by Laura Crum
Lately I’ve been reading some stuff about desensitizing a horse. The whole thing got me thinking, and I want to discuss a point that I think is worth considering.
The notion that one can somehow “desensitize” a sensitive, reactive horse through training to be a laid back, bombproof horse is just not true. The idea that you can ask someone what they want in a horse and if they say “bombproof trail horse,” that you can then proceed to teach them to desensitize said sensitive, reactive horse and turn him into a bombproof trail horse…well, it won’t happen. Like people, horses have personalities, and just as you won’t teach a closed, reserved introvert to be open and an extrovert, you will not teach an inherently spooky horse to be bombproof—no matter if you’re the best trainer in the world.
You can train that spooky horse to have a “good” spook, if you’re a decent trainer. That is, he spooks, but he stays controlable. He trusts you; you remain in charge. For most halfway experienced riders, this is perfectly acceptable. But you won’t train that horse not to spook at all, or turn him into the sort of bombproof trail horse that I have in Henry and Sunny. The kind of horse you buy for your seven year old son.
I’ve ridden many spooky, reactive horses in my life and I’ve trained more than a few of them. I speak from personal experience here. If you want a “bombproof” horse, you need to choose one who does not have a sensitive, reactive personality. Whether the horse is unbroken or a made horse, that rule stays the same.
Let me give you an example. Right now, in my barn, I have a horse named Plumber, who has been featured many times in my mystery series starring equine vet Gail McCarthy. I bought Plumber as an unbroken three year old and trained him myself. He is twenty-one this spring. He has been a very successful team roping horse, winning numerous saddles and lots of money. He’s also been ridden on many trail and beach rides. Nobody has ever come off of Plumber. He is 100% gentle and reliable. When I began to train him, I spent exactly three days working with him in the round pen and accustoming him to the saddle. Then I began riding him. He never gave me any trouble. He is always cooperative and willing to do what’s he asked to do. He is very well broke (if I say so myself). I can let any halfway experienced rider ride him—no problem. He is also a sensitive, reactive horse.
Plumber is one of the most trusting horses I ever trained—and all the horses I trained and kept for myself are very trusting. I treat them kindly and fairly—they know they have to mind and respect me, but they feel very safe with me. Plumber has no real “fear issues”—he’s never been abused. But he is inherently a sensitive, reactive horse. And despite how much he trusts me, he still spooks.
To this day, any little thing can cause Plumber to look at it askance. He doesn’t spook “big”, but he spooks and dances when he sees something “scary”, which can be a weird stump, or the wind in the branches. These spooks are not the least bit threatening, and Plumber will stay under control at all times. I feel perfectly safe on Plumber. For two years, from when my kid was three until he was five, I rode everywhere on Plumber with my little child in front of me. That’s how safe I felt. I knew Plumber would not lose me. I knew I could ride him through anything, and as long as I stayed on, my kid, safely held by me, would stay on, too. That’s how gentle Plumber is. But he is still a sensitive, reactive horse and he spooks at little things.
When the time came that I bought my son his own trail horse (bombproof Henry) and we began to take rides outside, I discovered that I could not do this safely riding Plumber. Plumber would spook at a rustle in the bushes and startle even steady Henry. Henry would give a mini-spook, but still...I could not give my son a solid lead across the street or creek, because Plumber was busy dancing and looking hard at scary objects. Yes, Plumber went where I told him, but he remained looky. Not only did he not give Henry a steady lead, but I needed to be able to ignore my own horse and keep my focus entirely on my son, and Plumber didn’t really work for this. I knew enough to know that I could not change who Plumber was, so I bought steady, bombproof Sunny to give my kid a reliable lead to follow on the trails. It has worked really well.
Mind you, Sunny is not bombproof because somebody did a good job desensitizing him. Its his nature. Same for Henry.
Of course, Sunny and Henry could easily have been mishandled and become dead-sided, stubborn, recalcitrant plugs. Whoever trained them did a good job. But he/she did not create these horses’ bombproof personalities through training or any sort of “desensitizing”. They simply taught the horses to be good, obedient rope horses/trail horses, kept their basic trust/respect intact, and allowed the horses’ inherently bombproof natures to shine.
If said trainer had trained Plumber, Plumber would be just what he is—a gentle, willing horse who is sensitive enough to be a little spooky. Though I was perfectly comfortable riding with my little three year old on Plumber, I won’t let my now nine-year-old and quite competent child ride Plumber solo. Why? Because I know Plumber is capable of spooking and suprising my kid, and if Plumber felt someone coming off, he would not stop, as bombproof Henry would, he would skitter away from the scary falling thing. A recipe for disaster. I am not foolish enough to think that any amount of training will change Plumber’s basic nature. Just as others report (not that I do this—I don’t), you can desensitize a horse all you want to to scary objects and still when you meet the exact same object unexpectedly out on the trail, the horse spooks at it.
