Now that your horse is comfortable with pressure from your rope and stick it’s time to move on to plastic bags. Exposing your horse to plastic gives both you and your horse confidence. You never know when a piece of frightening plastic will fly into your path while on the trail or in the arena. These lessons will teach your horse that plastic is nothing to worry about and give you tips on how to desensitize him properly.
The Plastic Bag
Start off with a small plastic bag and slowly build his confidence to trash bags and tarps. All you will need for the first lesson is a training stick and a plastic grocery bag. Remove the string on the end of your stick and place the handles of the bag through the loop on the stick, then push the bag through its own handles to secure it on the stick. Cut the bottom of the bag open to let air go through. This will help flatten the plastic bag and it will travel in the air easier.
Stand in the same position as you did when desensitizing your horse to the stick and string. At a forty-five degree angle out from his front leg, with the hand closest to him on the lead rope with about a foot of slack in the rope. In your outside hand hold the stick with the bag on it. Keep your arm straight out to your side and start smacking the ground with the stick moving it up and down making the plastic ruffle. Start doing this softly at first. Click, stop shaking the bag, and feed when the horse shows a sign of relaxation. (Blinking the eyes, relaxing the muscles/not twitching, lowering the head/neck while at the same time blinking the eyes, and blowing the nose.)
Keep the bag away from the horse and slowly bring the bag closer while still smacking the ground just as you did when desensitizing the horse to the stick. Only bring the bag closer if the horse is neither showing a sign of relaxing or of worry. If at any time the horse gets worried and starts moving his feet, keep smacking the bag on the ground in the same distance away from the horse. Wait until he stops moving, then instantly stop shaking the bag, click at the same time, and then feed. Let him stand for a minute then start at the beginning, again at the farthest spot and working your way toward the horse. If the horse doesn’t move his feet but instead raises his head and tenses his body, keep moving the bag up and down in the place that he got worried until he lowers his head, blinks his eyes, or rests a hind leg. Click and stop shaking the bag as soon as he relaxes, then feed. Repeat the same process on the other side of the horse. When you can shake the bag up and down close to the horse on both sides while he stays relaxed move on to preparing your horse to be touched with the bag.
Begin tapping the air with the stick slowly and rhythmically two to three feet away from the horse at first. You always want to desensitize the air around him before you ever touch him. Once he is standing still and/or looks relaxed by lowering his head, blinking his eyes, or resting a hind leg; stop tapping with the bag, at the same time click and then feed him, and let him stand for a minute. When the horse is calm while the bag is near his withers move back toward his hindquarters, down his back legs, to his front legs, then finish with his neck and head. If he gets worried, keep moving the bag with the same energy and in the same place until he stops moving his feet, or if his isn’t moving wait until he stops tensing his body. When he does, click, stop moving the bag, feed, and let him stand. Do this lesson on both sides of the horse.
If at any point your horse gets frightened, keep the bag in the same place it was when he got scared and just keep moving the bag. Let him move his feet if he needs to, following him and keeping the same amount of pressure with the bag. Keep your hand up by his head; bumping on the lead rope if he turns his head away from you. You want him facing forward the entire time you are desensitizing him. But don’t try to stop him from moving his feet as he will only get more frightened. Horses are prey animals with a flight of fight response to danger. If he can’t move his feet he will get nervous and may feel like he has to fight to get away from the pressure. If he tries to run away bump on the lead rope keeping his eyes on you while still maintaining the pressure with the bag. Stop shaking the bag only when the horse stops moving. If he tries to push into you bump him with your hand near his eye, telling him that moving into your space is not ok.
Rubbing the Horse with the Bag
When he is comfortable with the bag around him, start rubbing it on his neck with a back and forth rhythm. Again once he is comfortable, move on to rubbing it down his back, hindquarters, hind legs, front legs, and head. Follow him when he gets nervous, and move the bag away only when he relaxes, clicking at the same time, then feeding. Rub him with the bag on both sides until he accepts the sensation. Be sure not to cross the bag over the horse’s back or underneath his belly too far as he will be able to see it out of his opposite eye. If he were to spook at it he may run over you.
Some horses especially don’t like the bag on their face. If your horse is one of them, take the bag off of your stick and try desensitizing him with it in your hand. Start by having him target the bag. Clicking and rewarding when the horse looks at the bag and then touching the bag. Then, rub it up his neck using approach and retreat only getting as far as he feels comfortable before you rub back down his neck then up again. If he pulls his head away, try to keep rubbing the bag in the spot that bothered him until he relaxes even a little bit. Keep doing this until he accepts the bag all over his head.
Practice these lessons until you both get really good at them. In the next article I start a new lesson on desensitizing your horse to tarps.