Friday’s Opinion

This whole notion of ‘bomb proofing’ a horse might make sense when circumstances involve city crowds, physically challenged riders or Civil War reenactments, but ‘desensitizing’ has gone way overboard as a general training premise. At Halcyon Acres®, we get a lot of cases where playbook approaches designed to mollify the horse have gone terribly wrong. Think before you leap on a bandwagon.

The desensitizing process, as it’s been driven into the minds of those placing guru status on some of the more notable names in the ‘natural horsemanship’ movement of the moment, ignores the horse as an individual that deserves to be considered in the decisions. Even if you don’t think the horse should be part of the conversation, if you fail to incorporate his personality and issues into your training plans, you’re bound to get hurt. Unknowing handlers and riders trying to follow a formula ‘anyone can implement’ tend to create long-lasting issues that either condition a horse to tune out and/or cause him to explode immediately or later as memory receptors are triggered when frightening early training issues resurface.

For most riding situations, a thinking horse is a safer steed. This holds for basic handling issues as well. If there ever was a topic that called on Horse Sense and Cents™, this is it.

Gaining a horse’s confidence

Instead of throwing tarps or flags or plastic bags at the horse, why not consider building trust instead? Most horses, when introduced to early training and handling in a patient, understanding, consistent and customized manner will flourish as they’re asked to handle new challenges. They’re naturally calm, confident and relaxed with a human who’s taken the time to introduce them to new (real) experiences only when they are ready. They come to see their rider (or handler) as a guide who’s proven they’ll keep them out of harm’s way. It becomes a case where if the human is relaxed and confident about the horse’s ability to handle a task, the horse is too. This approach can work with older horses too – but it takes more time to undo the damage.

Horse training formulas fail to see the individual

Horses are incredibly animals. Part of what makes them so is the fact that they’re all different. Formula approaches promising prescribed results rarely work. If you’re dealing with a horse that’s scared, timid or lacking confidence, forcing him to endure more frightening experiences under the auspices of ‘desensitizing’ certainly isn’t going to make him braver – or cause him to see you as a trustworthy guide. Sure, you can get him to stop spooking at plastic bags being flung all around his body (when will he really need to have this skill?), but you won’t help him be confident (in you or his ability to figure out how to handle a task). Interestingly, most horses, when allowed to be part of the conversation, will come to be unflappable as a matter of course, provided they’ve come to view their trainer as one who considers their welfare and safety and asks in a confident, aware and fair manner.

Have you considered asking your horse for help?

Instead of trying to force your horse to accept what you throw at him (literally and figuratively), try asking him what he likes to do. Focusing on activities that allow the horse to excel with his proclivities will go a lot further toward building mutual trust and a safer riding experience than tricks purported to take the spook out of the horse.

Don’t forget to immediately praise him when he does what you want. Best to find a way to do this that doesn’t involve treats. Most horses will respond more quickly and confidently to recognition for a good deed than they will for punishment when they do wrong, so it makes sense to also spend the time to figure out what he really enjoys. This may be a favorite spot to scratch, voice cues he understands as approval, time spent grazing after a good lesson, buddy time with one of his preferred equine friends, a quick trip on the trails, jumping after he’s done with dressage – figuring out what gives your horse great pleasure is your challenge. Come to recognize what that is and you’ll be amazed at how quickly he strives to please you.

Regardless, your horse will be a lot more eager, less wary and increasingly focused on a partnership mindset to tackling challenges if you approach training activities with an ear toward what he’s trying to tell you. March into the ring (or trail, or course, or stall, or round pen) with a lesson plan and end-game in mind that doesn’t include his input and he’ll likely come to resent your time together (or respond by checking out to save his sanity). Few ‘bombproofing’ methods include the horse as a contributor. How’s he supposed to confidently thrive when you ask him to step up in naturally frightening circumstances if you fail to let him know his opinion has been heard and considered in earlier activities?

What about safety?

Personally, I’d much rather be on a horse that reacts to his situation than one that’s been conditioned to ignore the things that may get you both hurt. In most cases, if you are calm and relaxed about approaching new situations, your horse will be too. If you do find yourself in a situation where you need help from your horse to extricate you from danger, it’s best to have one that has been brought along in a way that encourages him to think as a partner in the problem-solving process.  There have been many occasions where I’ve turned the reins over to the horse to help get me out of trouble. Whether you find yourself bogged down in a swamp or unable to see a good spot as you approach a huge cross-country fence, it’s best to be aboard a horse that has been encouraged to participate in the training process. If you’re on a horse that’s been conditioned to be ‘bombproof’ bailing might be your best option.

What are we really doing to our horses?

