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How to Desensitize Your Horse

How to Desensitize Your Horse Dressage

The term “bombproof” is used by horse owners to describe a horse that is unafraid of anything. In theory, a bomb could go off within a few feet of the horse, and he would not even flinch.

For those of you who compete in dressage competitions, having a non-spooky, bombproof horse is essential. A horse that is easily distracted or becomes upset during a test will be penalized heavily. Also, hacking out on a spooky horse that jumps at everything is somewhat less than relaxing!

So, how do you bombproof your horse?

In this article, we explain in detail how you can go about bombproofing your horse through a training process known as desensitizing.

What is desensitizing?

Desensitizing is the process by which you teach your horse not to be afraid of things that would ordinarily frighten him.

A key part of desensitizing is helping horses to understand why they needn’t be afraid.

Why should you desensitize your horse?

There are many reasons for bombproofing your horse:

  • A calm horse is easier and safer to handle than a spooky one.
  • Desensitizing helps to control the horse’s natural “flight” instinct, making him safer to ride.
  • A non-spooky horse will perform better in the dressage arena and be awarded higher marks.
  • Being around a horse that’s totally chilled-out helps to increase rider and handler confidence.

Also, as you work on desensitizing your horse, the bond between you will grow stronger, which helps to build that all-important harmony that dressage demands.

Identifying what’s scary

Horses are natural flight animals. That means that they are constantly on the look-out for danger, and their first instinct is to run away from anything that appears to be a threat.

Some horses are naturally more laid-back than others, and what’s absolutely terrifying to one may trigger nothing more than a casual glance from another. So, before you can set about desensitizing your horse, you’ll need to have a clear idea of what he finds frightening.

Common spook or fear-inducing objects include:

  • Foreign objects, such as dressage letters, judge’s box, flowers etc.!
  • Whips
  • Flapping plastic bags or advertising banners
  • Narrow gateways
  • Clippers
  • Other species, especially pigs, cows, and donkeys
  • Motor vehicles both on the road and parked in the arena
  • Water
  • Unexpected noises, such as you unzipping your jacket or even sneezing while mounted
  • Bicycles
  • Small children running around close to the arena

The list is endless!

So, sit down with a pen and paper and try to note down what things frighten your horse so that you know what you need to work on.

Don’t avoid the issue!

Many riders deliberately avoid anything that they know will spook their horse, even avoiding certain competition venues that their horse finds scary.

However, repeatedly giving something a wide birth will simply teach your horse that the object or area is dangerous.

Part of the desensitizing process entails helping your horse to face his fears and teaching him that there’s nothing to be afraid of after all.

So, don’t avoid the issue!

Safety first

Desensitizing your horse does involve putting him in a situation or confronting him with something that he finds frightening. That can be dangerous to both riders and handlers.

So, before you start, get yourself kitted out in the appropriate safety clothing, including a hard hat, gloves, and sturdy boots. If the work is to be carried out while mounted, wearing a body protector may also be a good idea.

Also, you should have your horse wear brushing and overreach boots to give him protection in case he treads on himself.

It’s also advised to carry out this training in suitably fenced areas such as a paddock or arena so should the worst happen, you won’t lose your horse into acres of countryside.

Desensitizing your horse – a step-by-step guide

In this part of our article, we’ll go through the desensitizing process step-by-step.

Top tips before you start …

1. Personal space

When a horse is afraid, he often loses all perception of boundaries and forgets all about your personal space. That can result in your horse actually knocking you down or barging into you.

So, before you begin desensitizing, you must teach your horse to respect your personal space. Focus on groundwork in a non-spooky environment, giving your horse lots of simple tasks to do, such as moving his feet. That will keep the horse focused and tuned-in to you, making it less likely that he will be distracted by a scary object and tread on his handler.

2. Take your time

It’s crucial that you don’t rush your horse when it comes to desensitizing.

If you try to push your horse, you can only increase his fear even more. So, begin with baby steps, working your way up to giant strides as his confidence increases.

Always make sure that you have plenty of time for each training session. That way, you won’t be tempted to rush your horse, and you won’t get flustered.

3. Set small goals for each session

Set a small goal for each desensitizing session. That will prevent you from trying to rush and will make you feel that you are really getting somewhere. Also, each of those small achievements will quickly add up to a major goal.

If you need to, be prepared to take a step back. You may find that you make a small amount of progress, and then encounter a setback. Don’t panic! Just go back a few steps to take your horse back into his comfort zone and begin again.

4. Be consistent

You must remain consistent in your approach throughout the desensitizing process. If you always adopt the same, “it won’t hurt you, it’s not scary” approach, your horse will quickly learn to trust you.

Also, horses are creatures of routine, and a consistent approach helps to keep things on an even keel.

5. Keep calm and carry on!

Horses are highly sensitive to your emotions. If you begin to panic or become upset, your horse will mirror you, and that can be disastrous for desensitizing training.

If you can remain calm, your horse will sense that, quickly learning that there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to facing his fears.

The desensitizing processes

Desensitizing your horse to pressure on his limbs and head

When you’re at a show, it can be incredibly frustrating if your horse fidgets when you’re trying to fit studs in his shoes or put on his boots. And how about the horse that pulls back in panic when tied up to your lorry or trailer?

So, why does a usually calm horse behave like that when you’re out at a show?

The competition environment is alien to your horse and can be full of scary sights and sounds. Remember that your horse is a flight animal. His first instinct is to run away from what spooks him.

If the horse feels that he no longer has control over his limbs and can’t move because he is tied up, he will feel trapped and unable to flee if he needs to.

