Desensitizing horses is a hot topic. Both the goals and the approaches vary from trainer to trainer. Some people want a "bombproof horse". While this is never actually achievable (horses are live beings who will react in unexpected circumstances), it is also impractical as well as unethical in the minds of many.
Concerning the impracticality, I had someone ask me how he could desensitize his horse to many environmental situations but still retain the horse's quick response to something such as a rattlesnake on the trail. Good question. We don't think about how much we rely on a horse's quick reactions to keep us, and them, safe.
Concerning the ethical issue, the approaches many use to desensitize a horse involve continually exposing the horse to frightening stimuli until they no longer react. During this process the horse is continually fearful. The result of this process is what is known as a "shut-down" individual. A horse who shuts down is one who is taught that there is no escape and rather than live in that fearful existence, self protection causes it to stop reacting to stimuli. Many, many horses live this existence. In an article in Psychology Today, Gregg Henriques states, "...The Behavioral Shutdown Model (BSM) which suggests that depression may represent an evolved tendency to decrease behavioral expenditure in response to chronic danger, stress, or consistent failure to achieve one’s goals." So what many horse people call a well-behaved horse, psychology defines as depression.
For many of us this is unethical as we like to train as close to fear-free as possible. In Applied Behavioral Analysis, desensitization is "Combining relaxation with a hierarchy, of fear-producing stimuli, arranged from the least to the most frightening." The goal is to keep the animal under threshold so, not showing any signs of fear. By beginning where the horse does not show fear, we can gradually increase the strength of the stimulus so slowly that he acclimates to the fearful item without ever showing stress. Examples of how one would increase the strength include:
- decreasing distance between the horse and the stimulus, so that you start with a tractor in the far distance and slowly get closer
- increasing the volume of a noise, such as the sound of clippers running
- increasing the movement of an object, such as a flag initially introduced on a still day so that the trainer can control how much it flaps
- increasing the physical sensation such as resting a rasp on a hoof and then progressing to moving it slowly before working up to a level that actually trims a foot.
In each of these instances, you do not increase the strength of the stimulus until the horse is showing a relaxed response to the current level. You increase the strength in such small steps that the horse continues to show relaxation.
So there's the ideal. Now for the reality of life with horses. Horses are prey animals. The ones who survive in the wild have a high level of vigilance. Known as "horizon scanners", they count on their eyes, ears and noses to pick out anything in the distance which might be a potential threat, and then they count on their ability to move swiftly in order to avoid those potential threats. Our domesticated horses retain these skills, some more than others. Different breeds, personalities, and histories all affect how reactive an individual is. Those horses who we prize for their athleticism and quick learning tend to similarly be more reactive and react quickly to their environments. We can do a lot of proper desensitization work to things we expect our horses to see in their environments. In clicker training, we often pair the appearance of something new with food treats. My own young horses learned that when they saw something new, approaching it earned treats. So while they might startle on the first sight of a piece of farming equipment, rather than turning and running away, they would approach it cautiously, earning treats from me for voluntarily decreasing the distance to the object. Over time, this translated to looking forward to investigating new things instead of shying away from them.
This worked well for items in the close environment: around the barn, in the arena and in their turnout areas. However, this did not work when things were in the far distance, such that it was impractical to walk the horses up to it. Cows appearing in a far field where they had never been before resulted in my horses (some individuals more than others) standing with heads high and hearts pounding. If they were turned out, they could take their time watching to be sure these were not enemies approaching to eat them. But if I was trying to work with them, it often resulted in very little progress in that training session since vigilance of the horizon took priority over what was happening in the immediate area.
An experience last Spring demonstrated another challenge: when something in the environment had been reliably consistent and it suddenly changed. To the left is a photo of my Stowaway pony. Behind him is a road sweeper brush which I got in order to provide my horses with a scratching post. My husband had placed it over a well sunk post in the ground four years ago, but as you can see in the photo, four years of ground movement finally caused it to begin to list. Every day I watched it tip more and more. The horses didn't seem to care. It was happening gradually so as to be perfect desensitization. But once it reached a certain angle, it couldn't stay up any longer. This happened overnight. One day it was leaning, the next morning it was on the ground. When I turned horses out that morning, you would have thought the sky had fallen. This familiar landmark had suddenly changed and alarm bells went off all over the place. They stared, they snorted, they stepped toward it, they wheeled and ran off. Since it was right in their turnout area, I was able to watch and be amused. Eventually Stowaway (the least reactive of my bunch) crept all the way up to it for a sniff. The others followed, in turn, until all had been convinced their little world was safe again.
I decided I wanted to do a long term project for the year, helping my horses and ponies to adapt to these two situations: things they could not necessarily investigate close up, and things they were accustomed to which changed. I set a reminder on my phone which said "something new in horses' environment" and it went off every morning while I was in the barn doing chores. At that point I had to put down my pitchfork and find something to change. It might mean introducing something new or putting something normal in a new place.
My goal was to introduce something mild, but different. I did not want to cause the kind of reaction which the falling sweeper had, but I did want to keep changing things up. My first item was a hula hoop. My horses were accustomed to hula hoops since we have played various training games with them. So I would put them in odd places in the environment: hanging from the round pen, leaning up against a fence, in the barn aisle. I watched the reactions and usually the horses would notice (a glance, a sniff), but not react with a spook or hesitation. I made sure that none of the items I put out were reachable. This not only meant that the horses could not approach and sniff (I wanted them to be able to adapt without needing to investigate), but it also protected the items from being played with or destroyed!
After I had moved the hula hoop around to different places, I hung colored tape off them. I did this first on a still day, but where we live, there's usually a bit of a breeze at minimum so there was some movement of the streamers. In the following days, I moved that around.
I put out the plastic sled I used to move hay in the winter, then I hung that from different places in their environment. I used a bright blue Klimb dog training platform to prop open gates. I used feed bags and empty plastic shavings bags. When July came, I went to the dollar store and bought flags and streamers and an umbrella (which the handle promptly broke on...good thing I wasn't using it for its intended purpose).
When things happened naturally, I allowed them to function as part of my project: when I put wind protection up around my tomato plants, it looked like ghosts in the evening light. When I moved some plywood wind breaks from the shed (so I took something away which had previously been there). Every day I did something different, no matter how subtle.
In time, the horses noticed less and less. Their environment had become a place where things changed and it wasn't a concern. In August, I went away for a week and turned off the reminder on my phone so it didn't go off every morning. When I returned, I did not continue the project daily, although I put out the umbrella occasionally (it walked around the grass in an interesting fashion when the breeze blew it). The streamers and flags remained up in the barn.
I think I saw proof of the success of my project a month ago when I had to unwrap a long strand of plastic bale wrap from a pallet load of shavings. It was wet from rain so I asked the young girl who was working for me to hang it over the round pen to dry. When I looked out, I was amazed to see that she had woven it back and forth between the two round pens. It looked appropriately Halloweeny for the holiday, like a giant white spider web moving eerily in the breeze. And the horses? Not even looking at it, though they were all within 50 feet of the apparition. (and yes, I took a picture but it seems to have disappeared from my phone).
I am going to do the same thing next year, looking for novel things to place around the farm so that my horses remain desensitized to oddities in their environment.
|a blue ball I was pumping with air|
|Percy and Ande watching and listening as the ball was pumped up|
|empty shavings bags tied up to go to recycling|
|A flag for 4th of July!|
|the item on the left is filled with beads that rattle when it's moved|
|moving the flag right into the barn|
|the ghostly shapes of my protected tomato plants|
|finds from the dollar store|
|when the plywood came down|
|hanging flags and sparkly streamers in the barn|