimuli. I guess that's a combination of trust in the rider, desensitizing to common "spookifiers," and inborn horse temperament.

Tucker and Birdie said...

Our horses have had to get used to snowmobiles and ATVs going up and down the fence line due to our lunatic neighbors.

They're used to low flying loud airplanes because of the airport that's about 1 mile away.

Plus guns don't bother them. We get hunters all over. Plus our other neighbors shoot guns off (pointing towards the back of their yard, luckily) and the horses don't blink.

Due to us working on finishing their shelter, they're used to the normal ladders, screwdrivers, metal cutters, and hammering.

Nothing seems to phase them. Other than when the mare swished her tail, inadvertantly hit the gelding with it, spooked him, which spooked her and off they went. Then they had the "what just happened?" look.

Not sure how the mare is yet, but our gelding hates the trimmers. They're in pasture 24/7 so it's difficult to hang them by the food bowl as they move it around or he'll just take over the mare's bowl.

Tucker and Birdie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robyn said...

When my older horse was a colt, the breeder tied plastic bags all around the weanlings' hay feeder. She also did groundwork, led them over tarps, etc. When I got him as a yearling, he wasn't at all bothered by plastic bags, I once wrapped him up in a tarp, and have gone trail riding numerous times in numerous areas. The only thing that bothers him slightly is a person w/ an overnight backpack, altho I've seen other horses bothered by the same thing--just looks way too weird! On the other hand, he is afraid of cows, and there is a sizeable herd of cattle living behind his pasture. Still doesn't like cows. But he doesn't freak out and bolt around them either. When I have to ride by cows, I make sure I'm relaxed and not focusing on them. I let him look as we go by, but I don't make a big deal out of them being there.

Drillrider said...

With scary plastic bags, I like Clinton Anderson's methods of steady rythm, moving away with the object on a lead, horse follows object and build courage, then turn and face horse, again with steady rythm, move slowly towards horse to find the "I'm gonna run" spot, then continue until the horse drops head, then retreat.

I used this on my mare who was scared of flags. Within 30 minutes, I was draping the flag over her head without a flinch from her!!!

mulerider said...

I employ the "toss it out in the pasture" method of desensitization all the time. I love to put stuff in a spot where they have to walk past it to get to the feed tub or into the grassy field.

It took all of 1 day for my young mule to decide that the big, blue tarp spread out on the ground wasn't scary enough to keep him from walking on it to get at that flake of hay in the middle of it.

Of course, it probably helps that 1. mules are generally intensely curious and 2. I typically "bait" scary things with horse cookies.

For things that can't be left out for the mules to interact with on their own, I usually rely on classic approach-and-retreat.

moosefied said...

Karen V said:
Another "fun" trick, is to take a longe line and loop it through several plastic bags, a trash bag 1/2 full of aluminum cans, a piece of carpet, milk jugs wil rocks. Turn him loose in the arena, then pull the mess around the arena. Just walk.

The person I board with does that with her youngsters. The horses can't stand the curiosity and follow this trail of junk all over. Since they are free to leave, they usually stick around! She does this on windy days, too, so the "creatures" flap and wave. She also ties water jugs full of rocks to the fences. I will try to do more of this while my guy is a baby.

fuglyhorseoftheday said...

I agree - as long as it's stuff they can't get hurt on, nothing wrong with just leaving it in the pasture or turnout for them to find and figure out!

Well, the plastic bag on the door apparently worked fine because tonight the SSP actually picked up a plastic bag in his mouth and only had a little spook when it, OMG, followed him and fell to the ground. Now how do I keep a couple of CATS in the stall so he gets used to those? LOL...he saw a cat today and had hysterics. I am starting to question whether he has 100% vision. He flinches to my hand on both sides but that does not mean he is 100%. He would not walk into the barn aisle tonight until I turned the light on, so now I'm very suspicious he may have some visual issues. On the plus side, he is actually longeing both directions at the walk and we did some trot today without drama.

The other one is doing fine. He's really not hard - he's just a "tester." Every day, he asks if he HAS to do it ("it" is something different every day), and every day, he loses. But he's not aggressive or unusually spooky or anything really problematic - he's just always going to need a rider who can say YES, you are, and mean it - without abuse, just someone who gives him firm and consistent directions and praises him when he is good. He LOVES people and LOVES attention. He genuinely likes to be worked with and I can see him becoming a great horse for the right person.