And again, Plumber is a sensitive horse. A too harsh cue from an inexperienced rider causes Plumber to become anxious and fret. A rider who tenses up makes Plumber tense. Thus, I don’t put beginners or little children on him. Any rider experienced enough to stay relaxed and give appropriate cues can ride Plumber with no trouble. But beginners and little kids do sometimes pull harder than they meant to, and when the horse jigs in response, they get nervous and tense. In general, its best not to mount such people on a sensitive horse.
So…if someone wants a bombproof trail horse and they have a sensitive, reactive horse, they should probably get a different horse. Or learn to ride the sensitive horse, knowing that it will always be sensitive. It will probably always spook. Spooking is not such a big deal for a competent rider, if the horse trusts you and remains under control, rather than trying to bolt. However, if a horse that spooks is scary for the rider, who is afraid that he/she might come off, a sensitive, reactive horse is not a good choice. It all depends on the comfort level of the rider. I felt so safe on reactive little Plumber that I rode with my toddler in front of me (and never had one problem).
Conversely, if you have a laid back, relaxed, somewhat insensitive horse, you are probably not gonna win the cutting futurity. Henry, for instance, was a very good rope horse in his day, but he was always basically a lazy horse, who needed to be ridden with spurs if you wanted him to try. That’s his nature. Right now our big issue with Henry is teaching my son to be forceful enough, in an appropriate way, to get Henry to lope and stay in the lope until told to stop. Do I mind this? No, I don’t. It’s the trade off for Henry being bombproof.
In general, bombproof horses are lazy horses who don’t react a whole lot if you give em a good hard poke in the ribs. They can take a whack with the end of the lead rope and remain unfazed. This does not mean that you can’t train them to be well broke, obedient horses—you can. But you can’t turn them into sensitive, reactive horses. Most good riders would prefer a more sensitive type of horse and would pass on a horse like Henry or Sunny, considering the horse too “dull”.
In general, sensitive horses react a whole lot if you give them that same good hard poke in the ribs. And Plumber, for instance, you cannot whack with the lead rope at all—he comes unglued he is so upset. I can (and did) train Plumber to be a very gentle, reliable horse. I don’t believe anyone could train him to be a bombproof horse for a beginner.
Anyway, the point of this post is that I don’t think any trainer should encourage a beginner (or anyone else) to suppose they can train the spook out of an inherently sensitive, spooky horse. There’s a limit to what training can achieve. It won’t change a horse’s basic nature. You need to choose the right horse to fit the job you want to do. If people realized this, they’d be a lot better off. That’s my take on it, anyway. What do you think? Anybody have a different theory?
Couldn't agree more - I think inherent personalities will always underlie whatever training is put on top. Our Dawn is a "big spooker" and also tends to bolt when alarmed - I'm working on training her to do the "spook in place" without the jumping sideways and bolting, and I'm teaching her that there are rewards involved in approaching scary objects to investigate them. Maisie isn't the slightest bit spooky - balloons, plastic, flapping things, machinery - she doesn't care, although she is a bit nervous and a worrier, but this is more of a human/horse and sometimes herd-bound issue - but she usually doesn't spook unless another horse does - then she's got a great spin in her, although she's not inclined to bolt. I agree that we can shape their behavior to some degree - unless of course they're desensitized to the point that the "horse" is taken away and you've got a dead, dull, remote horse - I don't do a lot of formal desensitizing.
Kate--You are so right about the variety of horse personality types--I very much oversimplified this in the interests of brevity. But certainly horses are more diverse than sensitive versus dull. I had one TB gelding who didn't spook sideways when startled--rather he jumped forward. He was a bold horse--it was more of a "charge" than a "bolt". And then there is the type who wants to "catch themselves" buck when something alarms them. Arguably the best horse I ever rode was both sensitive and lazy. He would pack a beginner reliably, but would buck if not warmed up thoroughly. He was also capable of the occsional big spook. But never with beginners. He was somewhat of a paradox and did not fit any easily described "type".
I think a whole lot of it depends on the rider, too. A tense worried rider can make even a naturally phlegmatic horse worried, and a worried rider gets a hot horse even more amped up. I know that as I've learned to project calm while I'm riding, my hot mare has gotten easier to deal with. She's gone from spin-and-bolt spooking to stop-and-stare spooking. But I think if I put a new rider on her she'd bolt from the first jackrabbit they saw.
