Having read through the 7 games thread again I see the word desensitise used many time. Desensitising was a word banned on James Roberts yard, and was considered by him to be one of the greatest crimes you could commit in horsemanship. I hear howls of disapproval down my broadband link so must explain the reasoning :-)
When one desensitises a horse, human or any other living being to a stimulus the stimulus is applied up to the point where the stimulus is not even registered in the mind of the being. A ticking clock in you grand parents house is a good example. When you visit them it drives you nuts, but they don't even hear it. After a day or so neither do you. Go home for a while and the re-visit them and its' back to driving you nuts again, desensitisation in not a persistent phenomenon.
In the horse world let us say that you play with a plastic bag around your horse for hours. To start the horse in scared, but slowly it comes to accept the bag. If you are desensitising the horse you then continue to the point that the horse does not even know that the bag is there anymore.
This has evolutionary benefit as a phenomenon. There are certain stimuli which are continuously in the sensory range of a horse, the sun or wind for example. It is a waste of energy to respond to these stimuli and could distract from important stimuli like a predator. Therefore there is a mechanism in the brain to totally ignore common stimuli which we tap into when we desensitise a horse.
Unfortunately folks tend to desensitise horses to intermittent stimuli like plastic bags. They keep them in the horses sensory range until the horse does not respond anymore. This has gone past the learning stage about the bag and into the totally not noticed stage. The bag ceases to exist as far as the mind is concerned. The snag is that if in the distant future a bag reappears then for the horse it is a new stimulus and they react accordingly.
James was a strong advocate of making a horse confident with a stimulus, not desensitised to it. Thus the stimulus should only be applied to the point that they are confident and curious about it, not totally ignoring it. This form of learning is much more persistent and thus the bag is less likely to provoke a strong response in the future. It does take some skill at reading the horse to know precisely when to quit however and I for one committed the sin of desensitising Filly to many stimuli by not spotting the signs early enough and quitting at the confident stage.
Desensitization is NOT about creating a laundry list of things the horse ignores. No amount of plastic bags help if he will then spook at a slightly different plastic bag or a piece of paper. No one can create a laundry list long enough to prevent a horse from spooking on a trail or in a town. It would require THOUSANDS of things on the list!
Desensitization is about getting a horse to handle its fear and not over-react, and also gets the horse to respond to a new 'threat' by checking to see if the rider views it as a threat. Done right, it teaches the horse enough emotional control that it can be startled, but will look to the rider instead of letting its emotions spin out of control.
I have no idea how Parelli or other 'names' describe desensitization. But yes, teaching a horse that something it thought was scary can be boring IS a part of the process, provided that 'boring' feeling is linked to trust in his rider.
I think we are getting into semantics here which could result in endless argument.
Well I got myself attacked for trying to say the same as the OP - who did it much better than me I have to say.
What I find odd is that the word has now begun to envelope everything we do with a horse as per its education from being groomed to having its tack on. The word is being used out of context - the OP explains it well - it means that the horse becomes unaware/numb to things which isnt the case at all when we train horses to accept things and develop self control. A young horse 'gets used' to having a saddle on - its still totally aware of that saddle being there but has learnt through a process of trust in its handler and understanding that the saddle isnt a monster so deals with it. The foals that we handled from birth never even flinched at anything new we did with them
You can shake a bag in front of a horse to the point that it 'blanks off' to it but to rely on doing this with everything a horse is likely to encounter would mean never leaving your menage - if you even got that far - and then you'd be riding along constantly worrying if you'd missed something out and the horse would pick up on that
The plastic bag on the end of the stick is not the same plastic bag thats blowing along the road and if your horse doesn't trust in you when you tell it its not dangerous or you have been so engrossed with shaking that bag in its face that you failed to impress on it that when you tell it not to move its feet it ignores you and bolts off you are pretty much stuffed
There is nothing wrong with getting horses used to things - thats how we educate them but working with them to develop their self confidence & create a bond of respect and trust will allow them to cope with pretty much all that they have to face.
Look at all the new design and quite amazing jumps the horses in the Olympics had to face in the eventing and showjumping - I didnt see any of the riders showing them to the horses to desensitise them first, no one was saying - Oh he hasnt seen anything like that before so....' These horses are trained to go where the rider points them.
Preparing to get attacked again!!!!
