Thursday, March 4, 2010

There is Never Enough Time

I have got the next installment so close I can taste it. My fingers are itchy and my mind is racing. I also have had more interruptions than I can cope with and I won't be able to post tonight. Arrrgh.

I will keep writing, I hope to keep hearing from you.

In the meantime....

I am thinking more and more about the sensitize/desensitize issue.

I am thinking about it so much because I'm giving a clinic to some serious beginners next week. I haven't done this for a long time. I want to clearly explain why and how we choose what we train our horses for.

I wish I had been working on this train of thought when I was training horses and clients. I could have made so much more of a difference.

This is where my biggest argument comes up with Natural Horsemanship. As it is trained by so many, I concede, not all.
You can't use the same routine for every horse. You have to take in consideration so many aspects of the horse. Is the horse nervy? Or cold? Have you had enough experience to know the difference between a hot horse and a spooky horse? A laid back horse compared to dull?

I recently watched a video of a colt being started. The rider was laying here, laying there, leaning and pulling the saddle this way and that while being led around the arena by another person.

This is a perfect example of what I consider Annoymanship.

The colt (a very patient, good boy BTW) was walking along with this completely confused look to him. He was lugging on the lead rope, walking very slowly with his head up and his tail clamped.

They walked and walked and walked.

To me, this is what was happening to the colt.

A lot was going on too. He was being ridden. He was getting hung on, rubbed on and the saddle yanked. He was being led and was hanging on the lead rope.

He was never getting a release from what was being done to him. He was never getting a reward. He was simply confused.

If I was riding this horse, he would have know to turn left when the halter rope guided him left and right when it guided left. He would been acclimated to the saddle. He would be used to me standing up in the stirrup.

The day I rode him I would get on. As soon as he was moving freely, now this could be W,T or C, depends on the horse and my nerves, but he would be moving freely,I would guide him left, guide him right, wait until he stopped, say whoa and get down. That's it.

So you can see where this bothers me. Because the colt in the video seemed duller than dirt. And mildly pissed. Which is not what I want in a horse. Dull and Pissed.


This colt was learning not to spook. He was learning to accept weird weight changes and shifts in the saddle. He was definitely wasn't worried about the rider and he sure wasn't afraid.

He had clearly been thoroughly prepared for the first ride.

This is a good thing.

So how do we keep the lightness and forward that I want and still create the acceptance I saw from the colt?

Do we keep a list?

And that folks, is how I'll open my clinic. Asking each rider what they want from their horse.

Whoop whoop. Thinking while writing is such a grand thing.

So what about all this?


  1. What I want from my horse is to trail ride. All over the place. And we do. And he spooks. I've done the desensitize thing. He's cool with bags when a person holds them and rubs them on him or asks him to walk on them. Anyplace. But on trail, if he sees a bag, he will most likely try and spin and run. I'm used to this by now and he gives me signals and we usually get through these situations fine with him eventually sniffing the offending item and moving on.

    Is it possible that a there can be a undesensitiveable (so not a word) horse?

    We've done tarps, grocery bags, brown bags, big blue tarps, bedding bags, coats, towels, everything. I'm becoming resigned to this red alert behavior on trail by now. But if there's a secret I'm missing, I'd love to know. Thanks!

    ps. would love to attend a clinic of yours. it would be so enlightening.

  2. dull and pissed. perfect i love it!

    I was just thinking along the same lines tonight! Not about breaking horses per say but I was thinking about how loping around the ring with no goal in mind was repetitive motion and how it makes for a dull or frustrated horse.

    You have to have objectives every time you ride and it should be something other than behaviors you don't not want. Show them what you want and reward behaviors you desire, or else, even if you have good releases you are going to get a bored horse.

    My whole take on the sensitizing/desensitizing coin is this. You want horses to generalize to a cue not to the environment..For example When you say whoa. fist you associate it with the cessation of movement. then you generalize a cue by introducing different gaits and situations. You make sure the horse has a generalized whoa when he is nervous, scared, frightened saucy etc and still listens. That is sensitization without habituation. The horse is more responsive to a cue not less responsive to it's environment. Horse's should react horses should be alert! To get rid of natural behaviors should not be a training objective. I think we should just focus on perfecting cues for our behaviors we want so when things get interesting we can rely on our previous training to be a reflex not a fight. What do you think?

  3. Hey Mugs: Just wondering, is the colt learning not to spook or is he merely doing what he needs to do to get through a rotten situation? "The colt (a very patient, good boy BTW) was walking along with this completely confused look to him. He was lugging on the lead rope, walking very slowly with his head up and his tail clamped." The behaviors this colt is exhibiting don't suggest that it is a positive learning environment. An inverted horse is not a comfortable horse. Can our horse be trained correctly if we don't have a clear idea of what we want from our horse and with regards to our own riding experience. For example (exaggerated) a trail horse doesn't need to know the sliding stop of a reiner. And a reiner doesn't necessarily need to know how to maneuver around a gate. Each horse and rider needs their own training routine. They can't exist in a vacuum to each other.
    I'm learning along with my horses, what do I want them to know, what it necessary for right now and trying to fill in the holes that exist from their past training to make them more suitable to my families riding needs. Cheers, Lynn

  4. I loved this post! I am working through the same thoughts... where am I going with this horse, and what is the best way to get there. I have a little training project, and we've gotten past the starting under saddle bit, which is the easy part in my opinion. My whole goal was to have a relaxed horse that moves forward, turns, stops, learns to yield to pressure, and who is just as calm and happy at the end of the ride (if not more).