A laid-back horse is kind of boring, but boring is exactly what some people need. I think a person needs a horse that fits her abilities as much as what she wants to accomplish. A scared rider and a spooky horse is such a common scenario, and they're just feeding off of each other. :(
Funder--That's exactly what I was trying to say--you just said it better. If a novice who tends to be timid is working with a sensitive, spooky horse, a trainer does this person a diservice by encouraging them to try to "desensitize" that horse. The horse will continue to spoook unexpectedly and scare the timid, novice rider. It isn't a good combination and the rider would be better served by finding a more "bombproof" horse. Speaking for myself, I enjoy a "boring" horse these days, particularly out on the trail. I still ride my reactive little Plumber, but he's twenty-one this year and we know each other so well. I would not, for instance, embark on a horse like my old cutter, Gunner--not any more. The sort of spook I could ride (and not mind) when I was younger, would not work for me today. Its best to know your abilities, just as you say, and be realistic about what will work for you. Very good point.
You said it twice (that I counted). Developing trust in a horse is anyone's best bet in training a safe horse. That, and as Parelli coined, keep your butt cheeks smiling, meaning if the rider stays relaxed s/he will be able to help the horse through the spook. After that it's up to the horse's personality. At least that's how it seems to me.
I thought more about your last post on loping circles to develop a nice smooth gait. I remembered my first horse. He was the most collected horse I've ever ridden. And we never loped circles. Snowball spent three years as a stable horse before I bought him. There was a small arena that we played around in sometimes, but there was no one there to teach me anything. Mainly I spent summers riding in the mountains. I am pretty much self taught, and at that time I knew nothing about training a horse. Maybe Snowy was just way more talented than most horses, but he was born in the sixties, and I can't imagine that horses that are being bred today specifically for this trait could be less talented. Thinking back we did collection exercises, but we were playing, just having fun, not loping boring circles.
What a great post! I couldn't agree with you more. My Appaloosa was a very sensitive, nervous horse who was, conversely, very safe and obedient, but you still could tell when he got anxious, whereas my QH is curious, outgoing, more-or-less bombproof, and laaaaazy. Both are safe horses, but their personalities are incredibly different and require very different riding styles.
I agree completely - my two TB mares (mom and daugher) were just born non-reactive. They aren't slow or dull at all, but their initial reaction to strange things isn't fear. We encountered a low flying paraplane on our ride on Monday, and they just looked at it with interest. You can't desensitize a horse for that sort of thing.
I agree as well. It's what they do with the spook and how the rider handles it - who they are is who they are!
(just like husbands!)
Susan, yes, I agree, the most important thing you can do is teach a horse to trust (and respect) you. I think part of my point is that even when a sensitive, reactive horse trusts you, he'll still behave in a sensitive, reactive way.
And Jessica, just understanding that horses, like people, are very different from one to another and knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all training program (as I think stillearning said in one of her comments) is a whole lot of being a good horseman. Thanks for the insightful comment.
KB--that is exactly what I mean. We ran into a low flying helicopter on a beach ride and both Sunny and Henry stood their ground (though Henry got a little wide-eyed). You absolutely can't create that mind set, nor can you prepare a horse for such an event. My heart was pounding hard and the noise was overwhelming. I was so grateful my son and I were on those two horses.
Shanster--you mean I can't retrain my husband into Mr Wonderful? Drat. I was so sure I could. On the other hand--he's pretty great just the way he is. Hmmm.. That gives me an idea for another post.
Also, if anyone would like to read a very insightful review of my latest book, "Going, Gone", Mrs Mom has posted just such a review over at her "Oh Horse Feathers" blogspot.
Great post. All beginners, and older riders (me, I was much braver when younger) should read and take to heart.
Martha--Yep,I was braver when I was younger, too. As far as I can tell, this holds true for most of us. And rightfully so. The same fall that merely made me mad in my twenties would quite likely damage me severely today.
I was at a show where a lady was desensitizing her horse with a lunge whip by popping it and swinging it all around her horse and rewarding her horse for standing stock still. My dead broke reining gelding kept looking at her and reacting as if he was a little scared. Then she tried to lunge her horse and he drug himself around the circle ignoring her whip and not going forward. Afterwards she mentioned how silly my horse was when she was swinging and popping her whip and that she thought he was more broke than that. I told her I trained my horse to respect the whip and move forward when it was popped, which he did. I then asked why she would want to desensitize her horse to an aid, be it a whip, spurs, bit, hands whatever. She said it's done on RFD so it has to be right. Oh well, to each their own. My gelding is like Plumber, a wonderful trail horse but is always on the lookout for bears and tigers but he spooks in place so I can usually stay on. He's one of a million and I do consider him a special guy.
Anon, that story is a perfect description of the idiotic desensitizing stuff I am talking about. I am so with you on that one. Your horse sounds like a real gem.
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