Trouble with desensitization.
Hi all, and thanks for taking the time to read this.
A few weeks ago I purchased a 15y.o. Arabian who was reportedly broke to ride and "Just a little spooky." When I got him home, he turned out to be the most spooky horse I've ever owned or worked with, and after some digging around, I found out that the person who I bought him from was afraid to ride him, so had him sitting for 5 years completely untouched. And this shows.
I'm completely restarting him from the ground. He's spooky, dominant, and has no manners at all. I've been teaching him his ground manners, and he's been doing fairly well, except for with one thing - desensitization.
For desensitizing, I started off by just being silly around his paddock, until he got used to me skipping, doing jumping jacks, stepping on the crunchy plants, etc. Once he started ignoring it, and it didn't spoke him any more, I introduced him to tying and the hot walker, leaving him on both until he calmed down. He now does great for both. He moves sometimes while tied but we're working on that. I introduced the lounge line, and the lounge whip, and both, he's now responding great too. No spook, lounges beautifully, lets the whip touch him all over, I can shake it next to him, behind him, under him, in front of him, smack it on the ground all over him. He doesn't kick it any more when I touch his back feet, just stands there and accepts it.
But at the same time as I introduced the lounge whip, I also introduced a plastic bag, tied to the end of the lounge whip, and he completely lost it. He rears, kicks, and spins. Always keeps his butt to it, so I can't get to his front half without being in "kicking zone". He will not calm down regardless of how long I have it on him. It's only been a week, but he's made very, very, VERY little progress while, with everything else, he's made excellent progress much quicker. So another boarder at the facility while I keep him suggested I put him in the wash rack, so he can't spin. That way I can touch him all over, he can't go anywhere, and would learn that it doesn't hurt, and isn't really that scary. It made sense to me at the time.
So I started introducing him to the wash rack. Working him near it, and when I tried to get him in, putting pressure on him when he pulled back by making him move his back feet, spinning my lead rope, and taking pressure off when he was facing it, turned to it, doing what I wanted him to do. After quite some time I got him in it, and he stood there quietly and calmly, so I went and got the bag. It was probably a mistake to start that immediately after I got him in the rack for the first time, but I learned that it was a mistake to even try it in the wash rack, when he freaked out, slammed down onto his knees, and crawled UNDER the bar on the wash rack, ripping his back open on the bottom of the bar. I put ointment on him to stop infection, and tied him back up to the tie bar where I had started and since have been doing it there again, but he still kicks, still rears, snorts, spins, kicks, throws a major spooking fit.
Does any one have any tips? What am I doing wrong? Please help me, I'm starting to think I may just be making things worse for him. :(
Again, thank you for reading, and any advice you may have.
It sounds like you've been doing very well so far. I've learned that horses either want to fight or take flight from something scary. It sounds like your horse was very afraid and when she couldn't flee, because you locked her in a tiny space, then she tried to fight her way free. I would take her into an open arena, where she has space to move and try what the guy in the video below does. The plastic bag is introduced at about 2:15. I included the video because it can be much easier to learn from seeing something, rather than trying to make your own images of what someone has typed out for you. Good Luck!
Day 5 - SCEA Rescue Horse - Desensitizing to Spooky Objects - YouTube
Horses are flight or fight. Since you've taken away the flight ability, he's definitely going to panic. He feels cornered. In the washrack, that will just intensify his panic, because he literally had no where to go. So he'd rather injure himself to get away than to risk being "eaten" by the plastic bag.
Do you hold the bag out in front of you where it's sandwiched between you and the horse? That could also make him feel uncomfortable. Rather, put yourself between him and the plastic bag. It will make him feel safer with you between him and the bag. Work slowly with it. Walk up to him with it, and if he's calm, retreat. Repeat this step slowly getting closer and closer to him, always keeping you between him and the bag. Then, when he's calm with you standing next to him with it, try to progress by touching him with it. Let him see what's going on when this happens. This really helped me with my abused pony. He went from running at the sight of it, to me being able to rub him down with it. Don't get frustrated, and don't forget to reassure him.
Put treats in the bag. Everytime he comes nesr the bag he gets a treat.
