The term ‘desensitize’ is widely used in the horse world. But the meaning is often misunderstood.
We should not want a horse that loses all his sensitivity — completely dulled out to any and all stimuli. You actually want your horse to respond to a flag, or your leg, or rein pressure. The goal is not to have a horse that ignores everything. The goal is to build a mentally sound horse that will respond instead of react.
Many people are convinced that more desensitizing is the key to a safe horse. That it will completely fix one that spooks, gets scared, or runs off. But when people ask me how to help a spooky horse, I don’t suggest more desensitizing. Because when a horse is spooky, it’s usually not because they need more exposure. They need more confidence.
Desensitizing Example #1
Let’s say that I was driving through downtown Atlanta with my friend Robert in the passenger seat. Now I’d never been to Atlanta before, but Robert has assured me that he’s been there hundreds of times. He knows exactly where to go, what exit to take, etc. I’m aware that there are bad parts of the city, and I definitely don’t want to be in a situation where I’d wind up there or end up lost and not knowing where to go.
So I start out trusting that Robert has it covered. (Just stick with me here. I promise I’m going to explain how to desensitize a horse). But, as we start going, I quickly learn that Robert doesn’t really know the area as good as he said he did.
He failed to provide direction so I missed my exit, ended up in the wrong lane, and nearly got plowed by a tractor trailer. After an hour or so we end up in a really bad part of town. I have a death grip on the steering wheel and feeling nervous, stressed, jumpy, and spooky.
I finally tell Robert to just quit talking. I’ll have to figure this out on my own because everything Robert is telling me to do is getting us into worse situations. At this point, my survival instincts kick in and I feel like I can keep us protected more than Robert can.
Now Let’s Flip The Switch
Let’s say Robert really did know the area and he’s the world’s best tour guide. I would get more relaxed the longer I rode with Robert. I’d have one hand on the steering and maybe a soda in the other. I’d just be cruising and relaxing with my seat tilted back, confident that Robert had my back and could keep me out of trouble and guide me where I needed to go.
So Here’s The Moral Of The Story
I’ve been driving my whole adult life. I’m not afraid of semi trucks, stop signs, traffic, exits, etc. I didn’t need more exposure to that environment to become ok with it. What I needed was clear leadership.
That’s The Difference (And How You Truly Desensitize A Horse)
That’s why when people ask me how to desensitize a horse, I try to get them to see the bigger picture.
To Create A Horse That Doesn’t Spook Easily, You Need To Become A Great Leader
Ok, so how do you become a great leader?
By clearly and consistently communicating what you want your horse to do. Proper timing and a good approach ensures clear communication. A horse that is focused on you and what you’re asking him to do, won’t get easily distracted and bothered by all these other elements.
He can trust that you have his best interest at heart and you’re doing what’s best for him. You know how to keep his mind occupied and cause your idea to become his idea. You know how to ‘read’ your horse and give him support and direction when he needs it.
Desensitizing Example #2
I was doing a clinic once, and there was a horse that would absolutely come unglued every time he got close to this banner hanging on the fence. Every time we’d come around to the right, he’d get really bothered by the banner, so I’d turn him left and have him trot off. I gave him a way out.
Then I did it again and again, getting a little closer to the banner each time. After a while the horse learned that the banner was not a big deal. He became ‘desensitized’ to it. He stopped reacting to it. But not because I was making him stand there and look at it to increase his exposure. It was because I was giving him something else to focus on. I was providing leadership. After a few more laps, he went right by the banner and it was no longer a problem.
Now Let’s Actually Talk About How To Desensitize A Horse
This is not to say that it’s a bad idea to expose a horse to certain objects so that they become more familiar with various things — saddles, slickers, clippers, umbrellas, etc.
I made a video a while back showing the desensitizing process and I’m putting it right here for you to watch.
I’d also highly recommend getting my desensitizing flowchart as it lays out step-by-step what you should do to desensitize a horse to anything.
Generally, you present a horse with an object and you keep presenting it with good timing until he’s not afraid. That’s a beneficial thing to do.
But here’s the deal. If you don’t also build some inner confidence into your horse, the results are often times not long lasting.
Instead of trying to desensitize your horse to everything he could possibly get scared of (can you imagine how big and funny of a list this would be?), you become the leader he can trust and have confidence in. Then when he encounters something he’s not sure of, he will know he can look to you for the answer and security he needs.