By Nicole Ponte
Horses are flight animals, meaning their natural inclination is to flee from predators or danger – or, for the modern show horse, a shiny leaf on the ground or strange looking oxer. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like there’s a rhyme or reason as to what your horse is scared of, or how to predict what will cause him to spook.
While no horse will ever be completely “bombproof” or 100% safe all the time, desensitization will teach them how to react less fearfully to certain situations and objects that can spark a flight response. Over time, your horse will learn how to handle new fear triggers with less of a response; meaning that you will no longer have to rely on Sit Tite or full seat breeches to stay in the saddle!
The most important part of the desensitization process is to take your time. Your horse’s initial reactions may be extreme, so keep track of how he is feeling, prepare yourself for worst-case scenarios and do yourself (and your horse) a favor by breaking up your desensitization program into short sessions. Also, you may want to consider having someone assist you; it is much easier when one person can focus on keeping the horse calm and contained and the other person can focus on how and when to bring out the stimulus. Always keep safety in mind, wear your helmet, and remember that horses can be dangerous when fearful. If you are unsure of any situation, seek the help of an experienced professional.
1. Things That Crinkle
To help acclimate the horse to the dreaded plastic grocery bag (which always conveniently flies through the air while you’re in the ring at a show), try approaching the horse calmly with one in your hand, keeping it quiet. Note: Hold your horse’s lead rope, so he can’t suddenly turn and kick you in fear. If your horse does not react, crinkle it between your fingers and wait for a reaction. Through repeated exposure to the bag, your horse will become less nervous and perceive it as less of a threat. Eventually, you want to be able to stroke him with the bag.
With tarps, I have had success with putting one in a paddock with the horse and letting him explore the new object on his own. After he has been out with it for a day or two, he’s usually more willing to walk over it. Slowly build up to picking it up, moving it around, and placing it over your horse’s back.
2. Things That Splash
Many horses would rather make the extra effort to jump over a pool of water, rather than risk going through it. If your arena ever floods or creates puddles after a heavy rain, take advantage of the situation! Hand walk your horse through the standing water a few times, making sure to walk to the side of your horse (in case he decides to jump forward).
Once he is comfortable on the ground, tackling the obstacle under saddle should be little to no issue. If your horse begins to paw and play while under saddle, encourage him forward so you don’t end up going for a nice, muddy roll with him.
3. Things That Crack
While you want your horse to move forward when tapped with the whip, you do not want him to be frenzied every time he sees it. Start with a short crop, and wave it around a bit – watch for his reaction. Gradually built up to softly rubbing it against his body, paying attention to areas that make him nervous. Once he is comfortable, try increasing the length of the whip until the horse is comfortable being touched with a lunge whip.