Do you really want your horse to be a dog?

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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.

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