So much of what people are calling natural horsemanship today is anything but.  The stuff that’s being recommended as a kind alternative to normal training (whatever that is) verges on cruelty, in some cases. This whole notion of demanding the horse’s respect has gone so far most seem to have forgotten this is a two-way street. Expecting the horse to endure activities that are terrifying to ‘desensitize’ him to new frightening experiences is ludicrous. Forcing the horse into immobile positions where they’re defenseless, with instincts screaming vulnerability to attacks and calling it horsemanship is a misnomer.      Think about it. How can you encourage your horse to tackle new challenges with vigor and glee if your training process teaches him his opinion doesn’t count  and humans are to be feared and resented (or worse, survival instincts kick in and he shuts down his brain to endure the pain then proceeds in a robot fashion to comply with your demands)?

Can novice horse owners apply these concepts?

This isn’t such a complex concept to make it too far removed for novice riders to understand. Geez – books and DVDs being sold claim any level equestrian can work with horses of all ages to make them perfect if they simply follow the formula provided. In my opinion, this borders on criminal in some cases, but what I think we need to focus on is the fallout. Today we have a lot of confused riders and horses struggling with issues they’re ill-equipped to handle without the knowledge to recognize good resources to turn to.

If you’re an inexperienced rider or horse owner trying to ‘bond’ with your horse, time and energy is better spent getting to know him and crafting a strategy that helps him feel good about doing what you want. You can’t do this by following a step-by-step process offered by someone who’s never seen you or your steed. But, you can learn how to interpret what he’s trying to tell you. Sometimes it makes sense to get a professional in to help. You might be amazed at how much you both can learn in a couple of hours for a minimal expenditure. The right trainer or instructor will be focused on teaching you how to do much of this yourself.

For us professionals, it’s time we worked together to help novice riders and new horse owners find good information and resources. We can’t control what others are doing to encourage people toward poor decisions, but we can set our sights on offering good and accessible information to those people who have been left twisting in the wind with problems not entirely their doing.

What do you have to share about horses?

Are you a novice rider or new horse owner struggling with a challenge? Post it here and we’ll try to offer some ideas you can use or resources to check out. Are you a professional frustrated with the cases you’re handed after a ‘natural horsemanship’ start or have ideas on how others can avoid such situations? Please share your stories and advice. Are you an instructor with tips for new riders? Post away in the comments below. Thanks for reading and sharing. I hope we can get the movement going, together, with a new realm that focuses on ideas that include the horse in the conversation.

24 Responses

  1. Thank you for this article. I just bought a book on “natural” horsemanship. Following the first few chapters for gaining respect and control were great and my horse enjoyed the exercises. He comes right over and looks at me like “let’s start I’m ready for something new today”. When I got to the desensitizing chapter I stopped. I’m new with this but…..It seemed a little crazy to me! I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
    Any exercises that you would use to help gain trust from your horse would be very helpful. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Desiree. Thanks for checking out the blog. I’ve found gaining trust has a lot to do with watching how your horse reacts to what you ask and responding in a way that makes sense to him. Personally, I think this concept of ‘gaining respect’ has been overdone as well because most don’t include the horse in the process. Respect isn’t something you do to someone (or some thing), it’s something you earn. When it’s a one-way event, that doesn’t really bolster trust in too many horses (although it will often get their compliance). Sure, there are cases where you really have to draw the line for your own and your horse’s safety, so I’m not suggesting you allow the horse to be rude. But, there is a difference between working with a horse and demanding a pre-determined outcome. It sounds like you’re doing the right thing toward establishing trust if he’s coming over to you in a way that says he’s enjoying training.

  2. great article, really enjoyed reading it,iv done both natural horsemanship n bhs, to find both are useless if you dont want to put the hours in. I got 3 horses perfect to a T because i gave up 6 weeks of my time, yet one of the horses owners couldnt understand how i made him change. When all i did was figure out what made him tick and work with him, not against. Like you say its not the formular, they are like people in many ways, they will play up if scared, however 2 years with my baby muppet, n his spooks are alot less volitle and more rabbit jumping,(however he is obsssed with cows, has to watch them).
    Personally i think bombproof horses are overrated, they dont think for themselves, so they dont try to help in anyway as they expect you to know what to do.

  3. Excellent article, Nanette! I agree with you 100%. The more input I allow my horses, the more they accept me as their guide/leader. I walking my mare down the road when a very large tractor was coming towards us. Since I was closest to the road (we were just out taking a walk, not riding), I moved over to the side of the road and stopped, and she & I just stood there until it went by. I left the leadline with some slack in it, rather than tightening it up. The tractor passed us, and as I turned to look a my mare, I saw she was standing just slightly behind me on my left side.(I was leading her from the right side. I always train mine to do everything from both sides.) She showed no signs of fear even though she’s never been that close to tractors before. She had enough faith in me that I wouldn’t lead her into a dangerous situation, that she stood there with me and faced this large “beast” head on. Knowing that she had never been “trained” in this situation made me extra proud of her actions.