"A ticking clock in you grand parents house is a good example. When you visit them it drives you nuts, but they don't even hear it. After a day or so neither do you. Go home for a while and the re-visit them and its' back to driving you nuts again, desensitisation in not a persistent phenomenon."
Actually, it would be more like this:
You hear your grandparents clock. You scream with fear, then run around knocking over furniture in an attempt to escape the clock. Grandma gets knocked to the floor. Your grandfather grabs you and holds you until you realize the clock isn't going to kill you. You snort with relief, and then start to trust your grandparents.
Until the telephone rings. You scream with fear, then run around knocking over furniture in an attempt to escape the telephone. Grandma gets knocked to the floor. Your grandfather grabs you and holds you until you realize the telephone isn't going to kill you. You snort with relief, and then start to trust your grandparents.
And so on, until you respond to something scary by looking at your grandparents to see if THEY are scared...
"The bag ceases to exist as far as the mind is concerned. The snag is that if in the distant future a bag reappears then for the horse it is a new stimulus and they react accordingly."
Horses aren't very smart, but they have outstanding memories. And like a human, if they learn a grandfather clock isn't scary, they will retain that. Boredom doesn't mean it ceases to exist in our minds. It merely means it ceases to be worth our notice. And that is how I want my horse to face things like the flowers falling of a palo verde tree. It happens annually, and I don't need her doing the OMG Crouch every year in response...
I love this post!!!
Truthfully, desensitizing seems to work on many horses because those horses have a basic "non-reactive" personality. After seeing a few new things in life, they feel experienced and confident and nothing much will rattle them after that.
When I tried to desensitize my extremely timid and reactive horse, it did not help her whatsoever. I used John Lyons' methods of introducing items in varying degrees of difficulty, as well as several other trainers' ideas on bomb proofing. As you say, my horse got to where she realized we were playing the "bomb proof" game and after realizing I was showing her an object, would immediately stop reacting to it. But it was for that day only. If it was a tarp or flag or clippers or etc., each day she would quickly get over her fears. But the NEXT day...it began again.
I agree that what needs to happen is that the horse must learn confidence. Not by being spooked, but by being exposed to many types of situations while a strong and confident leader is present. But what I found most important of all was to be confident myself in all situations.
My horse still spooks and still reacts frequently. Her initial fear reactions have gone from full-out panic to an initial "jump out of the skin" reaction and then immediately she mentally turns to me. I am confident and she always calms down right away when she senses that. She does the same thing with the horses she is turned out with.
(I meant the OP's post).
The only problem with saying a horse will always remember a grandfather clock, BSMS, is that to some horses a red bucket is different from a blue bucket and a bucket standing is different from one laying on its side. Etc.
You do teach a horse that the rider knows the difference between something worth fear and something that is not. And you do teach the horse that the rider can make bad things go away.
It may be that some trainers teach creating a laundry list of things that aren't scary. If so, they are stupid. My mare can find new things out of nothing. What we have been working on for just over a year now is to A) do an OMG Crouch or even back up, but do NOT 'turn and burn' - spin and bolt. I may not be fond of the OMG Crouch, but it beats the snot out of running in blind panic! And B) let your rider decide, because your rider knows best.
Ultimately, I want her to simply trust me. Alerting me to something is good. If she sees or smells a rattlesnake, I WANT her to alert me. But I then want her to let me decide how to proceed. We have worked our way up to making solo trips into the desert and surrounding neighborhoods (which are sometimes more frightening than the desert). She is jumping smaller distances sideways when startled, and quicker to accept a squeeze of my calves instead of needing a leather strap on her butt to get going again. It has been several months now since I last needed to dismount and let her follow my lead. So we are getting there.
But BOREDOM is a good thing. When she gets bored on a trail, she actually starts to accept the idea that trail riding can be relaxing. That is when she starts being "on vacation". Getting her to walk bored thru a swarm of butterflies is a good thing.
One of the things I regretfully desensitised Filly to was plastic bags on sticks. I went on too long with the desensitisation training in the past and now they are not as effective as I would like in communicating with her.
I want my horse to be sensitive to everything. The saddle so that she feels weight shifts, bags on sticks so I can use them to communicate on the ground or when starting to ride her bridleless.
But I also want my horse to be confident with everything. I want to know that they have noticed that bag in the hedge and are confident to walk past it.
The point of my post was just to caution against "over desensitising", if you prefer the phrase, to the point that like the clock objects are not even perceived.
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