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By Marty Morris
Desensitizing the Horse, Part 2
When a person works at desensitizing their horse or mule, they are searching for ways to improve their communication skills and build a willing partnership with their animal. Desensitizing also results in the horse or mule gaining more confidence in the person. A person working to improve his horsemanship should start by leaving his own comfort zone and explore training methods which are new to him. That is the benefit of attending desensitizing and training clinics.
A willing partnership with a horse or mule begins when the animal accepts the persons leadership. Leadership in this case is also dominance. Dominance and leadership are accomplished by the person being able to move the animal’s feet. Controlling the movement of the horse can either be from the ground or on its back.
Anger, frustration and impatience do not fit with good horsemanship. They cause the animal to be intimidated. Teaching and controlling the horse is accomplished through applying pressure and quickly releasing the pressure when the correct response occurs. Followed by giving the horse time to think through the situation so it will realize there was no reason for it to be afraid or resist the pressure. They need to learn to always give to pressure. When they give to it, there must be a quick release from the pressure. Horses gradually gain confidence through the reputation of this process.
Teaching and training a horse should be non-confrontational and humane, not by using methods that are cruel or aggressive. The horse will accept the person as a leader when the person controls its movement. This dominance or leadership is natural to horses because they are herd animals and need leadership in the wild. In wild horse herds the dominate member is usually an older mare who has assertive behavior even if she often is physically weaker than other horses in the herd. If the horse accepts the person doing the training as being above it in dominance, the more respectful and compliant it will be. Achieving this dominant role does not require the infliction of pain or cruel tactics.
Horses and mules have excellent memories. They never forget anything. They categorize an experience as either something to fear or something to ignore. They are quick to learn. One big difference between them is that horses are more forgiving of people’s mistakes than are mules. Both animals can be desensitized to frightening situations provided they don’t get hurt during the process. They need to be made to feel comfortable in the initial situation, so they don’t fear that situation as much the next time it is experienced. With some time, patience and repetition they become desensitized to the situation.
The main defense for a horse is to run away from any situation that is scary to it. They are flighty, perceptive and timid. They naturally want to run from any unfamiliar sound, odor, movement or sight. The techniques used in desensitizing horses and mules teach them to ignore situations which are scary to them resulting in an animal that is both safer and more useful.
It is important to remember that a horse is naturally claustrophobic. They are afraid of enclosed spaces or confinement. Desensitizing them to this can help prevent them from injuring themselves.
When a person can control the movement of a horse or mule, he is able to control its mind. When a person controls the animal's mind, he can control its behavior. Controlling movement is done in two ways. Movement can be inhibited when the animal would like to move, or it can be caused to move when the animal would like to be still. In both methods the animal will eventually become submissive. Body language signs of submission in the horse are lowering of the head, licking the lips and chewing. Flight is a basic survival instinct to the horse. When movement is controlled, flight is controlled. Control of movement leads to control of the horses’ mind and establishes leadership.
Desensitizing horses teaches them to ignore harmless situations which are frightening to them and to respond to other stimulations until those responses become conditioned responses. In horse training, rewards are the most effective reinforcers because punishment will cause a flight response. The greatest reward for a horse is to make it feel comfortable and let it relax.
It is extremely important for a person training a horse or mule to be consistent with the signals used and giving rewards. Otherwise the horse gets confused as to what is being asked of it. Reward it for the slightest try which will encourage it to do better next time. This also encourages them to be more reliant on human guidance.
It is important for horses and mules to have respect for the human. Any time they cause the human to move they are controlling the person and showing disrespect. Mules especially can be pushy and very disrespectful.
Control of movement and consistency in use of signals are critical in all disciplines of horsemanship. Take time, use patience and establish a respectful attitude from your horse or mule. A desensitizing clinic will definitely help a person to acquire the skills necessary for establishing a safer animal for use and enjoyment.