    Now comes the hard part of putting all of it together. Creating a finished horse takes good riding and good timing and a good plan. Right now I'm feeling like that is a daunting task. But until I figure that out, at least I have a horse that can go out in the world with out too much fuss, and not because I shook tarps at her or stood on her back, but because she knows I am in charge because I will keep her safe.

  5. Thanks for this post.

    What would you suggest for a pony (literally a pony) who has 4 years of being taught to brace, and then add a bit of more-than-naughty aggressive behavior? No rush on the response, but if you have some quick suggestions, I'd love some. I am getting a handle on him for the most part, but I still don't dare turn my back on him. I can give more info, if necessary, too. I haven't done any detailed blogging about him, but I probably should. Put my first lead-line style ride on him last week. I can supply video of that if you haven't seen it.

  6. Thats a really interesting topic. For me, I was normally dealing with OTTB's - they had start and stop kinda sorted, a bit of left and right, and were spooky as hell!
    I worked on getting control of forward first, so that they would go where I wanted, then worked on the spook, maily by getting them to wrok around spooky things.
    I never rubbed a horse down with a plastic bag, but I used to tie them onto jump rails, do some flat work around the jumps then jump them, the same with clothing, tin foil and anything else I could think of to make the jumps look wierd. Our jump rails were young trees we had thinned so were rather plain and unpainted, so we had to do something.

    Yes, the horses would still spook a bit - but so did I when we flushed a bird from long grass, or an unseen deer jumped out of the creek that ran along side where we were riding. However since they were used to us making them jump weird things, and expecting them to work while weird stuff was happening around them, they tended to spook in place then wait for what we wanted them to do next.
    Since we were jumping and eventing, we actually wanted horses that still could think for themselves, and if the crap really hit the fan, keep them selves out of trouble, hence we never wanted them "dead". For that same reason, we never kept working with a horse that didn't have a strong sense of self preservation, a horse that is ok about getting hurt or hurting itself WILL hurt you.

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  8. I think it's a hopeless task to try and acclimate a horse to so many things that it will never spook. A (dressage) trainer taught me the importance of your horse being "on the aids"; the theory that while on the aids you had their total focus and together you could deal with anything that appeared. Great theory, harder to establish, but a worthy goal. No dullness required.

    But your point of each horse being different is key. After a lifetime of TBs and "keeping things interesting", my current horse craves repetition. It's a comfort to him. It's hard for me to remember, and I sometimes have to resort to counting circles--like asking him to canter 5 circles each way--just to let him settle into the movement. He's outwardly calm, but the repetition settles him inside like nothing else. My TBs would be bored to death.

    Asking what you want from the horse, and then asking what the horse needs from you is a great way to start! (Wait, to start? We should ask this every day..)

  9. I think that the first thing that both a horse and a rider want when they are starting out is confidence. Like how when you're learning to drive you don't want a ferrari, you want something nice and easy where you can feel in control and safe. Consequently I think that with someone starting out with a horse I would see desensitisation - not like what you describe in the colt starting, but considerate desensitisation - as a really big deal. The human needs the horse not to be constantly on their toes, the horse needs to know that this human can get them feeling better when something is making them a little anxious. It can give you a starting point for a positive spiral right there.

    Everyone makes mistakes and everyone overdoes things when they are starting out, but having an understanding of how desensitisation works gives you a grounds for showing someone when they are desensitising their horse to their cues, which is another thing that most people do when starting out ( and I know because these things are only really a couple of years ago for me and I'm way back on the journey compared with everyone else here ) becuase if they understand that concept you're working with something they already know and can use it to extend their knowledge further.

    Now I'm not sure where the terminology comes from but I've heard it in a few places that there is a question of bringing ourselves up to the horse's level versus bringing the horse down to our level. To me desensitisation is at the heart of that, the core mechanism by which we bring the horse down to our level and the better we get the less we need to do. But I think when people are starting out they probably do need to take out some stuff they will maybe want to put back in later because right now they couldn't handle it and both the horse and the rider's confidence would be affected as a consequence.

  10. This colt was learning not to spook...So how do we keep the lightness and forward that I want and still create the acceptance I saw from the colt?

    By accepting that the world doesn't end in the horse spooks?

    That is, of course a green-as-grass beginner rider needs a fairly made and unreactive horse to be safe and to lay down the good foundation that'll set them up for success (if they so desire) with spicier critters in the future. For sure.

