Desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.
However, in the Equine world desensitization has a mixed response depending on who you speak to. This could be partly due to the process that trainers use to desensitise the horse, often leading to flooding, increased anxiety and provoking fear and freeze reactions that can lead to further issues.
Before we talk about what is possible, I’d like to look at the picture we see more often than not in the ‘natural hosemanship’ approach. This was the way I was originally taught, but the horses soon told me there was a better way.
You may see a trainer putting the horse in the roundpen with a bag on a stick, maybe holding a rope while the horse runs around in a ball of panic. The bag (or other stimuli) goes away when the horse remains still or if the trainer is smarter- just walks on. This method (in my opinion) not only teaches the horse to freeze mentally (watch the ears on these videos), it also associates YOU with the fear they just experienced and you could lose a lot of trust this way.
I’ve also witnessed horses being tied up while something is waved around them, some horses stand in fear, others display curiosity if they are already desensitized and perhaps like the item. However, my advice is to NEVER attempt this method, even if your horse is the best trained horse in the world. Because, if they spook – and then panic at the pressure of the halter, you are risking a serious accident to your horse or yourself.
So, how can we avoid flooding, fear and anxiety?
Moving on to how we can introduce scary stimulus items in a pleasant way is termed Habitual Learning or ‘Systematic Desensitisation”. This is the method of introducing possible ‘scary things’ to the horse in a way that they can learn about the stimulus in their environment on their terms at liberty without fear.
Develop a New Approach
Think | Think | Try | Repeat
First of all think about the way at which the horse’s response system works. The fight, flight and freeze reactions of all horse differ in breeding, management and environment (including past experience). Assessing how your horse reacts will be a very helpful information point when you introduce a new stimulus. Make a point to watch them in the field – Do they jump at noises? Sudden movement? Distance and speed of these are also very important.
Think next, consider the type stimulus – it’s sensory links. Noise/Feel/Size/Weight/Colour etc. All of this information is sent to the brain for processing and different horses respond at varying levels to each sensory process.
Place an item in the horses environment (while you are there) and allow them to explore it. If they don’t react you could try a closer distance, hold it up – rattle it. You are looking for their level of tolerance. You don’t want to cross the line from alert to fear, but you do want to test it a little to see if you can make just a small bit of progress (whether it’s an extra step closer or they don’t jump at the noise at a distance). This will naturally increase with the tolerance level. Don’t rush this stage.
Reward Advice: If your horse shows curiosity or relaxation towards the stiumus you may give them a treat or a head rub. (Depending on your personal preference). I am a head rub and verbal praise type myself, but for this – especially in the early stages I like to offer a treat if they touch it with their nose.
Case Study: Daisy | Stimulants: Noise (flapping)/Speed (movement) /Colour (reds)
Daisy doesn’t like flappy objects, so we work on this at her pace. I began by just wearing the scarf. Then I took it off and waved it.
Daisy came to investigate.
She placed herself next to the scarf.
Then she displayed some curiosity. I gave her a rub on her favourite spot under her mane as a reward.
Maybe she thought it held food? 😀 Her confidence increased and she let go of any tension.
After she left I held up the scarf again to check she was okay with it behind her. I walked around and away and towards. She didn’t come up to me again, she remained calm throughout. I thought the lesson went well so i left.
Most importantly, Daisy will remember this as a pleasent, voluntary exchange. She still trusts me and next time the item might be scarier – she will trust in me more that the item is okay.
Next time I will use a small flag of similar material.
…and that is how I desensitize my horses to a range of stimuli.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this and if you have tried other methods, what you find works and doesn’t work.
There is ALWAYS an opportunity to learn.