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?