  4. What a great story, Susan. It’s so wonderful to have a horse surprise you with their trust when they’d be terrified without it, isn’t it? Great point too about not grabbing hold. I’m working with a new employee on that one now as her reflex is to tighten up when a horse is concerned. The horses are teaching her pretty quickly that’s not a good idea :-).

  5. Thank you for this topic. I did not read any books when I decided to do a little “desensitizing” with my horse because I wanted to work on our relationship and to encourage him to think. I was happy to find out that with encouragement Corwin is developing a healthy curiosity. In fact he stopped to check out a plastic bag that others were spooking at. I am exited to discover the things that make him shine! And helping him discover things about our relationship like the fact that a massage really is nice. No cookie cutter horses or training methods exist.

  6. In my mind, “desensitizing” and “bombproofing” are very different things. My 22 yr old Arab/Andalusian is most people’s idea of ‘bombproof’–he keeps his cool in crowds of people and around gun- and even cannon-fire, and didn’t move when bumped in the hindquarters by a (barely moving) tour bus. At the same time, he’s exquisitely sensitive, completely aware of everything and everyone around him. What he’s learned in the 20 years we’ve worked together is that just because he notices something doesn’t mean he needs to respond, and that the ‘stomp and snort’ is appropriate if something really startles him.

    In contrast to my horse, I’ve ridden alongside one who had been truly desensitized–he numbly ignored all that was going on around him. Eventually something came along that broke through his stupor, and in that moment he exploded in panic. I can only say I’m thankful we weren’t in his path….

  7. Thanks for your story, Cathy, also for checking out the blog and taking the time to comment. Glad to hear you’re having so much success with Corwin.

    Helen, agreed, but both can go too far, in my opinion, if it’s something we try to ‘make’ our horses become. The point is, do we try to train this into our horses or help them find their way to this place through a partnership approach that includes them in the conversation? Some horses are certainly more likely to handle new experiences in a calm manner than others, but most will be more confident and predictable if they’ve been introduced early to new situations in a non-frightening way rather than ‘tamed’ through a process that overwhelms them and causes them to lose trust in their human handlers and tune out. It’s a semantics thing, I suppose, but it’s the method that troubles me in some cases.

  8. Nanette, definitely agree with you re: the progressive nature of teaching a horse to be confident in himself and thus in challenging situations. The horse described above is naturally gregarious, but we spent many years developing trust and confidence before I asked him to work in a crowd at non-equestrian events (parades and living history).

  9. Good for you, Helen. I’m glad you’ve developed such a reliable and trusting horse for crowd events. It makes you proud, doesn’t it?

  10. Great article. I’m working with a newly acquired gelding that has trust issues. I’ve spent a good deal of time working gently with him and he is not as reactive with me but…he has a tendency to “check out” when faced with something new and occasionally will fall apart when he comes out of “hiding inside himself”. Just yesterday, I was riding in the roundpen – he was trotting along just fine…at one point I noticed him “notice” the dog (he’s always been fine with our dogs running all over)…he didn’t spook, just glanced over and stepped a step in the opposite direction. The next time around, the dog moved and my gelding did a horrendous spook, landing me on the ground. He was visibly disturbed….and it took awhile to calm him down. Now….my husband was outside the round pen and in his blind spot when he spooked and I have no idea if he did anything to cause it (I’m not sure that the dog actually caused it)…my gelding is not good with men and my husband has not been out there when I ride. So….today I walked him up to where my husband was working in the shop, had hubby come out and rub him, move around him etc….I really don’t want to hit the ground anymore and could use more advice in this area. The gelding is about 15 and is more of a nervous type. It took me a few days after I got him for him to even allow me to approach him without being bothered. He trusts me on the ground well now but I need to build that trust to trusting me while on his back when things move around him…..

    1. Hi Janine – I like to go back to groundwork to try to determine (and address) where the breakdown might have occurred. I realize you’ve indicated he’s good on the ground, but in working with him this way did you go through a building process or has he always been good? Sometimes you need to go back in training to a point prior to the trauma. That said, if you’re focused on riding now, consider brief lessons doing things that are easy for him and quitting quickly with a job well done for both of you and an associated pat on the back (or rub on neck or whithers :-)). Often scared horses lack confidence in themselves (and you) do little wins can help you both feel more capable. Honestly, it’s difficult to provide cogent input without more information and within the confines of blog comments, but I hope this helps a little bit.