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I'm not a trainer or instructor, but I've got a spooky Arabian mare that I learned to ride on and that I've worked hard at for the last year.
If ABC spooks her, then I have to try AB. Or "A". Or "a". I have to break things down into something small enough for her to swallow.
Desensitization is not about creating a laundry list of things that she is used to, but creating trust that you will not allow her to be harmed. Every time you push hard enough to cause a freak, you've gone 20 steps back. The key is to be watching, and to back off with the threat before the threat causes a freak.
With the plastic bag, that may mean you can only come within 20 feet. Then 15. Then 10. Or you may need to give up the plastic bag entirely until the horse has more trust in you. A few weeks is NOTHING to some horses. My mare would break into a heavy sweat - the lather kind - just standing in her corral. It was FOUR MONTHS before she stopped doing that. No pressure. Nothing happening. She just was that nervous.
Maybe you need to back off and just spend some good times with him. Lead him on a lead rope and watch how he behaves.
Desensitizing is about building trust. Every time you push to far, you create fear and break down trust.
I bought my mare after being told she was perfect for a beginner. For THREE YEARS I rode her, but the more I expected of her the less she gave. It finally reached the point where I figured I was going to get killed or badly injured. She got an 8 month break from riding while I worked on learning to ride using other horses. Then I had a pro come train her 4 days/week. The pro concluded she had never been broken to ride at all, and she thus had no idea what any cues meant other than what she picked up from me riding her. She spent 8 weeks in training before the pro was willing to try getting on her back, and most of that was desensitizing and teaching cues from the ground. The day after the pro got on her, I did - and I've been riding her about 5 times a week for the last 9 months. She is still about...oh...20 times spookier than our geldings. I rode her with the geldings a few days ago in the desert with 30-35 mph winds. The geldings were fine. Mia let me practice sideways hops and the "OMG Crouch" about a dozen times - but she never refused to go forward when asked, so that was progress.
I suggest slowing down and lowering your expectations. Take baby steps. Or smaller. YOu cannot build trust if you push him hard enough to create fear. Horses don't learn squat when fear takes over. All just IMHO.
Given his unknown history, you might want to leave the plastic bag thing alone until you have a better relationship with him. I've seen and known Arabian "liberty/halter trainers" who pretty much train the horse to freak out at the sight of a plastic bag on the end of a lunge line. They use it to make the horse get all high headed and snorty in the show ring.
Disclaimer: Not all Arabian trainers do it, or even most or many. I am only saying that I know a few who do.
I've always found that desensitizing is best done when the horse is free. It may take a little more time initially, but the lesson is learned in a way that the horse always feels that he can escape. If you walked around his field toting your plastic bag with you just like you did with the skipping and stomping, etc., he would eventually ignore it and you could work your way closer. It also helps to NOT focus your attention on the horse or the bag. If you're focused, he's focused. You want him to chill, so you should be nice and chill and just doing your own thing. (Obviously, you need to pay enough attention to the horse to not get injured, but don't focus on him.) You're trying to show him that the bag doesn't scare you, doesn't hurt you, and won't do either to him.
You had the right idea smacking the ground with the whip. Let's take that a little further. Stand with your back to him and a few feet off his head. Begin working the whip side to side about the width of your shoulders. This way it poses no threat to him. Gradually work it wider and higher then way up high. If he doesn't react, give him a break as a reward for a few minutes. The next time stand with your back parallel to this neck and begin with the smallest movement again. Be sure to do both sides before you advance in this work. Now, stand facing him and flap the whip parallel to his body. Don't look at him but away like you are unconcerned. If you're not focusing on what you are doing, why should he? You are flooding him with stimulus with the wash rack as well. When he seems bored with the bag on the whip, only then work on the wash rack. Encourage him to stand facing where he would enter. Groom him with your hands so there is no pressure on him. Then ask for a step forward, then back him out. He needs to know there is an escape. Do this a few times then ask for the other hoof, always backing out. Under no circumstances should you introduce anything to him at this time, just focus on getting him in and backing out. The hose is introduced the same was the plastic bag was, not in the wash rack but where he can move around if worried. Just go back to the small movement as you face away from him. Same technique for fly spray only use water instead of throwing away expensive spray.
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