If you can desensitize those areas to pressure before you begin your bombproof training in earnest, your horse will be much more able to cope with scary objects touching his legs or his head.

Start by desensitizing the horse to pressure on his head:

  1. Place one hand on the horse’s poll, directly behind the ears. With your other hand, hold the lead rope close to the buckle. Apply gentle pressure to both the rope and the poll to ask the horse to lower his head.
  2. As soon as the horse complies and drops his head, release the pressure. If the horse tries to throw his head up, keep the pressure on until he responds correctly.
  3. Now, ask the horse to stretch his head down to the ground. Eventually, the horse will respond by lowering his head and neck and standing still.

Desensitizing the horse to pressure on the limbs:

  1. Pick up your horse’s feet, one at a time.
  2. Once the horse will do that obediently, loop a soft lead rope around his lower leg. Apply pressure to the rope by gently pulling. Your goal is to pick up the horse’s hoof and move his leg toward you, just like your farrier does. As soon as the horse obliges, release the pressure, and reward him.
  3. Next, keep the rope looped around the lower leg and walk the horse forward. As the horse walks, apply pressure to the rope. The horse should immediately stop and yield to the pressure. In that way, the horse learns to remain calm, rather than returning to his flight instinct.

Desensitizing your horse to scary objects

Many horses are frightened of unfamiliar objects. That could be anything from a traffic cone to a judge’s car parked at C.

If your horse spooks at that particular object, his attention is on that, rather than on you and your aids. Not only will that lose marks in dressage tests, but it could also be dangerous if your horse reacts violently by bolting.

  1. Start with groundwork. Lead your horse over to the object that he is afraid of. The horse will most likely snort and stop to stare at the object. Don’t try to force the horse to approach the object. Instead, distract the horse by doing groundwork at a distance from the scary area. That requires the horse to focus on you. Gradually, move the working area closer to the object. Reward the horse each time he settles and concentrates on you. Keep sessions short. Repeat the exercise the following day. Hopefully, you’ll find that the horse will gradually learn that the object is not scary and will ignore it.
  2. Using a training ball can be a great way of desensitizing a horse to unfamiliar objects that move. Put the ball in the arena and let the horse examine the toy without any interference from you. Although the horse may be startled by the ball at first, he will quickly become curious and will investigate the strange object. Most horses try to push the ball around or even pick it up, and the whole exercise becomes a fun game. Ultimately, you’ll be rewarded with a horse that wants to check out strange objects, rather than running away from them.

Desensitizing your horse to objects touching him

Some horses can be hyper-sensitive to things touching them, such as your spurs, whip, or even your leg.

A useful technique for teaching the horse to accept being touched is by using a plastic bag, then a tarp.

  1. Start by taking a plastic bag and rubbing it over the horse’s body. If the horse tries to shy away from the bag, follow the horse’s movement, keeping the bag on him until he stops trying to flee from it. Once the horse relaxes, remove the bag and reward him.
  2. Once the horse has accepted having the bag rubbed over his body, tie it to the end of a lunge or schooling whip. That presents a more intimidating object to the horse. Repeat the process of touching the horse with the bag that’s now attached to the whip. Touch every area of the horse’s body, including the legs, belly, and hindquarters. Those areas are sensitive and represent the most vulnerable parts of the horse’s body.
  3. Once the horse accepts the plastic bag, you can move on to using a tarp. Use the same strategy. If the horse moves away, go with the movement. Touch the horse all over his body with the tarp. Once he accepts that, hang the tarp over the lead rope and ask the horse to walk around you in a circle. If your horse has a meltdown, remove the tarp from the rope and start again by rubbing it over his body.
  4. Eventually, you should be able to place the tarp on the horse’s back and lead him around wearing it. Put the tarp on the ground, and ask the horse to walk over it. Once he’s accepted both those scenarios, it’s job done.

Desensitizing your horse to sounds

Horses are often startled and spooked by certain sounds and noises that they encounter at competitions. For example, the sound of applause can be alarming to a horse that’s unfamiliar with it, or a public address system announcement can be scary too.

The easiest way to solve the problem of noise-induced spooking is to make a recording of the offending sound and play it to your horse. Play it outside the stable, while you’re riding, and even in the horse’s paddock. Your horse will get to realize pretty quickly that the noise is not frightening at all, and it will fade into the background.

Desensitizing your horse to activity

Many large shows have lots of people milling around the arenas and the working-in areas. Some indoor arenas have corridors and walkways that run adjacent to the dressage arenas or have a busy café that overlooks the competition area, which can be very alarming to some horses.

The only way to get your horse used to that is to just keep on taking him to shows! If you think that your horse is likely to become alarmed by the activity at the event venue, get there early enough to allow him time to acclimatize before you start working-in.

Alternatively, ask a group of friends to come to your yard while you work your horse, ideally armed with small children, dogs, bicycles, and making lots of noise! Ask your army of volunteers to create as much diversion as they can outside of the arena while you school your horse.

Eventually, those outside interferences will fade into the background, and your horse will learn that nothing outside the arena is a threat to him. Some horses even settle down to work as soon as they come down the centerline, becoming unaffected by what’s going on outside the boards.

In conclusion

A spooky horse can be a nightmare for the dressage rider, making it almost impossible to get a good score in a competition.

Taking the time to desensitize your horse to the many distractions that can occur at event venues will ultimately reward you with a horse that’s more relaxed, calmer, and more enjoyable to ride and handle.

Did your horse benefit from desensitizing training? Tell us your story and tips in the comment box below.

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