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Desensitisation: How can I teach my horse to be less fearful?

Horse are neophobic by nature – they tend to get suspicious of anything unusual. This was a useful strategy for survival in the wild but it is not so ‘useful’ for us humans 🙂 Is there anything we can do about it? Can we train the horse to be less fearful? Yes, we can! This where desensitisation training comes in.

Horses, like humans, have different sensitivity thresholds so their reaction to a fearful stimulus can vary depending on their personality and past experience. However, with correct training we can get horses used to many ‘unusual’ practices which then makes  their ‘survival’ in the human world less stressful.

Desensitisation technique for horse training

One of the techniques we can use is called ‘systematic desensitisation’. This term refers to a gradual habituation to an arousing stimulus. Uh… what? It basically means that in a controlled environment the horse is exposed to low levels of the arousing stimuli (read as ‘scary plastic bag’ or a similar horse eating monster) and is rewarded when he remains calm (shows the ‘desired behaviour’). The level of stimuli is then increased in small increments but only if the horse reliably fails to react to the previous level. 

Practical example of desensitisation

Let’s break it down a little bit more with an example of a fly spray. The key is to not proceed to the next step until no reaction is show in the previous step:

  1. Approach the horse and stroke it holding the fly spray bottle in the other hand away from the horse.
  2. This time you can stroke the horse with the bottle so that it is touching its body.
  3. Stand away from the horse and spray away from the horse body (you can also replace the fly spray with water to start with as horse can be very sensitive to the smell of the spray alone).
  4. Gradually step closer to the horse and repeat step 3.
  5. If no reaction show up to this point, you can approach the horse and use the spray on a sponge and then use the sponge on their body.
  6. You can now proceed to spray the horse somewhere on their body and again judge how they react.

Things to watch out for

At all stages, it is important to that we are only exposing the horse to small amount of the aversive stimuli (here the spray). You need to be observant about when the horse get worried and do not progress further until you get a calmer response. Positive reinforcement (e.g. food, wither scratching) can be used as an additional reinforcer for appropriate behaviour. Do not do too much in one session – break your training down into smaller steps and give your horse time to get used to each increment.

I hope you found these tips helpful and I would love to hear from you if you have any specific horse and rider training questions. 

Are you looking for a horse riding instructor who offers evidence-based training for riders and horses? Get in touch now to book a lesson with an experienced BHSAI riding instructor in Hertfordshire and start your journey to success.

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Note: This blog post is based on 10 First Training Principles (International Society for Equitation Science) – click here to find out more about equitation science and how it can help you with training of your horse.

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