Should you spend weeks or even months desensitizing your horse? Does it really help, or is it a huge waste of time? Does more desensitizing cure a spooky horse?
Have you ever been around a horse that has had hours and hours of time spent desensitizing him to every object you can imagine, but he is still spooky? This is actually more common than you would think.
Does Desensitizing Work To Cure A Spooky Horse?
This brings us to the question of WHY, after months of doing exactly what many experts tell us to do, our horses are still spooky and not as calm and trusting as we had hoped.
You may notice some small changes as a result of all this desensitizing effort, but even to get those few improvements took way longer than it should have. The reason for this is because desensitizing is not what makes a horse less spooky and more confident. Desensitizing simply gets him okay with certain objects — saddles, people, ropes, tarps, etc. Exposing a horse to a saddle may keep him from running sideways when you try to put it on. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is confident about it.
A Spooky Horse Is Cured By Confidence
The truth is that horses cannot be consistently safe and reliable until they have confidence. Although desensitizing may cause the horse to become indifferent to various objects, it cannot bring true inner confidence into the horse. The only thing that can instill that confidence is the human by using clear and effective communication and leadership. Then the horse can quickly and easily understand everything that is expected of him.
So, in your desensitizing sessions, the ultimate goal would not be getting your horse to ignore an object. The goal would be to build confidence. That is what will eliminate the spooky in the horse.
There are four critical things you have to know about how to use a desensitizing session to build confidence.
Do not have expectations that will not and should not be met. You actually do not want a horse that totally ignores his surroundings. Just do enough to where the horse can live with exposure to an object, but not so much that he doesn’t respond to it.
You actually WANT your horse to RESPOND to a flag or other training aid, but you don’t want him to spook and REACT uncontrollably to it. Also remember that it is utterly impossible to desensitize your horse to every single thing he may encounter. You may get him used to seeing rabbits on the trail, but then he spooks when he sees a squirrel. You get the picture. Focus on desensitizing to only the necessary basics — clippers, water hose, saddle, blanket, etc. You can see a helpful flow chart for doing this here: Desensitizing Flow Chart
Timing Is Crucial When Desensitizing
The better your timing is, the more effective the desensitizing (or anything else) will be. With some horses, just simply exposing them to the object a few times is enough for them to understand there is no need to spook at it or fear it. But with many horses, it is not enough to just expose him to the object. You must be able to read the horse and hang in there until you see a positive change before you take the object away. This will quickly build bravery and confidence into the horse.
Don’t Overdo Desensitizing A Horse To Spooky Objects
Don’t overdo it. People often cross this line. I’ve lost count of the number of horses I have been on that had literally years of desensitizing from the ground, but were still a mentally anxious, spooky mess when I climbed on their back. The owner had spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to desensitize the horse. When they didn’t see the results they wanted, they did even more. This can actually take the willingness out of the horse and make him dull.
Then it is a challenge to create a light and responsive horse because the horse has been mistakenly taught NOT to respond. Of the hundreds of colts I’ve started, I’ve never had a single one bolt, be terrified, or put me in a dangerous situation. The interesting thing about this is that I never spent more than a few hours working on de-spooking or desensitizing any colt. I did enough to be able to get on their back without them getting too unsure. Then, by the third or fourth ride, we were riding outside an arena or down a long dirt road.
I don’t say that to brag about my colt starting skills, but to demonstrate the point that desensitizing is not the cure-all for a spooky horse that many say it is.
Don’t rely on desensitizing to make your horse confident and safe. Spend your time on what actually accomplishes this goal. Become the confident leader your horse needs and that is what will instill confidence down inside of him. If someone handed me a spooky horse and said that I had four days to have him riding around in a relaxed manner, what would be the best use of my time?
Teaching him to play with a ball.
Getting him to not spook when being led through some obstacles.
Teaching to totally ignore a flag or any other object.
Teaching him that a rider on his back is not a predator.
Helping him know he can freely move out with a human on his back.
Teaching him to bend easily in both directions.
Ensure that he gives to pressure of any kind so that he can begin learning to slow down and stop.
You could do everything in list A and still have a dangerous horse underneath you. But the communication required in list B would quickly convince the horse that you are a leader he can trust. This would prevent him from spooking and resorting to the flight or fight instincts that are his natural line of defense.
Instilling confidence, not more desensitizing, is what truly cures spookiness.