Desensitizing – what’s your theory?

We were just talking about how to cure horses of certain phobias. For example, the SSP is pretty sure plastic bags will kill him. Every night, he has to snort anew at the plastic bag I have been carrying his brushes around in. I have let him sniff it and thoroughly investigate it. He still thinks it has teeth and eats mustangs for lunch.

I was trained to believe that when they’re scared of something, you put it in their environment and make them deal. I’ve effectively used methods like hanging polo mallets in the stall so that they have to bump them as they move around, hanging a running clippers next to their grain bucket so that they learn to ignore the noise, and so on. So my instinct with SSP was to tie a plastic bag to the door of his stall so that he could bump it and learn that the crackly noise wouldn’t kill him. He has touched it with his nose and jumped back but he’s not panicking or anything so I’m going to leave it there.

A friend of mine brought up that she’d only had success with this kind of thing if it was done so that the horse had more control. For example, that if the horse was brave and touched the scary item, scary item was removed. This, of course, involves human participation – you can’t just leave the thing they don’t like in their stall or pasture.

What do you think? I mean, we’ve all seen the concept of “making them deal with it” go bad – like the story of the horse that someone tied plastic milk jugs with rocks to, who jumped the round pen and headed down the highway. Like anything, you can go too far and use bad judgment, but normally I’m still a proponent of “making them deal with it.” There are certain things, like being hosed off, that I can’t imagine any other way to teach. Or having to deal with livestock – living next to a cow, donkey or llama is really the only way I can think of to teach a horse that they are no big deal. I used to know a barn that had a pasture right next to train tracks. It worked – their babies didn’t blink at trains.

On a related note, do you believe that horses can get too desensitized to the point where they become dull and react to nothing, or is that your goal? I think it kind of depends on how you use them. I think a dull horse is the easiest horse to sell and the most likely horse to find a good home. But obviously that horse isn’t going to be your star athlete in a lot of disciplines. I know many people who believe, for example, that spooky horses just have a prettier jump and there’s probably some truth to that. They are not going to risk their hoofies touching a scary rail, that’s for sure. Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?

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Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I have train tracks at the barn I am boarding at right now!! Our little filly saw the train up close and personal (scenic passenger train) from day two of life. Drifter is totally cool with the train and related dump trucks.Desensitizing has a place, but I feel that with many props it needs to be done with someone who is watching the horses' response and backing off if they can't cope. Things like plastic bags are easy for most horses to cope with and can safely be left around the barn or stall, but for bigger things or scarier things I like to have a person/horse relationship to monitor the horse and build his/her confidence and avoid any terrible experiences. I don't believe in pushing them until they melt down.


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