Desensitizing for Success 101
I’ve come to learn some major lessons about making desensitizing training a success. I thought I’d share with you the 'golden rules' I live by when I desensitize any one of my 4 horses. Some of it might seem obvious to many of you, but hopefully you'll find something helpful to you in your training.
1. I never sneak up or around my horses with something their not used to. An animal who’s instinct tells him to stay on high alert for possible attack is going to know something’s up. Bye bye trust.
2. I never tie my horses up for desensitizing training since it straight away will make my horse feel trapped and ready for a fight. Desensitizing training is way more effective and safer if the horse is secured only by halter and lead rope. That way if the horse does overreact (which he almost certainly will), he can withdraw without feeling like he has to fight with me for his life.
3. I don’t stand directly in front of my horse, but at about a 45° angle to either side. I keep my horse’s head slightly turned toward me so that it makes it much more difficult for him to reach me should he kick out in fear. It’s often a good idea to hold onto the halter to prevent his head from hitting mine if he suddenly panics.
4. The first thing I need to do is establish a starting point. Find out how close I can get to the horse with the new object (or where on the head or legs I can touch) without getting a reaction. When I desensitized my TB gelding for worming, our starting point was the air around his muzzle without the wormer in my hand. I just moved my hands rhythmically around his mouth. This part of the training was easy for him and meant we started with a positive.
5. I keep exposure times short and withdraw the stimulus to a non sensitive area before the horse reacts. I praise/reward frequently for success in the beginning. Increase exposure time as he gets more confident.
6. If/when my horse does over react by withdrawing away from the new stimulus, it’s important for me to move with him as much as I can at the same time as you keep moving the new object in a rhythmic fashion. At this point I may need to run to stay by his side. I don't take the new object away or try to hide it from him. This simply rewards the unwanted behaviour which is a very, very powerful motivator to repeat the overreaction. I won’t be rid of a behaviour I ended up rewarding no matter how much I didn’t mean to. I try to avoid this sitation if I can. I resume training by going back to point 5 and trying again.
7. If the horse will not allow me to find and keep that starting point, I'll correct by having him yield his hindquarters away from me or by lunging in a few circles on each side. My signal for him to withdraw must be very firm and his pace should snappy...even urgent. Making allowances for a lazy withdrawal won’t be enough to make standing still for desensitizing work to look to the horse like the easiest option.
8. If I can find a way to reduce the intensity of the new object, this will work hugely in our favour. For example, folding the plastic bag, saddle pad, rug to reduce its size also reduces fear. The more sound a new object makes the more likely my horse will overreact. To overcome this in the beginning I'd try approaching with the clippers turned off and then progress to the lowest speed setting. Moreover the more the object moves, the more frightening it is to your horse. Irregular movements also cause a horse to become more excited. Rhythmic movement for some reason has a calming effect on horses. The more complicated an object is has an effect on horse fear. As an example, clippers without the cord attached are less worrying than clippers with the cord. Western style saddles are more complex with all their extra rigging than English style saddles. It’s often helpful to make a new object look less complicated by removing some parts initally to find a starting point.
9. I don’t train to failure. I keep the training sessions short and always finish on a positive. Before I walk away from my horse I always give him a rub or a scratch in a hard to reach area with no strings attached.
10. I'm patient. I reward small progessions even if that means all my horse did was to look in the direction of the new object while staying calm. He'll get another reward if he touches it with his nose for a smell. I'm sure never to set the bar too high so that success comes quickly and easily. This is a HUGE confidence builder that speeds up the process.
11. I don't just desensitize when I need it. In other words, I don’t try and teach my horse to open his mouth for worming when he needs worming. He's been wormed but we'll practice the exercise in between doses.