  11. Hi Nanette~
    thanks for the quick reply. I’ve had him only 4 months and his prior owner thinks he had been abused early in life…he certainly acts like it. He’s been very bold under saddle (and even somewhat dull and lazy) for the most part and very skittish on the ground. When I first got him, I couldn’t even raise my hands over my head standing next to him without him flinching, backing away or fully spooking. He was difficult to catch and very sensitive to any movement around him. He’s SO much better on the ground now…doesn’t mind fly spray, I can do jumping jacks and throw a rope all over him, over his head etc. I do ground work with him consistently and he definitely is improving. The recent spook caught me off guard because he generally doesn’t spook under saddle…but, he is still very sensitive when people he doesn’t know are around him….I think that’s what set him off. Usually when I ride, he’s around people he knows and under very calm conditions. Having my husband and the dog there got him edgy to start with. Since then, I’ve had my hubby come around him, rub on him, move his hands around in the air etc. I think I need to keep having other people come around him and get him out and about in different places. I don’t want to overface him though because of the “shut down” mode he can get into. It’s almost like he goes catatonic on my when there’s too much stimuli. He’ll obey…but in a shut down robotic sort of way. I know it’s hard to address issues like this via blogs and such but I’ve never had such a sensitive guy and I’m not quite sure how to proceed. My mare is bossy and very in your face…I’ve used Clinton Anderson methods with her and they’ve worked very well. This guy, however, I think it might be the wrong approach so I’ve been hesitant to deal with him as strongly. I don’t pussy foot around him at all but I’m not sure how he’d handle the extreme desensitization. I’m looking for the right trainer to work with right now. I need someone who will understand his sensitivity and not try to strong arm him…I think that’s been attempted in his past with little success.

  12. I think that’s wise, Janine. His catatonic state, as you label it, is probably the result of someone forcing compliance in a way that terrified him. I’ve seen this in horses as a coping mechanism – strong mares too. The way I’ve brought them out of it (I’m usually dealing with younger horses – it can be harder with more mature equines) is through starting a process that includes them in the conversation. That doesn’t mean I always say yes, but they do come to realize they’re being heard and this can make a big difference in their confidence in you (which, over time if you continue to proceed in a way that lets them know you’ll keep them out of harm’s way build their confidence in themselves). Personally, I’d rather build a partnership than a servant, so am not a big fan of much of the extreme desensitization that many are advocating. For some careers it may be necessary, but not for the vast majority.

  13. Hi Nanette~ I’ve decided that this horse is more than I can handle at this time in my life. I’ve contacted his former owner and we will be working together to find him an appropriate home where he can get the socialization and training he needs.

  14. That’s often a good decision, Janine. I wish you well in your search for a horse that is more suitable for your needs.

  15. Greetings!
    I don’t know if anyone is checking this or not anymore, because it looks like it’s been a few years since that last post, but I purchased a horse that had been going through some natural horsemanship training and I need more advice on how to help him to deal with his fears because he is, as one person mentioned, prone to having an utter meltdown if something is truly scary, but ignores most things. What should I do when he is having a true meltdown and the object is not something over which I have control or have access? Please suggest any literature for me to follow up on. I am confused as to whether he is getting away with something or truly fearful. Thanks in advance for your help.

    1. Hello Gisela,
      If you go to the homepage of this site (we put a ton of time into providing free content and guidance so always appreciate those who take a moment to gather a little more information about what we offer) you’ll see this site is far from dead and it most certainly hasn’t been a few years since the last blog post. You might want to check out the robust search feature to find more recent and relevant free information that addresses your needs.

      On your horse, my experience has been natural horsemanship training as it’s mostly promoted today creates bigger challenges with horses that are timid, wary, smart or willful. The process of trying to assign formula approaches to every horse with an eye toward attaining obedience doesn’t work very well for horses who seek a reason to trust you. It sounds like your guy has some serious trust issues. He may also be dealing with some genetic wiring that produces such responses (it’s impossible for me to say without more information), but usually most horse problems are caused by the people that equine has encountered before you.

      In most cases, the best way to resolve ‘meltdowns’ is to figure out at what point the training went wrong and bring him back to a time and level of understanding just before that. If you can revisit that prior place where he was comfortable and move forward with patience, calmness, understanding and confidence through where the problem started, most horses will come back to you with a desire to please and trust your lead. If you give me a little more information, I can try to offer more specific suggestions.

      Most scared horses I’ve encountered who have reached the meltdown level do so because they’ve been punished when they have a naturally fearful reaction. Over time, they learn to be more afraid about what’s going to happen to them after they instinctively react to fear, hence the bigger blow after the first scare. These horses respond a lot better to encouragement and understanding from a human that ensures they never overface them with with requests.

      I suspect you’re looking for a quick trick, but, sadly, most of these only serve to exacerbate the issue. Helping a fearful horse learn to trust you takes time.

      You asked for a literature recommendation. You might find our ‘Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners’ title a useful tool. It’s available on Amazon, Audible, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook, etc. and if you want a signed by author copy, on this website.

      Good luck with your project. There’s nothing more gratifying than reaching a horse who has been misunderstood by others. I hope find the key to encouraging this horse to be your steady.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *