by Laura Crum
In the comments on my last post, Val mentioned that a friend had tried to “desensitize” a horse that was frightened of the farrier. And I replied that the word “desensitize” just made my hackles rise. I’ve never seen it used by anyone who was a competent horseman.
So I got to thinking about this and realized that it may, of course, be a completely unreasonable prejudice on my part. I don’t like the word, or what I’ve seen done in its name, but then again, I don’t really understand the concept. I only know what I’ve seen.
Today I am going to describe what I’ve actually seen done under the heading of desensitizing, which was mostly aimed at creating a horse that wasn’t so spooky out on the trail. In my view, it was a dismal failure. And then I am going to talk about something that will actually help a horse to be a solid horse outside (and in the ring, for that matter). After you read this, you can all tell me where I’m wrong about this desensitizing issue, if you want.
Maybe twenty years ago my friend and I had permission to access some trails behind a local training barn. We parked our rig in the barnyard and rode our young horses (three and four year old QH rope horses in training) out the back gate and through the hills. Our goal was to teach our young horses to be calm and reliable on the trail and to this end, well, we rode them on the trail…a lot.
On our way to the trails we passed the various rings and arenas where the trainer and her assistant worked with the horses they had in training. These people were, as it happens, NH type trainers. I always looked curiously at what they were doing, because it never looked anything like what I did when training a horse…or for that matter what any horseman/trainer that I knew did. One young woman was schooling a rather flighty looking bay mare with a big blue tarp one day. The mare was walked over the tarp and then she walked under it (they had one part of it draped over a pole to make a tunnel). The mare seemed fine with this.
I smiled at the young woman assistant trainer as we went by, and asked idly what she was doing. “Desensitizing,” she said rather brusquely, as if I should have known.
I shrugged, and we went off to ride several miles through the hills. Here we climbed and descended steep trail and met various obstacles. We were patient with our young horses, but persistent, as they learned to cope with what the wild woods had to show us.
One day, on the way home, we met the young woman assistant trainer on the same bay mare. She was less than a mile from the barn and her mare was pitching a fit over passing a small tarped stack of hay. The tarp was brown rather than blue, a cube shape, and flapped briskly in the breeze. The mare quite clearly was having no part of going by this odd obstacle, despite all the “desensitizing” with the big blue tarp in the ring.
Our two young horses cocked their ears at the tarped hay, but went on by, ignoring the nervous mare. They had, of course, been by this obstacle before, they were tired, and they knew we were on the way home. We stopped and offered to give the mare a lead past the tarp monster, if the gal wanted.
We got what I can only call a venomous look in reply and a curt “No need.”
Well. (In my view, she would have been wise to take the offered lead. Would have built her mare’s confidence with no conflict needed. But instead, she dismounted and began some sort of training from the ground…and quite truthfully I felt that dismounting was exactly the wrong thing to do. Merely reinforced the idea the haystack was a problem and taught the mare that pitching a fit causes rider to dismount.)
Since then I have seen (and heard) of many things like this. Rub the plastic bag all over the horse at home and its all good. Meet a different plastic bag blowing along the trail and the horse goes bat shit crazy.
My answer to this is simple. You don’t desensitize a horse to specific stuff (I don’t believe this works). You teach a horse to be confident out on the trail and able to handle the various unpredictable stuff that comes along without losing his mind. It’s two completely different approaches to the same problem.
Training a horse to be a calm, confident trail horse is in some ways simple. Uhmm, you put a lot of miles on the horse on the trail—preferably when he is a green horse in training. I realize this is oversimplified, but it is the root of the answer. The best way to do this is, at least initially, is following an older steady horse down the trail. If no such horse exists to help you, then a companion of any sort, including a calm confident human on foot (a husband who hikes, for instance) will work.
Second point, again obvious. If you want a calm, confident trail horse, choose a horse with a calm personality. A sensitive reactive spooky horse can be a good trail horse within his limits, but he’ll always spook. This can be OK, if you don’t mind the spook.
My horse Gunner was and is a hugely spooky, very sensitive, reactive horse. I got him broke to death—I rode him on hundreds of trail rides and gathers. He spooked on every single outing, at least once or twice, if not twenty or thirty times. And I mean really spooked—instant relocation twenty feet to the left. I was used to it; I rode with one hand on the horn; Gunner never dumped me. He also never bolted or became in any way out of control. He spooked, he jigged when scared, but he stayed in my hand and went where I told him. In my youth I found this to be fine. And this is the best you will get out of the truly sensitive, reactive horse. Trust me on this one.
As for horses like my Sunny and my son’s Henry, who march intrepidly past just about everything, they first of all are very calm sensible horses by nature. Secondly they have been exposed to a lot—many miles outside, hauled everywhere…etc. And there is a third thing. The big secret—worth far more in my book than any amount of desensitizing. And it is this. These horses have been tied up for long periods. They’ve learned how to be calm and patient.
Tying does a lot of things for a horse. It is the single most under-rated training tool there is. Ranch horses are caught and saddled and tied—every working day. If they are young horses they may only be ridden for a short ride in the company of an older horse than can give them a lead, or not ridden at all, if the work of the day is too tough for their skills. They are watered at lunch time. They learn to be patient and calm through this tying—without any other “training.”
And now I am going to tell you something I just learned last week about tying. It really opened my eyes. I’m still sort of pondering it.
My Sunny horse came from Mexico. He is the single most calm, confident trail horse I’ve ever ridden. He goes just as well alone as he does in a group. He can be first or last or in the middle. He has no problem leaving the others. He is a calm, intelligent horse by nature, but even so, his complete lack of herdbound behavior and his self-confidence continue to amaze me. I’ve often wondered how he got this way. Well, now I think I know.
I’ve known maybe half a dozen of these horses that came from Mexico in my life—and they were all like this. Nothing bothered them. They all tie perfectly. My friend Mark has a little gray horse from this same place right now, and he is just as bombproof as Sunny. I asked Mark, “How do they get this way?”
He laughed. “They tie them up every night to trees—each horse where he can’t see another horse. That’s what I was told.”
I thought about this. My first impulse was to think—wow, that’s rough. I could never do that to a horse. But then I thought a little deeper.
I believe in the tying method as we used it on the ranches. But here was something more intense. The horse must cope with a lot of fear to begin with, certainly. I imagine the first few weeks are pretty rough. But then the horse learns that nothing bad happens. The humans come in the morning and bring him hay and take him to get a drink, so he is happy to see the humans. They saddle him and ride him and he gets plenty of exercise doing ranch work. In the end he accepts that there is nothing to do but wait patiently by his tree alone all night. Being alone will not hurt him, fretting will not help him. And thus is a horse like Sunny trained to be such a calm confident trail horse, with zero herdbound traits.
Those who will cry “How cruel!” need to take a moment and think. Yes, I think this training method would be hard for a horse, especially to begin with. I’m sure some horses are injured or colic due to stress. I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to do it, to be frank. But…
Half of the folks I know (both on the internet and in real life) who would protest such “cruelty” to a horse cannot climb on their horses and go for a trail ride. They are literally scared to do this with their horse. Their horse is too spooky and nervous, too herdbound to ride alone outside an arena. This is not a problem if it’s not a problem for the owner, of course.
But in many cases it IS a problem for the owner. The owner finds the horse frustrating, or the owner gets hurt on the horse and realizes the horse is truly dangerous. The owner WANTS to love the horse, but the owner also wants (very much) to enjoy riding in a relaxed way down the trail. And eventually the frustration and anxiety and sometimes true (and realistic) fear is just too much for the well-intentioned owner and the horse is sold. Very frequently such horses do not come to a good end—we all know this.
Contrast this to a horse such as Sunny, who is a real pleasure to ride down the trail. Anybody who can ride can ride a horse like Sunny on trail rides and enjoy him. I enjoy Sunny’s ability to go solo or in a group and his complete lack of herdbound behavior makes him a joy in so many ways. If Sunny did not have these traits I would not have bought him (I was looking for a solid trail horse) and/or not have kept him. These traits (acquired through the “cruel” method of tying) have earned Sunny a forever home. And to top it off, they have given him a calm, relaxed, non-fearful attitude towards anything life sends him. If Sunny (or any horse) had the sort of brain that allowed him to ponder and choose, don’t you think he would have chosen the stress of his initial “tying” in order to get the happy life that has resulted?
Contrast this to the nervous, unhappy horse whose owner dares not ride him down the trail. Consider the potential conflicts, the frustration on the part of both owner and horse, the likelihood of the horse being sold and ending up at the killers. Which life would you rather have if you were a horse?
Something to think about, for sure.