Horses are prey animals, and as such, everything is a potential threat to them. While we may find it annoying or even dangerous when our horses spook at things that we know are not dangerous, such as plastic bags, trash cans, barrels, hoses, trailers, dogs, trees, leaves, birds, other horses, people… well, basically everything.
While some horses are more reactive than other horses, every horse can do well with being exposed to items that could potentially cause them to spook. What is important, however, is to expose them a little at a time, especially paying attention to things that they give slight reactions to, and allowing them to realize that those small things aren’t dangerous.
10 things to remember when helping to teach horses that things aren’t scary:
- Horses are not people, and reacting to things they don’t recognize or understand is perfectly natural. You are not going to get them to completely ignore things that may be dangerous to them- nor should you try. Horses who may ignore everything, i.e., the “completely bombproof” horse, is acting contrary to his nature. Horses *should* react to things that may be scary- the goal is to have them react in a way that is safe. The horse should learn to assess things that may be threatening instead of just reacting without thinking.
- Teaching horses to assess sensory items takes time, and you should be challenging your horse by introducing small potentially scary items all of the time. Sensory clinics are not the place to “desensitize” your horse- rather, think of a sensory clinic in the same way you would a show. You wouldn’t go to a dressage show without having practiced your transitions; you wouldn’t go to a gymkhana without working your horse through some basic patterns; you wouldn’t go to into a show jumping class without putting your horse over some cross rails first. A sensory clinic is really just for you to show off how great your horse *already* is, and potentially to expose him to things he might not see, but overall, he should be mentally and emotionally prepared for such a clinic, which means you should have done a lot of sensory work with him first. Otherwise, you are going to blow his poor little mind to pieces- I’ve seen horses leave sensory clinics completely shut down, and they MORE spooky and less trusting after these clinics. The reason? It was just too much for them- they were not mentally and emotionally prepared for such an event.
- Horses do not have a very large corpus collosum. A corpus collosum joins the two hemispheres of the brain- in humans, the corpus collosum is highly developed, equivalent to a 17-lane superhighway. In horses, however, the corpus collosum is not very developed, giving it the equivalent of a windy mountain one-lane road. This is why, when a horse sees something on his left side, when he passes it going the other way, it seems like he has never seen it- truly, in his brain, it’s like he never did. When you introduce something new or potentially scary to a horse, you need to walk him by it on both the left and the right sides so his brain can fully understand it. Anyone who has had a horse spook while passing by the “scary object” going one way in the arena, spending 10 minutes to get their horse to stop reacting, can understand the feeling of annoyance when they turn around and the horse spooks at the same thing all over again. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about this- your horse’s brain is what it is. All you can do is understand why he might react in certain ways, and try to compensate accordingly.
- Make sure that you have control over your horse at all times, and don’t introduce something that may end up causing your horse to exhibit an unsafe reaction. If you are able, introduce sensory items in an arena or other enclosed area where he has the ability to move away from the item, but if he decides to run away from it he is not in any danger of getting hurt. If the item is outside of the arena (like a garbage can), only go as close as you can to feel that you have control over your horse, and not so close that he feels that his only option is to pull back and/or run away.
- Never, ever force your horse when introducing any sensory items. Let your horse sniff the item, and let him go up to it on his own. Make sure that when you are showing the horse the item that you are positive and your energy level is low and inviting- you are there to reassure him, not to punish him.
- Working with sensory items can help build your relationship with your horse– if you introduce something potentially scary, such as an umbrella, and he learns that it is not only safe, but maybe he gets a treat after dealing with it, then he knows that he can trust you- you have told him that scary thing would not hurt him, and it didn’t. Amazing! Trusting you about that one scary thing will help you when the next potentially scary thing you come across- if you tell him that won’t hurt him, either, then he is more likely to believe you. I’m not saying that you should try to introduce things everyday to scare your horse, but showing your horse a few items once or twice a week that you think might be scary can help build up his trust in you, thus improving your relationship. Some horses will actually enjoy this new game of introducing new things, and will find them fun to play with. Some won’t, and the best you can hope for is that they ignore the new thing, which is better than spooking at it, anyway.
- Sometimes ignoring things is fine. While it’s important to stop and let horses see something that they have shied away from, sometimes it is safer just to move your horse along when he sees something scary. Maybe it’s a plastic bag on the trail, and you’re afraid he will shy away and over the side of the mountain. Maybe it’s the huge blow-up Uncle Sam balloon that was on our street this past summer, and your horse is just not OK with it, and while you would like to let him get closer to it, suddenly there are 12 cars on the normally empty street, and it is just not the time. Maybe there are other horses around and it is not safe in case your horse spooks or shies to one side or the other- or, maybe you’re not in the right frame of mind to work through that thing with your horse. Whatever the reason, sometimes it is OK to just let your horse know to ignore that thing, and that he can at least trust you to walk right on by.
- Don’t put sensory items in your horse’s stall to try to “desensitize” him to the thing- what you end up doing is letting him know that his stall is no longer his safe place, and you can stress him out to the point that he can colic. I’ve seen people put up pinwheels and streamers in their horse’s stall, only to have the neighboring horses colic or freak out and hurt themselves. Just leave his stall alone, OK? That’s his safe place, not a training area.
- Make introducing sensory items a game, not a chore. Having fun with your horse while introducing any sensory items is more enjoyable for both you and your horse. Giving your horse a treat every time you open a plastic bag will make plastic bags much more fun- you can even teach your horse to put his head in one to get a treat (watch out he doesn’t eat it). Again, your horse is going to read your body language, and if you are having fun with the item, he is more likely to relax and have fun, too.
- Finally, when you are working with sensory items with horses, remember the two most important rules:
- Keep yourself safe.
- Keep your horse safe.
Make sure that you have control over your horse at all times, and don’t introduce something that may end up causing your horse to exhibit an unsafe reaction.