I think the biggest thing that most horse owners need to understand about desensitizing horses to things is that they must desensitize their horses all of the time. You cannot avoid all potentially scary situations- you should embrace them, but in a way that is not overwhelming to you or your horse. If you are constantly putting your horse in situations that are scary for him, he may end up being worse than if you just let him adjust slowly. Since every horse has his own personality and his own temperament, it is important that you build that relationship with your horse so you know how he will react, and when he starts to get overwhelmed. If you’re not sure, be ultra-conservative with desensitizing, be consistent, but do just a little at a time.
You Need to Desensitize Everyday
I have stated before that I don’t care for desentizing clinics as places to train horses… I think that these are more like shows than actual ways to help desensitize your horse to anything. They are ways to show off how much your horse trusts you and believes that you won’t allow him to be in danger, or challenge the horse who already has a lot of sensory training. They are not so much a way to actually train your horse to stop reacting to something scary. For one thing, they are often only for one or two days, and there are multiple examples or scary situations that are presented. This can be overwhelming for a lot of horses, and these clinics can sometimes do more harm than good. I also believe that these don’t reinforce the idea that desensitizing needs to happen regularly, and that training should be built upon a foundation of trust. You can’t build trust in only one or two days.
This was Devon, a lovely boy who we sadly lost last year due to EHV-1. He was an inquisitive boy, and here he was inspecting his reflection on a trailer. Many horses are often scared when they see their reflections, because, in their minds, a horse “appears” out of nowhere- basically as if a ghost-horse popped up. If a ghost that looked exactly like you popped up right next to you, you might freak out a little, too!
How to deal with this fear?
What often happens when a horse first sees his reflection, is he tends to spook, then the handler gets nervous, then the horse gets more nervous because the handler gets nervous, etc., etc., etc. You need to anticipate that he might have this reaction, and make sure you are in a safe place so if he does spook- either forward, backward or to the side, that you are not in danger. Don’t yank on his face- let him move a little. It’s natural and pulling on his face and not allowing him to move anywhere on the ground may make him believe that there is only one way left to go- UP. A rearing horse is pretty much the most dangerous horse, and you do not want to let your horse believe that “up” is really an option- make sure that he has a way to “escape” in a safe way.
This doesn’t mean your horse gets to just take off- he can move a little, but he still needs to respect the pressure on his halter. I’ll go more into teaching your horse to respect pressure in a future post- that takes several weeks of consistent work, but it is incredibly important!
Stand as close to the reflective surface as you feel is safe, and let your horse move around. He may blow a little, but it’s your attitude and your energy that is most important: if you are calm and let him know you’re not afraid, he won’t be afraid. Depending upon your horse and his reaction, you must make a decision about what to do next. You want the situation to be a “win” for you and your horse: the “win” might be just getting him to walk by the reflective surface without bolting. He may be jigging or blowing, but at least you got him by. If he’s calmer, like Devon, you may want to let him take some more time to inspect the surface, and let him understand that there is no danger.
If I have a horse who is obviously unsettled with anything new, I usually just pretend to ignore the “danger,” whether it’s a reflective surface or something else, and keep walking the horse by. I make sure I’m safe, and the horse can move away from the “danger” in a safe way, but I don’t react. The goal there is to let the horse realize that I, as the lead horse, do not consider the reflective surface (or anything else “spooky”) as dangerous. I might walk by the “danger” once or twice, and that’s it- as long as I can get the horse by without a huge blowup, I will consider that a “win.”
Don’t just stop desensitizing!
If I have a horse who trusts me but isn’t sure about that potential “danger,” then I’ll let the horse do exactly what Devon is doing- we let the horse go up to the reflection and sniff and determinate there is no danger. I don’t just stop at the “win” of him not spooking, but I keep pushing a little (this is where knowing your horse is important- you don’t want to push him too quickly or he may end up moving backward in his training). By that time, the horse should already know that I don’t consider it dangerous, and he will be more courageous and more likely to inspect the situation. He may blow or start at the surface, but as long as he doesn’t bolt or run away, again, I’ll consider that a “win.” The more confident he is, the more objects I’ll allow him to inspect.
It may take several times going past a reflective surface before your horse no longer reacts, but eventually he should understand that the “ghost horse” isn’t a threat. I can’t guarantee that your horse will actually understand what a reflection is, but walking him by the surface and allowing him to sniff and inspect the scary reflection is the first step.