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Managing a "Spooky" Horse: An Alternative to Desensitizing (Part 2)

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Most desensitizing methods focus on exposure to external stimuli. We can be even more effective by focusing instead on creating relaxation responses to cues from the handler/rider.


The first step in helping the horse relax is to gain control of our own nervous system. By creating our own space of safety and using the breath to help remain calm and grounded we can begin to have a positive influence on the horse. If we are freaking out we aren’t going to convince the horse that they are safe! Our energy will affect theirs, so activating our own parasympathetic nervous system by taking deep breaths and slowly exhaling is a great place to begin. We also need to set clear boundaries for ourselves. If we don’t feel safe on the horse we can work with them on the ground first. We can use a wand (dressage whip) to keep the horse out of our space without touching them with it. If the horse is pushy or ignores boundaries we can make a noise with the wand to get their attention and a response. While this may not be calming for the horse, it will ensure our own safety so that we can begin to have a positive influence.


The next step is to set boundaries for the horse. Without boundaries horses will develop a wide range of avoidance techniques which can range from annoying to dangerous. I think of avoidance as a game of getting the person out of position. When a horse avoids I focus on staying in position, sometimes moving with the horse and sometimes standing my ground and waiting for them to yield to me. I imagine an invisible fence that encloses the horse in a bubble. It is up to me to reinforce the parameters of the bubble consistently so that the horse respects them as he would an actual fence. While I am not controlling what he does inside the bubble, he needs to stay in that space to have time to process and work through his fear. I want to be able to block the horse from rushing forward, from shoving over me or moving to the other side, from pulling away, and from backing up, so that we can stay present with the challenge at hand. From the beginning of training I practice these boundaries, teaching the horse to stop when the wand is waved in front, to move away from my body when asked to do an outside turn, to yield to the rope when I ground in my body and to follow the rope with light pressure, and to go forward from a gentle tap from the wand on the hindquarters. With these parameters in place I can hold space for the horse as I continue to use my breath to encourage relaxation.


With boundaries in place we can focus on grounding. I think of grounding the horse as the ability to release all pressure and keep the horse quiet. This is different from creating a “freeze” response. Keeping the horse grounded requires paying keen attention and responding in the moment to maintain attention and reinforce boundaries. If we are using constant pressure on the horse for restraint we will not be able to help them release tension in the mind and body. Beginning with no pressure, we can teach the horse to respond to light pressure. Grounding means that we can let go of tension and pressure on the horse, take a deep breath, and our horse will stay still and attuned. Often people fail to appreciate the importance of stillness! Practicing grounding is a very powerful tool that can be used anytime the horse becomes anxious.


When the horse is grounded we can use bodywork techniques to help bring the horse into a more relaxed state. These are best practiced in a quiet and safe space first so that the horse is accustomed to them. The most simple of these practices is simply laying a hand on the horse while staying grounded and breathing deeply. Notice how the horse feels, imagine that you can soften and melt the tissue under your hand with your touch, perhaps use small rhythmic movements to help the horse release tension. I began incorporating bodywork into my training after attending a Masterson Method Clinic many years ago and have been amazed at how effective these tools are for shifting the horse into a calmer state and softening the body. Since then I have learned from a wide range of practitioners and offer Yin Horsemanship Clinics in partnership with equine bodyworker Deb D’Amato to teach horse owners how to integrate bodywork into their daily routines. Simple hands-on practices can facilitate a shift to the parasympathetic nervous system, release endorphins and other “feel-good” hormones, and strengthen connection between horse and human. Practicing first on the ground, we can use similar practices while riding to encourage the horse to stay soft, release tension, maintain rhythmic movement, and to respond to gentle cues by following and yielding rather than bracing and resisting.


In the beginning this process may take a bit of time. Setting boundaries, blocking avoidance, and acclimating the horse to responding to relaxation cues may be new to the horse as well as the person! I teach these techniques daily and while people may master them quickly in the safety of a class, often when real world challenges arise the lessons go out the window! It is normal to react to a nervous or challenging horse by tensing up, tightening the rope or rein, shortening or holding the breath, and sending a message of fear rather than becoming a calming influence. In this approach the responsibility is entirely on the human, not the horse, to respond with self-control and consistency. The horse will respond to the energy we are projecting, so mindfulness of the messages we are sending is crucial. At first it may be challenging to stay calm and centered in frightening situations, to block a horse practiced in the art of avoidance, and to create a space of safety where you can help the horse relax and connect. With practice the whole process will take a matter of seconds, eventually a single breath will be enough to restore calm, connection and softness. When we become the leader that the horse needs they will follow us willingly, with sensitivity fully intact.

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