Dealing with scary stuff!

Horses are prey animals. In order to stay alive they have a highly developed flight system. Desensitising a horse to scary things means working with its natural instinct using a process called approach and retreat.

I don’t know who gave this system the name approach and retreat, but I first learned about it from Richard Thompson during one of his clinics here in Austria in the nineties.

Richard Thompson says:  We want a reproducible predictable response not wild reactions. A scared horse has wild reactions. The non-frightened horse thrives on our leadership and gives good responses.

approach and retreat

With this in mind, we can use the horse’s own system of approach and retreat to introduce him to new situations or stimuli. As always, the natural communication of the horse is small signals building to stronger ones if necessary.  It’s not all or nothing. This means taking a sometimes literal step-by-step to approach and retreat and in doing so desensitising a horse to scary objects.

The process used to acclimatise horses to anything new and scary (cows, plastic bags, tack, trailers), is the same. Introduce the scary/new object to the horse gradually and retreat or remove the stimulus before it gets too much for the horse. This is in itself a reward for good or “right” behaviour (pressure and release).

This can be done when out riding or leading in-hand:

Elektra sniffs the saddle blanket and makes sure it isn't going to bite her.

Maintain enough distance from the scary object so the horse doesn’t take flight.  Let him face the scary object and check it out to reassure himself that it isn’t going to attack him. Encourage one step forwards. If you horse responds with one step then STOP asking for more steps. (Pressure and Release). Praise him. Repeat the process step-by-step.

Remember not to push him too fast or too much. Be slow and patient but at the same time consistent with your request. If you haven’t taken flight and you are the leader of the herd, then he has no need to take flight either!

Once your horse has taken a few successive steps under your leadership towards the scary object, then call an end to the training session. Repeat as necessary, building up his confidence step-by-step until he can go past the sacry object without taking flight, thereby accepting your leadership in the situation.

let your horse soak and process the training session

Many people don’t recognise the right time to stop and keep going at it. This doesn’t give your horse chance to process the session and learn from it. i.e. soak.

If I’m riding my horse and he sees a stationery, scary something or other, I often keep him faced towards the object moving towards it step by step until he can touch it with his nose.

With live animals e.g. pigs, I would encourage the horse to get as near to the pigs as possible without bolting or turning around (i.e. keeping my leadership skills intact). And then retreat (at my pace). This gives him the chance to learn that he is safe and can trust me. And then repeat the training session. Be consistent with your requests and rewards.

From scary saddle blankets to child's riding horse-3 yr old Elektra and 11 yr old Emily

 

This procedure might take a few minutes on one horse and few days or even weeks on another. Make time your friend, don’t work against it. Work with what the horse gives you.  Remember, you are trying to introduce something new to your horse. When each session goes well you have succeeded in reducing the risk of failure with each new step in the process.

 

 

In the snowy, winter photos above you can see Anne Beyerly with my then 2 3/4 yr old Freiberger filly, Elektra. (end of January 2011). Anne and Elektra are two of the stars of Diary of Starting a Young Horse – a fr*ee pdf download available at www.horsetrainingsolutions.com

To learn more about how horses view objects and how they process the information, visit Kate Farmer’s Thinking Horse site.

For more information about pressure and release, what it is and why it works see Kate Farmer’s free download article pressure and release available on the downloads page .
Always wear appropriate safety items of clothing, gloves, shoes and head protection when handling or riding your horse. There is always some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Be sensible and stay within your level of training. This information illustrates the training methods and techniques I and my colleagues use. It is your responsibility to use it wisely. It is not intended to replace personal instruction from a professional instructor. Keep yourself and your horse out of trouble. if you wish to learn more about these methods contact us at: elizabeth@horsetrainingsolutions.com www.horsetrainingsolutions.com

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