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Basic Desensitizing

Does your horse get nervous when you are riding; spooking at horse eating plastic and other invisible dangers? Spooking is a natural reaction for horses. They are prey animals with a flight or fight instinct, which means they much rather run away from danger then fight it. Create confidence in your horse by doing some simple desensitizing lessons.

The Rope

Start out with the least scary object you have, the lead rope. Begin by standing by your horse at a 45 degree angle from his shoulder, a little over an arm’s length away from his head where you won’t get run over if he spooks. When doing the exercise on his left side, hold the lead rope in your left hand with about a foot or so of slack in it so he can move yet still be under control. This hand also blocks him from trying to run into you if he gets scared. Once in position, use your right hand to toss the excess lead rope over his withers. Rhythmically toss it over and pulling it off his back. Keep tossing the rope even when he gets nervous and moves away, just keep tossing the rope and walking with him. Bump his head toward you if he tries to run away, keeping his eyes and focus on you. When he stops you stop, at the same time click, then feed to reward him for relaxing and letting him know he is on the right track. If the horse stays still but raises his head, wait until he relaxes by lowering his head while blinking, blinking his eyes, blowing his nose, or resting a hind leg. Stop tossing the rope when he shows a sign of relaxing, at the same time click, then feed, and let him stand. When he seems comfortable with the rope on his withers move to tossing the rope over his back, hindquarters, around his back and front legs, and then working your way up his neck to his head. Do the same thing on both sides of the horse. As soon as he is comfortable with the rope, move on to desensitizing the horse with the stick or whip.

The Stick or Whip

Here I am keeping my hand closest to the horse up to block her if she were to come towards me. With my other hand I am tossing the string over Starlight’s back.

Stand in the same position as you did while you desensitized him with the rope, but instead of holding the lead rope in both hands hold it in only the one closest to the horse, letting the end of it lay on the ground. This time toss the string on the end of the stick or whip over his body just like you did with the lead rope. When taking the string or whip off the horse smack the ground so it makes some noise. But when you toss it over the horse be gentle and try not to smack him. You must do this rhythmically without pausing. If you pause each time you take the stick away, the horse will be rewarded even if he shouldn’t be. When he looks relaxed stop tossing the string over him, at the same time click, then feed, and let him stand. Then start again until he is comfortable with you doing this all over his body. Again, starting on the withers, then moving on to the back, hindquarters, hind legs, front legs, neck, and head.

Slapping the Ground

Move onto slapping the ground with your whip or stick. This bothers a lot of horses because of the noise the whip makes, as they feel like they should move away from this pressure. This lesson is very helpful for horses that spook at scary noises. Stand parallel to his jaw about an arm’s length away as you did for the first two lessons. In your other hand hold you stick or whip straight out to the side. Start off by gently slapping the ground with it. If he gets scared continue to smack the ground with the same intensity and at the same distance away from the horse until he stops and relaxes as in the previous lesson. Slowly move your arm with the stick in it closer to the horse until it is right next to him. If at any time he get worried stay in that place until he starts to relax then click, stop, feed, and start again. After he is calm about the whip slapping the ground next to his shoulder, work your way down his side until you can smack the ground directly behind the horse. Start with a low amount of pressure, throughout multiple lessons gradually increase the amount of pressure to a medium amount until he is again confident about it. Progress until you can slap the ground with a high amount of pressure on each side of the horse.

Here I am desensitizing my horse to the stick by smacking it on the ground parallel to her.

Side to Side

When the horse is relaxed during high pressure with the stick on both sides, move onto standing in front of the horse. Stand about five feet in front of him and begin slapping the ground on one side then swinging it over his head and slapping the ground on the other side, moving the stick or whip side to side. Keep the pressure going until he relaxes, click, stop desensitizing, feed, and repeat. Slowly increase the intensity of the slapping as he gets more confident. If while you are doing this lesson and your horse gets scared or tries to leave, keep the pressure with the stick while having him look at you but not run you over. If he does try to run into you shake your lead rope as aggressively as you need to get him out of your space, while still moving the stick. Only stop desensitizing when the horse relaxes, immediately click while you are still desensitizing and your horse is relaxed, then stop moving the whip and feed.

These lessons are the beginning to desensitizing your horse with progressively scarier objects. Once you and your horse are confident desensitizing with your rope and stick you are ready to move on. The next article in the series will give you some good ideas on how to start desensitizing your horse to more difficult objects.