How To Desensitize Your Horse To Anything

How To Desensitize Your Horse To Anything

The best approach to help a horse understand something is to break it down into steps.

Horses can’t see the big picture like we can, and they can only focus on doing one thing at a time. They also don’t know the end goal.

But once you figure out a way to break the training exercise apart into multiple pieces, and just work on one piece at a time, you’ll have more success.

There was a woman who lived down the road from me. She knew that I trained horses, so she called me to see if I could help her with her horse that was terrified of clippers.

Every time she would try to trim a bridle path in the horse’s mane, the horse would freak out and run backwards.

One time he even ran through the fence and made a huge mess. She bet me $100 that I couldn’t trim the horse’s bridle path in less than an hour.

I’m not much of a betting man, but I smiled politely and told her I’d take that bet. We agreed to meet up at the local arena in town.

She arrives, gets this horse out of the trailer, puts a halter on him, and hands him to me. Then she puts the clippers in my hands and walks over to the bleachers to sit and watch.

We already know that the horse is terrified of these clippers, so the absolute wrong approach would be to just try to start trimming on him. So what do we do?

Well, let’s zoom out and look at the bigger picture. What this horse actually needs is a boost of confidence. He’s scared to death of these clippers and thinks they’re going to hurt him.

So we just need to show him that’s not true.

(By the way… I drew a flowchart that will show you step-by-step how to do what you’re about to see. If you’d like to get a copy of it, just go here:

I began by standing out at the end of the lead line and turning on the clippers.

As expected, the horse darted backwards away from me. But I didn’t turn the clippers off. I just followed him as he backed up, and I kept the clippers on until I noticed a change.

What was the change? The horse stopped walking backwards.

See, if I would have turned the clippers off as he was backing up, what is that teaching him? It’s teaching him that the way to get rid of the clippers is to keep backing up.

And since that is the complete opposite of what we want, I didn’t give him a reward (the clippers turning off) until he made a positive change.

It’s important to note here that the reward was given for doing something very small in the big scheme of things.

I’m trying to get the horse to let me trim his bridle path, but I’m rewarding him for not walking backwards.

That is what breaking it down into small steps is all about. You reward the small, positive things.

Now I’m going to turn on the clippers again, but this time I’m going to start about halfway down the lead line instead of at the end of it.

This time the horse doesn’t walk backwards. He just stands there all bug eyed. You can tell from his facial expression, the snorts, and the flaring nostrils that he is still terrified. But he’s not walking backwards which is an improvement from when we first started.

I hold the clippers steady out in front of my face, and about 5 seconds later, the horse actually gets a little curious and slightly tilts his nose forward to take a little inspection smell.

I immediately shut the clippers off and lower them
. Why? It was another positive change. Instead of just being completely terrified, the horse actually became brave enough to inspect the clippers.

So I rewarded that “try”.

You may be wondering, ‘Well what would you do if the horse start backing up again like the first time?’ I would do exactly what I did before until he didn’t do it anymore.

Anyone who is going to work with horses needs to be prepared that horses will progress and then they often regress too. It’s fine. Just work with them at the level they’re at instead of the level you want them to be.

If they regress, go back to what you did before until they progress further.

One way to build confidence in a horse is by teaching them that they can make things move out of their way. For example, this horse is terrified of clippers, but if he could be convinced that he can push the clippers away from him, it will help eliminate some fear.

So my next step is to do exactly that. I held the clippers up in front of my face, turned them on, and started walking backwards. I pulled on the lead line to make the horse follow me.

Every time the horse would take a step forward, towards the clippers, I would turn them off and reward him for the positive change. After just a couple of minutes of doing this, the horse was following me around the arena with no issues.

Now it was time for me to get a little more particular. I’ve been pretty easy going with this horse up to this point. But now he’s showing some real signs of confidence around these clippers.

I held the lead line and stood about two feet in front of the horse. I turned on the clippers and quickly put them up near his face and then quickly brought them back to my side.

He flinched a little, but nothing major, so I did it again. But this time I left the clippers up near the left side of his face.

He was still really nervous, but he handled it. After a minute of the clippers being there, he actually lowered his head slightly.

I immediately turned off the clippers and gave him the reward. Lowering his head was a form of relaxation and letting some of that worry go.

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Now it was time to actually let the clippers touch his head. But before I get to that part of the story, I’m reminded of something very important I need to point out here.

Whenever you’re trying to desensitize a horse or get them used to being around a “scary” object, never ever do anything slowly and creepy.

When you move slow and creepy, it could make the horse think that the object is a predator sneaking up on them. They remain very unsure and bothered about it because they are wondering if it’s about to bite them, sting them or hurt them in some other way. Instead, use confidence and be firm. Act like it’s no big deal and you do this every day.

When I finally let the clippers touch the horse’s head, I turned them around backwards so that he could just feel the vibration instead of the actual clippers. This was just another way to break something down into an easier step.

Instead of just going ahead and trimming some hair, I let him feel what the vibration felt like and let him get used to that. Then once he tolerated that pretty well, I turned the clippers around and trimmed a perfect batch of hair out of his bridle path. The owner was stunned and exclaimed to me, “that’s amazing”.

It took about 40 minutes from the time we started until we finished. I didn’t let her pay me the $100 because she agreed to let me film the whole thing for the Carson James membership website.

I pulled the video off the site, and it’s normally for members only, but I thought seeing a visual of this story would be helpful. You can watch it below:

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The only reason that this worked was because the timing was correct. It was the key to everything.

And timing goes hand-in-hand with pressure and release.

You have to be particular and make sure you get the timing right when you add or release pressure. A second too soon or too late can mean the difference in your horse “getting it” or being confused.

I define pressure as making something uncomfortable to the horse. Note that I said uncomfortable, not painful. To make something uncomfortable, you get in the horse’s way.

You make it difficult for them when they don’t do what you are asking them to do. Release is the exact opposite. When the horse does want you want, you get out of their way, and make it really easy for them to do it.

Whenever you add pressure to the horse (by getting in his way), hold that pressure until the horse finds his way out of it by making a positive change, and don’t give up.

Once he makes a positive change, your job is to provide an instant, immediate release of pressure and get out of their way. If the horse isn’t figuring it out, you may need to add more pressure until you see that positive change.

Over time, as the horse begins to understand, less and less pressure will be necessary to get him to respond quicker and more accurately to what you’re asking him to do.

This is what creates a horse that is “light”. However, with that said, you usually must be “heavy” with your horse before he can learn to become light.

But that’s a whole other story…if you’d like to read it, read this blog post I did explaining what it means to be heavy before you can have a light horse:

About The Author

Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship. For the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. He was often in situations where he either had to figure out how to help the horse understand, or it could easily turn into a life or death situation. Carson now travels the country putting on training clinics teaching people the fundamentals of Horsemanship. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.