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Desensitizing Part 3: Tarps

Getting your horse comfortable with as many objects and situations as possible will create a more confident horse and a greater connection between horse and rider.

Start Small

When you first expose the horse to the tarp have it folded up so it doesn’t look as big and scary as it would when unfolded. As you work, your horse he will get more confident and you can start unfolding the tarp. Begin with the tarp folded up so it is about a fourth of its normal size. I like to start this exercise by having the horse target the tarp. Lay the tarp on the ground and let the horse approach it. Click and feed him when he shows interest in the tarp by looking at it, walking toward it, touching it, etc. If the horse is very worried and doesn’t want to approach the tarp, lead him forward, click and reward when he moves toward the tarp. If the horse is scared, break the exercise down into smaller pieces and reward him for every correct behavior. Once a worried horse actually touches the tarp you want to give him a jackpot. A jackpot is when a horse does something that you want that he has been struggling with and you reward him by giving him multiple handfuls of grain or multiple treats. I use grain primarily, so I would give the horse 3-5 handfuls of grain, then depending on the exercise and how long we have been working on it I will put him up and end the session.

Once the horse is fine touching the tarp and lay it on the ground in your arena next to the fence. At this point you still want the tarp folding up. Start lunging your horse between you and the tarp on the ground. Send him through the space to the left by lifting up your whip in your right hand, holding it parallel to the horse. Tap him on the shoulder if he doesn’t move forward, release the pressure when he takes a step forward. Again click and feed when the horse takes a step through the gap and toward the tarp. If your horse is very confident then you don’t have to click and feed as often. Once he passes through the gap, reach down the lead rope with your left hand keeping it straight out in front of you, focus on the horse’s hind end, bend at the waist and take a step toward your left hand with your toes pointed at his hind end to yield the hindquarters away. For added pressure use a circular motion with the whip, even slapping the ground with it or tapping him on the hip if he ignores you, while still bending and focusing on the hindquarters. Release all the pressure and stand up straight when he crosses his hind legs and takes a step away. Send the horse both directions through the gap until he is calmly walking through and yielding.

If he resists you when going through the space keep up the pressure until he moves in the direction you want. Even if he only goes one step in the right direction reward him by clicking and feeding, then start asking again with the lowest amount of pressure. If while going through the gap he gets scared and tries to run into your space, give him a tap on the belly with your stick reminding him that moving into your space is not ok even if he is worried. However, you do want to leave enough space for your horse to pass, and put him on a lunge line so that he has enough room to move.

Lunging Over the Tarp

Once he is comfortable lunging between you and the tarp start lunging him over it. Keep the tarp small just as when you lunged him by it, this time asking him to go over it by positioning yourself next to the edge of the tarp, then sending him over using the same cues as you did when sending him between you and the tarp. Let him investigate the tarp as much as he wants, as this will only build his confidence. When he is done exploring it back him up away from the tarp then send him over it. At first he will probably avoid stepping on it or will only place one foot on the tarp. Every time the horse steps on the tarp click and feed him. If he is especially worried click and feed when he is close to stepping on it and then work your way up to having him step on it. When he eventually crosses it, yield his hindquarters and send him back the other way. Slowly build his confidence up by unfolding the tarp one fold at a time when he calmly walks over it. You may have to click for the horse stepping on it each time you make the tarp bigger. If the horse gets worried, don’t be afraid to fold the tarp back up and get the horse confident with it smaller before moving on. You will eventually open the tarp all the way up and the horse should quietly walk over it. The goal is to get the horse to cross the tarp when it is unfolded and stop and stand on it. By standing on the tarp the horse is completely comfortable with it and doesn’t feel the need to move his feet.

At any point you get suck and your horse doesn’t want to cross, make the tarp smaller and slowly build his confidence back up. If the horse still refuses to cross, review the previous lessons of sending between you and the tarp, as well as targeting it. Remember that each horse learns differently, one may take five minutes and another may take days to learn this lesson.

Desensitizing With the Tarp

When desensitizing with the tarp you will do much of the same thing as you did with the plastic bag described in the previous article. Start with the tarp folded up as small as you can make it. Stand to the side of the horse parallel to his jaw and about an arms length away which is the safest place you can be when desensitizing a horse. Start by having the horse target the tarp. I ask my horses to target by saying target, then I hold the object near him where he can see it. When the horse looks toward the tarp click and feed. The goal is to have the horse touch the tarp whenever you ask, but you start by rewarding the horse when he looks at it. After rewarding him looking at it a few times, ask him to touch it by holding it up longer until he gets closer and closer until he touches it. You may have to give him a few handfuls when he touches it so that he gets the idea.

Once the horse is comfortable touching the tarp when you ask in different positions on both sides of his body you are ready to touch the horse with it. Begin rubbing the tarp in a circular motion on your horse’s shoulder, the same as you would when using a curry comb. When he is not flinching or shows a sign of relaxation click and take the tarp away at the same time, then feed. Slowly continue desensitizing him with the tarp all over his body on both sides, starting at the shoulder, working your way up the neck, down the top line, and finally on the legs and belly. After he is accepting the tarp at its smallest size all over him open the tarp up one fold then repeat rubbing him on both sides, slowly making the tarp bigger as you go until it is opened all the way and you can rub him all over with it. If he gets worried at any time and starts moving, continue rubbing him until he stands still. If instead he tenses his body, keep rubbing until he lowers his head, blinks his eyes, or rests a hind leg. You may have to go back to asking the horse to target the tarp if he keeps getting worried when you are touching him with the tarp. You may have to fold it back up again as well.

Other Exercises With the Tarp

As soon as he is completely comfortable with the tarp drag it on the ground, having him follow it around. This builds your horse’s confidence that it isn’t going to attack him. Have him follow the tarp until he isn’t worried about it moving around. Click and feed when the horse is interested in the tarp, touches it, or relaxes around it. Then stand in the safe place parallel to his neck, and shake the tarp around just like you did with the plastic bag. Click and stop shaking the bag when the horse shows a sign of relaxing, then feed. Do this on both sides of your horse.

Eventually, when he is relaxed with all the previous exercises with the tarp, fold it back up to about a fourth of its normal size and place it on his back as you would with a blanket. Click and feed the horse for being relaxed with the tarp on it. Leisurely start to unfold the tarp one fold at a time, rewarding for relaxation each time until your horse is completely covered with the tarp. If at any point the horse gets worried, try to wait until he relaxes. When he does click, feed, and take the tarp off. When he is completely accepting of this walk him around with the tarp on his back. Again, starting with the tarp small and working your way up to it be completely unfolded. Any time the horse gets worried keep desensitizing him until he relaxes, then start again from the previous step.