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.