Desensitising Young and Spooky Horses
As Horses are prey animals, many are easily startled, especially young and spooky horses. They can struggle with objects they have not previously encountered, or confined spaces such as a Horse Trailer or Stable. By working on groundwork and finding ways to desensitise young and flighty horses you will establish a connection with your horse and teach them to respect your space. In addition, you will not only reap the benefits on foot, but also when riding.
The main aim is to get your horse comfortable with scary objects and surroundings. By doing so, they will become less reactive when you encounter obstacles, or situations, which could cause an issue when riding.
Introducing Scary Objects
Start to introduce objects which may spook the horse, such as shavings wrappers and anything which may alarm them. These can be waved around the horse at a distance and slowly brought closer. Each time the horse relaxes by not moving or dropping it’s head, stop. This is a ‘pressure and release’ method, where once the horse gives a desired response, the pressure is released. Build this up to waving the item next to the horse and around it’s body, even touching it and once there is no reaction again, withdraw it. Repeat the process on both sides and move it freely around the horses body. The horse will start to learn that when they relax, the scary thing goes away and wont hurt them.
Keep these sessions short and don’t over face the horse by bombarding it with too much in one go. This then gives the horse time to process and think about what they have just encountered and learn from it.
Get creative and change the scary items around. Use a plastic bag on the end of a stick, swimming noodles, ropes, even in time umbrellas! You can also build this up to items to stand and walk on such as tarpaulin / old deflated paddling pools. Before attempting these, always make sure they are secured down before approaching and stepping on them. Take it one step further and use fresh and unusual items as jump fillers such as cuddly toys. This will prepare them for bright fillers or scary ditches under fences when going cross country.
Encountering Scary Objects
Upon encountering an object which your horse spooks at or is unsure about, ensure you follow through with the ‘pressure and release’ method. If the horse is spooking at a wheelie bin (the renowned scariest of stationery objects on a hack!), don’t ignore it. Make them start to think about something else other than the bins. Leg yield towards to bins so they begin to think about the leg command. If they won’t move forwards change their direction. Rein them back or turn a circle, and when they show positive forward movement, reward it. They soon learn that it’s easier to walk past the bin than be made to work! This can also be performed on foot if a horse is becoming agitated or unwilling to co-operate at any point, such as loading into a trailer or horsebox.
By doing regular sessions, you will build up the trust and bond with your horse which will assist any situation. You don’t even have to think of it as a session, just add desensitising into your daily routine. For example, each time you put new shavings in, wave the empty wrapper around so it’s never an intimidating object.
This horse decided he was petrified of a Hi Vis Vest before a hack, so the vest was removed and gently manoeuvred around his neck and shoulders and in no time he was content enough for it to be left on him!
If you find the horse is not responding to your desensitising efforts or is extremely nervous, get professional help. There are many experienced natural horsemanship trainers who can assist with your training and desensitising goals.