Desensitizing has become a somewhat controversial word in the horse industry.
On the one hand, we don’t want our horses to flee from horse monsters such as plastic bags or bodies of water, puddles, shadows, etc. On the other hand, too much too soon, also known as “flooding” our horses with too much stimulus can cause them to withdraw inward and deaden emotionally & intellectually. You may have in mind a horse you know that fits the bill for either description.
There is a happy middle, and one of the best ways to achieve it is to play with your equine’s natural curiosity.
If their natural instinct to investigate hasn’t been amplified into fear, or trained out of them, asking your equine to engage with unusual objects isn’t that difficult and is often a lot of fun! Think liberty or trick training.
This freer method of engaging is one I use a lot with horses who are shut down emotionally.
Murphy is an excellent example of a curious equine. We have tackled tarps in a single session, horse blankets, saddle pads, tack, small bridges, and his very favorite thing, picking up/knocking over and then rolling barrels, we were able to accomplish all of these things with relative ease because we’ve built up trust and he was heavily praised and rewarded for his curiosity and bravery.
Murphy has even learned to follow a plastic bag on a stick because we made it into a fun game where his interest was rewarded AND he is allowed to leave and come back at any time. Most of this work has been done at liberty or on a halter and lead with the option to move the feet around.
It almost always works against you if you force your horse to stand still when facing something scary – it can over stimulate and easily move them into shut down mode. (It’s okay for standing still to be a goal, but not to force the outcome)
What we never want to do is overload the system until the freeze or flight mode kicks in. You’re always looking for, seeking, and rewarding, relaxation-calmness-curiosity-interest.
This way of training is so successful because of the natural curiosity of the horse. Allowing them to explore outside stimulus on their own terms works wonders with nearly every horse I’ve tried it with. There have been a couple of exceptions, those who lean to the extremes of anxiety, shutdown, or a combination of the two. With time and patience, even these horses can benefit from their own curiosity being rewarded and encouraged. The steps must be broken down into the littlest possible steps, the smallest try must be acknowledged and encouraged.
Everyone, horse or human, responds best to positive reinforcement and being truly seen.
It is up to you to bring your curiosity and creativity to the table.
Work on those muscles if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
Let go of the idea that you’re not capable of creativity, if that’s a troll that sits on your shoulder whispering doubts in your ear.
Go ahead and tell that troll to hit the road and start having fun with your horse.
Create obstacles, get various objects, bring a playful mindset to the barn.
The time you spend together should be enjoyable, not full of expectation and pressure.
Let go and be present, be in the moment.
Remember to breathe and have fun.
Become aware of what works and what doesn’t work for you and your horse, without making comparisons to anyone else around you. Allow your mutual curiosity to flourish!