The popular buzzword from the horse training marketers and their disciples these days seems to be “desensitizing.” Now, there are certainly some benefits to helping your horse handle standard requests placidly and doing so through repetition, but when does this go too far? When the process turns your horse into a drooling, treat-happy canine that ceases to think because you’ve conditioned him to wait on your every cue and carrot before they proceed (and I do have two wonderful dogs that I adore, so this is not a slam on dogs – just a point that we’re talking about two different species here). Horses that think are usually a lot safer than those that depend entirely on their human handlers to make decisions.

Do you want your horse to jump away from a poisonous snake? I sure do. If you see a bad spot to a big cross country fence, would you rather be on an equine that’s confident enough to adjust and ignore your bad cue, or one that follows your orders to the letter and proves it by summersaulting over the fence to please you? Is a partnership of mutual respect what you seek, or do you prefer to be the puppeteer?

While horses may have a relatively tiny brain, I haven’t encountered too many dumb horses in my life (although have definitely met some). Horses have a sixth sense that gives them an innate ability to know what’s going on around them. Allowing this to be present in all you do with your horse can be a huge boon. This instinctual trait also enables them to assess the humans they encounter with a good deal of accuracy. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to my horses’ reaction to people that come into the barn, and they’ve been more accurate in their read than my gut. I want the horses I work with to be sensitive, telling and able to provide their own input in everything they do and express.

Horses work from association. By making them submit all the time, (and this is really what desensitization does) you turn them into robots. Some people react with glee to a horse that always follows their lead. I don’t. The most talented horses I’ve encountered push back – but relish the opportunity to be a team player with someone they respect. It’s an art to channel the energy of horses with a lot of heart, but the rewards are immense when you set the foundation for working together vs. posturing with an attitude that makes you the dictator and the horse the controlled.

I’ve seen a lot of horses come to Halcyon Acres that were misunderstood. They didn’t fit into the formula training regimen of the prior facility and were labeled dangerous, problem horses. Interestingly, these horses came to relish training and exceed requests when presented with an opportunity to be heard and understood. I give the folks who are selling their DVDs promising an easy and universal fix for all horses credit for their marketing savvy. Most horsemen I know realize that every horse is different and dumbing them down with standardized rituals that apply the same approach to all equines robs each of their potential.

What do you think?

Nanette Levin

P.S. I have not yet figured out (if this is even possible) how to disable the approval requisite for comment posts on WordPress. Know, though, that I am not screening comments to reject contrary opinions. All relevant comments on this thread will be posted.

4 Responses

  1. If one take a look from outside into the Equine arena, it is not just “desensitization” that could be considered a cause for concern. Habutuation, inappropriate accomodation and less than aware riders all have their impact do they not. To me “desensitization” is potentially a point solution, addressing a specific “challenge” without full appreciation and consideration for the complex, inter-related behavioural aptterns required for a horse to be, just that a horse

    1. Good points on the more global issue. Agreed, there are a lot of things people are doing that is not in the best interest of the horse. Of course, we’re trying to keep these posts to 500 words or less, so perhaps we should be called on trying to throw a snippet out on such a grand issue. Still, if it gets the conversation going, at least it’s something people can think about. Appreciate the comment.

  2. I agree up to a point, Nanette. And it may be the term desensitization that I take differently; I see it as appropriate when it is getting a horse used to many different stimuli so that he won’t be over-reactive on the trail, at a show, or in new places. If it’s desensitization to the normal interaction between rider and horse, so that he becomes, in your words, robotic, then no.

    Having said that, riders need to take their share of responsibility, then! In my show world, there’s a lot of pressure on trainers to create horses that can just “pack Mama around” the show ring, and bring home the ribbon, with the assumption that Mama isn’t going to put a whole lot of effort into being a really solid rider and team member with her horse. Wherever that attitude dominates, trainers who make their living by attracting clients will continue to do it.

    1. Ange,

      Thanks so much for visiting this blog and taking the time to comment. For those who haven’t read her humor columns in the Equine Journal, go see how much fun she has with words and let her put a chuckle in your day.

      My gripe and use of the term desensitizing in the context of this blog applies to what some of those who have hijacked the term “Natural Horsemanship” are doing to these poor horses and some of the novice riders that don’t know what they don’t know. Of course, introducing horses to situations in a patient and progressive manner is essential in preparing them for competitive – or even pleasure – demands that will be requested in the future. Personally, I prefer the term acclimation to desensitization as the former allows a discovery process that includes the horse. What I object to is a growing movement that is encouraging bombarding a horse with so much crisis stimuli they either grow numb or are encouraged by a Pavlov’s approach to dismiss all natural instincts. Either way, you rob the horse of his potential by taking away his ability to be a partner in the decisions.

      I do appreciate and concur with your comments on riders seeking and trainers providing robots. I used to be able to do this. Experience and maturity has caused me to realize that doing so rips the heart out of the horse and doesn’t serve either the equine or human in the long-term. The most difficult horses I’ve worked with have proven to be the most outstanding performers – provided they are given the chance to be heard, understood and appreciated. Manipulative training approaches may make for a safe steed, but if you want a horse to work with you, you need to customize your approach to meet them in the middle.

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