Capilet said...

I don't if I would call it desensitization, as far as what I like to do with horses coming up in the world. I think of it as more learning to socialize with the world, kinda the way you socialize a puppy.

We spent most of last summer really re-teaching our TB mare to deal with the world. Trails and such were very good for this, as she just had more exposure to more different things.

She's a much calmer, focused mare for it.

Juli said...

I don't think there is anything such as "too much desensitization". If a horse is going to be careful at a jump, they are going to do it regardless of how much training and exposure they have had.

However, I want a horse to be able to handle scary things without panic, NOT to have that whole learned helplessness thing. Anyone remember the annoying video on FHOTD with the poor little arab mare being lunged while being beat with blue tarps for 20 minutes. That mare was in the learned helplessness catagory.

I was once at a local western horse show close to a wild cat sanctuary. The majority of the people there were the western pleasure types, but they had a few gaited classes, so I decided to go. For the trail class, they had a mountain lion in a cage. Yes, a LIVE mountain lion. It was off to the side, and the horses were "asked" to just walk by it about 10 feet from the cage. All the deadhead type trail horse class ponies walked by it without even glancing. My well trained trail Paso Fino walked by, but he did it sideways, and snorting the whole time. I won the class. The judges comment was "We are judging what would make a good trail horse here, and personally, I want my good trail horse to TELL me when they sense things like a mountain lion, yet have enough trust to keep going when I say it's safe" There were a lot of unhappy people about that decision, but it made perfect sense to me.

I desensitise my horses by exposure. I tote plastic bags when feeding, I throw flags and towels around randomly, I leave things like big orange cones with a flag stuck in it between the dry lot and the grass. They have to go through it in order to get the grass. I get bonus points if they have to allow it to touch them to get through. The more the better, but never where they CAN'T escape if they want too. Then it turns into learned helplessness. And I NEVER ask them to do anything I don't know is safe. I don't ever want to lose their's too hard to get back.

Char said...

My approach to spooking is quite a bit different, but my horse and I have been together for 12 years or so, so we pretty much have each other figured out.

If something scary catches him off-guard, he is allowed to spook in place. If I have to something to him/around him or put something on him, he's not allowed to say, "no".

But like I said, I've had him for over 12 years or so, so he knows that I will never do anything to him that will harm him in any way, unless he says, "no". Then it will be me harming him a little, not the 'scary' thing.


Drillrider said...

I believe there is a balance of training and desentsitizing versus making the horse "dull". In my opinion, you get a dull horse when it is bored stiff from over training and from never letting the horse just be a horse.

I boarded with a woman that was always training, training, training her horse (even on trail rides). The horse came to resent her and her overly obsessive training and it showed because he had a sour attitude.

Just think if you always had to work and never had anytime off when being ridden.

I work on stuff, then walk around, let the horse relax and think about what they just learned.

I go on trail rides and just enjoy the scenery. I still guide the horse and tell them where to go, but if you can't relax and enjoy riding your horse, why do it?

I've used the "leave it in the pasture" method, but have had quicker and more success when using the approach and retreat when the horse relaxes method. That is, when I have time to do it that way.

I put a plastic garbage bag up (like a flag) over their watering trough and this worked very well, especially on windy days to get them used to flapping plastic.

pines4equines said...

The first poster, green_knight talked about teaching her horse to "lend me an ear." Love that and I'm going to try it tonight.

In regards to desensitization, you can get them use to a plastic bag or black and white cow in one place but they'll spook at that thing in another environment. I do think the horse has to have undevoted trust in you as the leader...which is the real desensitization.

badges blues N jazz said...

OH! i have tried hanging a flag in my horses pen.. It hung there for THREE MONTHS. Sure, she was used to it somewhat in her pen, but as soon as I took it down and tried to approach her (foolishly thinking she was "over it") it became a horse eating monster to her again..sigh..

may said...

I'm a big fan of desensitizing and forcing a horse to deal with scary things. Running away is never an option. But I think some people can go too far. I started a colt for a friend a couple of years ago that did NOT respond to pressure at all. She desensitized the crap out of him for his first 2 1/2 years, and boy did it show. He wasn't just unafraid of the leg, hand, or whip - lack of fear is great! - he just didn't care about anything. It took a lot of work just to get him to move off my leg, and I hear whips are still completely useless on him. I don't like bombproof, I want a horse that is responsive. I'd rather a little spooky than a complete deadhead.

Sydney said...

My pony was TERRIFIED of plastic bags. I tried everything from sure as rain tieing it to his feeder or water bucket. He wouldn't drink or eat with it near.

So I eventually broke him of this habit, how? Well I put carrots inside the bag. First I crumpled it real small and put a carrot but on top. He ruffled it around and didn't freak out. Then I un crumpled it a bit. Same thing until finally he would just stick his head in the bag to look for the treat. Now when he sees plastic bags he goes over to investigate them to see if theres any munchies. I also fed him his meals on top of a white shavings bag (cut open of course so he couldn't suffocate) because those were a big deal. He likes them now the same as the grocery bags.

Anonymous said...

in my albeit newby experience.. ive found the "face your fears" tactic and further their (and my ) courage to be the thing

gp and gazi

peaches1111_00 said...

If anyone has a deadhead and wants an "alert" horse...send 'em my way! I need something that's an old plug to gain my confidence.

May Bee said...

I don't actually "desensitize" my horses to things as much as help them understand and separate ideas about things. For the most part, I treat new things as if my horse had experienced them every day of his life, but in a way that won't overexpose him and get him in a panic. I don't "regulate" my actions around him "because he might get scared." I do what I need to do, and if he has a little scare from it, I pay no attention. Pretty soon, he pays no attention to the thing that scared him. I think he thinks that "Mom does some really dumb stuff at times, and my job is to make sure she doesn't get herself or me into trouble," so rather than get overly frightened, he simply keeps a wary eye, and I do my part to not panic him.

I think that if I spent time trying to "desensitize" him to things, he'd be a nervous wreck, wondering what the heck I was going to torture him with that day.

So life is just life, and stuff happens. Deal with it. Yet, I try not to allow things to get him into trouble, so that he feels I'm not much good to him in a tight spot. I want him to believe that no matter how frightening something might be, it's under control and he won't die.

One way to assure that is to let him spook if he absolutely has to spook, without trying to hold him back, keep him still or make it seem like I even care that much that he spooked. He'll do his spook, and then we get back to doing what we were doing. So what. No big deal.

When I was training horses for a living, I often got horses in that had been wrecked by a panic situation where some human got him into trouble and he literally had to kick and fight his way to freedom because of it. Nothing ruins a horse quicker than putting him in a situation like that. If that situation was also their first experience at something, they have a lifelong phobia about it. I could get those phobias to where you'd never know the horse had a problem, unless he got upset over something, anything, didn't even matter if it was related. Then the phobia would pop up again, although usually not as strong.

My horse was, by my own mistake, placed in the care of someone who caused him to get into a wreck, which triggered rodeo style bucking. I worked at getting him over that for years, but every time he'd get a little tight, he'd explode again. Needless to say, I didn't ride him much because I have no desire to ride broncs. A little playful bucking doesn't bug me, but this horse broke open big and wide in a split second. No time to "grab yer slack," as they say.

About a year ago, I found the trigger for his bucking, worked him through it, and it seems to have completely disappeared. He hasn't offered to buck even once since then, and we've had some nice, relaxed rides. That was a case of "discover the cause of the fear and help him get over it." He simply wasn't able to get over it on his own, and since the reaction of his panic was a little too western for me, I had to find a way to help him. So, when I discovered the trigger, I spent some time "triggering" him, in a low key setting where he was less likely to have a panic attack. That worked really well. Since then, I've been able to work out some other, seemingly minor issues, that were a bit puzzling to me before, because his reactions were not normal. After dealing with defusing the "bronc switch," those other issues resolved more normally.

As for horses that have been overly desensitized to everything so that they're dull and lifeless, I personally feel their lives are shortened. It seems to me those horses die from sickness, colic or injury pretty easily. Not sure why, but if a person goes messing with what nature put into a horse and tries to take it out of him, for sure that horse's life isn't what it's supposed to be. It's a really sad thing to do to a horse, IMO.

athy said...

Firstly - I love the name Andalusions of Grandeur - cracked me up.
Secondly - everyone here has great thoughts on this subject but I enjoyed Kate's first post as being very commonsensical.

Here is a desensitization story where it worked too well.
Briefly- I trained my first horse from the ground up when I was 12. An orphaned quarterhorse which I bottle raised.

I read EVERYTHING about training- and had been riding for 6 years at that point and showing for 3 - so I wasn't an average 12 yr old.

My idea to get her trailer trained at just turned 2yrs old was to put the trailer in the round pen - drop the ramp and slowly feed her on it and then in it. -Bucket near the ramp- then on the ramp - then just inside the trailer till she was going in to eat every day.

That little mare loved her trailer.
Fast forward to age 4. Took her to her first show, slotted her for a couple of in-hand and small hunter classes.

She was very cool and calm about everything, acted the pro.

I tied her to a rail at one point and ran into the barn (some commotion going on in there with a colicky horse) and when I came back out 10 min later she was nowhere to be seen. My girlfriends, mother and myself hunted all over. Finally went to the announcer to make a general announcement about a missing mare.

(by now i am convinced she was stolen and freaking out)

the announcer makes an announcement about 15 min later that she is in the 3rd horse trailer, red over white, in the west parking lot, 3rd row back.

Someone spotted her trailer hopping and informed the Show sponsor- LOL

ellen said...

My neighbor who raises gaited mules for field trials hangs milk jugs -- a forest of milk jugs -- in the barn aisle so they get used to having stuff whacking them in the ears, and strows tires, logs, and all manner of debris in their lot to get them used to picking up their feet.

I want all of mine to stand without being ginchy for being handled all over, for all the normal processes of horse life, like picking up feet, clippers, baths, cleaning those icky areas, taking temps, worming, etc., etc. etc.

I want them NOT to freak if there is a rope around their legs or flanks, so I spend time flipping one around there, and over their backs and all over, including picking up all four feet with a loop of rope. I want them to be able to be rubbed with a large towel, have a saddle pad put on in a kind of big way without falling apart, and I want them to be nonchalant about people appearing and disappearing, dogs, and all the "stuff" that accumulates on a farm.

As for the random and moving scary objects, I just expect them to deal with it. Maj.Anders Lindgren puts it in such a neat way -- he says "don't involve yourself in the horse's problem" == so if there's a problem the horse gets to work it out on his own while I try to keep him "with" me and focused on his job, which might mysteriously get a bit harder or more challenging when he has time to scout scary things. I think riders can create spooks by always and forever pointing out things with their tense, worried energy for the horse to worry about. Someone I know taught her colt to be terrified of hoses -- he gave one the hairy eyeball once and scared HER, so every time the hose was out she tensed up and grabbed him and stayed honed in focused on the hose until she persuaded him they really would eat him. I try to keep my energy calm and relaxed and keep refocusing the horse on me when something carnivorous presents itself.

What I DON'T want is for the horse to turn into an oblivious lump of flesh. I think SENSITIZING is every bit as important as DE-sensitizing. I want him to move at a fingertip's pressure, not have to get the backhoe to shove him over, I want him to work off my energy -- light on his feet, responsive, and paying attention, not so overstimulated or jaded that he just tunes out the world. I want him to work off just a feel on a loose lead rope, not require a tow boat to get going, etc.

I get "imprinted" colts in for training who think they can wallow on people, and don't have to respond to being moved off or stepped over -- that's as dangerous as a horse that's skittish, IMO.

For all that, I have one (my uber unflappable lesson horse) who is unreasonably terrified of plastic bags (despite such tactics as lining her feed bucket with one, sacking out efforts, treats in sacks,etc..), and that is just a quirk of her sizeable personality (like abject refusal to take her right lead) that one has to work around to have all the wonderful things about her.

creaky knees said...

I'm working with the same thing on a 10 year old ridden but untrained appendix horse. She is an athletic edgy horse but extremely curious.

We are working on leading and giving to pressure. So far we are doing well on the head but the tree stump thing has got me stymied.

One of the things that I've found helpful is lowering the horses head. I started using the Shrake leading method because I got tired of being shouldered and the method is passive but found that by keeping the lead at my hip she started lowering her head. That got her listening because a lowered head is submissive.

I don't think I am going to desensitize in the classic sense I think I am going with the look to me for leadership and if I say it's no big deal it's no big deal.

I like the "What your horse is trying to tell you book." by Margaret Campbell Self's daughter.omalley1 said...

Desensitising in the way you describe, just leaving them confined in the stall with the scary object to "Deal with it", is called flooding...and it doesn't work on very sensitive horses! Infact, flooding can cause a horse to become increasingly terrified of day to day life. With more stoical horses, flooding can lead them to becomming dull, through a process called 'Learned helplessness'. Essentially the horse learns that it has no control over the situation, so becomes inward focussed, to avoid having to deal with scary objects. It's like a person covering their eyes and ears with their hands while watching a scary movie, but doing it all the time to avoid seeing 'life'...

A much better way to gain a horses trust is to put them in a situation that enables them to feel a certain degree of control but it also increases their trust in their handlers ability to make descisions.

For example, to desensitise my own horses to plastic bags I tie a small bag on the end of a stick and take them in to a secure place (like a sand school). They wear a rope halter (which they are trained in), with a long rope. I walk them around the school with the stick ahead of us, essentially we follow the bag. At first you'll find that the horse is sceptical and spooky, but after a while they become interested because the bag is not coming at them, but continues to move away. Once they follow the bag calmly, I'll start to move it about and make it animated ahead of us. I allow the horse to focus on the bag and follow, to the point where they just can't help but want to get closer. It turns in to a game and starts to cause a previously nervous horse to become an inquisitve one. It works with all sorts of scary items, like clippers etc. Eventually the horse no longer recognises the item as a threat, and stops reacting to it, yet doesn't become dull about life in general.

I've posted a clip of me working my own large youngster, out on a local nature trail after doing the above work in a secure place, on YouTube (just look for Marik and Plastic Bag!). It's ideal for 'spookbusting' and developing a horse.
I'd like to point out (if you do view the clip), that Marik was three years old at the time of filming and standing almost 17hh. He's wearing 'body bands' as part of his physio treatment (having suffered an injury to his pelvis and hind proximal suspensory ligaments, as a two year old).

Also, a good way of desensitising a horse to having parts of it's body handled that it would rather you didn't, for example it's ears, is to use 'approach and retreat' techniques. Touch the horse on a part of it's body that it is happy for you to, then gently move your hand to the 'awkward' area. If the horse goes to move away, maintain contact and only remove your hand when the horse stands still. It takes patience but works wonders, because the horse again begins to understand that to control the situation, it must become calm and accepting.

These techniques never cause a horse to become dull...

icepony said...

Laughing because this is such a timely topic for me! Due to a change in jobs, I FINALLY have time to work with my gelding again, and went out yesterday for the first time in a loooong time, with the intent to just groom and mess around with him. On a whim, I brought a tarp out to the barn. I had him loose in the indoor arena, and when I pulled that tarp out of the bag, he lost it. Instant departure, buh-BYE! Since I usually free-lunge him anyway, I set up my tarp and a second one I found so that the free-lunge "path" ran between the two tarps, with about 3 feet of space for him to go through. He stopped dead a few times, and had to hunt for the path through the horse-eating tarps. When he started hitting the path both directions without blinking at the tarps, I started pulling them closer together, until finally they were touching and the path was gone. Total time: 20 minutes. End result: a horse that lunges and leads over tarps like they're not even there.

Not sure where this falls in the "desensitization" realm. My point was to give him a way to do what I was asking (go between the tarps) without forcing him to do what he was afraid of (stepping on one). As he got more comfortable with the closeness of the "bad" things, and they didn't eat him after all, he made up his own mind to step on the tarps. He certainly could have jumped them, but chose not to. I didn't want to box him in and force him to step on the tarps, as I envisioned a giant blow-up and mind-boggling permanent tarp phobias, lol!

Guess I did okay, eh? I was VERY proud of him.

Jst4Fun said...

What is happening w/the VLC these days??? I feel like it's been forever since we've had an update! Is he at a trainers yet? How is his strengthening coming? I'd love to hear how he's doing!

pines4equines said...


Breathe said...

I'm printing out this entire comment trail - what great ideas!

Canyon is fairly convinced that wolves go for the pintabians first and it's been quite a challenge to work thru. I'm going to try half of the ideas here and then the other half if I have to peel him off the barn roof.

Karma Anais said...

I have train tracks at the barn I am boarding at right now!! Our little filly saw the train up close and personal (scenic passenger train) from day two of life. Drifter is totally cool with the train and related dump trucks.

Desensitizing has a place, but I feel that with many props it needs to be done with someone who is watching the horses' response and backing off if they can't cope. Things like plastic bags are easy for most horses to cope with and can safely be left around the barn or stall, but for bigger things or scarier things I like to have a person/horse relationship to monitor the horse and build his/her confidence and avoid any terrible experiences. I don't believe in pushing them until they melt down.