Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Horses are flight animals, naturally quick to react to potential threats by running away. Sometimes this happens suddenly, sometimes it becomes a habit, earning the horse the dreaded label of being “spooky.” Often this challenge is addressed by desensitizing the reactive horse. Desensitizing is a commonly used method to get horses used to potentially scary objects so they no longer react to them. I have worked with many spooky horses and in my experience traditional methods of desensitizing have limited effectiveness.
WHAT IS DESENSITIZING?
Desensitizing refers to exposure to something that is frightening until the nervous system no longer reacts with a fight or flight response. Methods of desensitizing generally involve introducing a scary object, when the horse reacts the “pressure” of the scary object is maintained until the horse becomes still, then it is removed. This is an example of negative reinforcement. An adverse stimulus is introduced and when the horse’s behavior improves it is removed. While negative reinforcement can provide some benefit to improving behavior it is not the ideal approach to building confidence and relationship.
This type of training can also trigger a “freeze” response in the horse, which keeps the nervous system in a “fight or flight” state but the horse is immobilized. In a “freeze” state the horse is not reacting but adrenaline is flowing and the horse is not in a state of mind for learning or connecting. A frozen horse is dangerous and can react explosively. A horse in a chronic state of freeze is said to be in “learned helplessness,” a state in which the nervous system has given up any hope of avoiding a threat and has effectively shut down.
Desensitizing the horse in this manner focuses on reactions to external objects. No matter how many things the horse is desensitized to, there is no way to prepare them for everything they may encounter in the real world.
Rather than desensitizing we can work with the sensitive nature of the horse and create consistent and dependable responses to cues to help them relax, connect, and stay aware of the rider or handler in stressful situations. Often people focus on the “scary” thing and unconsciously send a message to the horse that danger is afoot. Rather than focusing attention on those external things, we can bring our full attention and intention to helping the horse relax and follow cues to stay soft and attuned in any situation, even in the presence of “scary” objects. This approach is a form of positive reinforcement, when the horse responds to the cues of the handler or rider they are rewarded with a sense of calm and safety. Relaxation responses create a release of feel-good hormones in the body, which encourages the horse to repeat the response. They learn that when they stay connected and follow the cues of their person they are safe.