    And I love a little spook and heat in a horse, for a whole bunch of reasons, so maybe I am more than a little bit biased.

    But the more I work with the kind of horse that I like, the more I feel like trying to totally prevent the spook and the reactivity is not the way to go. I feel like I get a much better result--and ultimately a bolder and more useful horse--by teaching the critter to handle (and to allow me to handle) their spookiness and reactivity. I don't care about whether or not the horse spooks. I care about how the horse recovers. I find that if you can get a handle on that, the spooks start to go away on their on.

  11. Maybe I was not making sense... that happens. :) My gist is that we want horses that respond predictably to our aides.Not a horse that has been habituated to every situation known to man.
    We want a horse that sill goes forward and stops and turns etc...on command when it is afraid, not a horse that is never afraid.

    Ok does that make sense now :)

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  13. I think spookiness or the lack of it is more a personality thing than a training thing. My green four-year-old isn't spooky or reactive, but she was born that way. Being raised with crazy kids running around didn't hurt any, but mostly she is who she is. You can desensitize all day long in a controlled environment, but it doesn't seem to help any with the deer that runs in front of you on the trail. My TBs are smart and curious, and I want to keep that, but they aren't reactive. A hard look is their method of spooking, which is nice for me. I think my biggest mistake with my greenie has been starting her too slowly, literally. We need to get comfortable with speed and a tiny bit of risk, but since she is my ten-year-old's horse, officially, I want her safe, first. He is a better rider than I am, but the mommy-worry is overpowering.

  14. The term Natural Horsemanship has taken on a meaning to describe some crazy ways of training, and it's kind of sad. For me it's training in a more relxed manner and taking the time it takes depending on the horse's temperment. You move on to the next exercise when the horse is comfortable and fully understands. Most of all the lead is always slack, there is no forcing. What you are descibing sounds like someone who is not paying attention to their horse.

    If you look at a Ray Hunt type first ride the horse is free to move at WTC and it's the rider's job to stay out of the horse's way. You may guide with lead rope while riding. If you have done your ground work the horse has learned to follow the feel of your rope, and if you point his nose into a turn that's where he goes. That's what natural Horsemanship is to me.

    I ride a spooky young horse, but it is becuase she is young and still learning. I let her arc and look at things but never NEVER force her to sniff it, which I think is more about the rider's ego. That is about as unnatural as you can get. If a horse has a natural curiousity and wants to investigate that's different, but forcing it can set the horse up for disaster and I have seen that happen.

    Joy there is no secret or magic cure IMO. If it were me (and sometimes it is with my young mare) I let her take the wide way she needs to. I look ahead and don't think or focus on the object. I laugh and say silly girl. Horses REALLY need to know it is no big deal. The more times she encounters these things the more confidence she gets, and really that is what they need. Sometimes if I see something "scary" I point her nose to it and make she sees it too so it doesn't startle her. Also I put one had on right below the wither, just flat, to remind them it is me up there. I may jiggle the snaffle to get the mind back to me.

    What I don't do is kick and hold reins tight. Soft, slow and no big deal and if it is too scary that is fine we will go around it. If that's not possible I will lead them past. You want to avoid the flight instinct at all costs. A spook is like a flinch I think, and no big deal, but spinning and running is learning to bolt. I don't think horses like to feel so afraid they have to run. I think they can lose confidence in their rider if they think they have to look after themself.

  15. Here we go...I'm jumping around on my answers because Glenatron gave me one point I think I'm reaching for..."The human needs the horse not to be constantly on their toes, the horse needs to know that this human can get them feeling better when something is making them a little anxious.'

    OK, here's what I'm thinking. Desensitstion with tarps, bags, flags and what have you, will make a horse tune out that stimulus. They are not responding to the rider, they have simply quit responding to the tarp or whatever.

    So if you choose these methods you have to add on the fact you will still have to train the horse to respond to you. And won't it be harder now? Because the horse has learned to tune out unpleasant stimulus?

    Latigo Liz - This is interesting. I have one of those coming to the clinic. He won't budge (with a rider). Ever. Not a single step. So we'll have to compare notes. My only thought on this horse is he has been taught every single response.

    Deered- I'm beginning to think you simply need to ride them. Spooky horses will spook less and not spooky ones will be better, but experience under saddle is the key.

    Talk to you later...I've got to get to work. Keep the thoughts coming....their great.

  16. Thanks Janet. Yes, he has. And unteaching it is definitely a good learning experience for me. I think he'll be OK, but he may end up being too high-energy for my 6-year-old son. Jury is still out. He's not spooky, but he is a challenge and handful. I'll put my first ride video clip on my blog for feedback from folks. Should be interesting conversation material at a minimum.

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  18. So if you choose these methods you have to add on the fact you will still have to train the horse to respond to you. And won't it be harder now? Because the horse has learned to tune out unpleasant stimulus?

    But there is a difference between a tool-as-something-the-horse-is-afraid-of and tool-as-something-the-horse-responds-to. I don't want the horse to be afraid of me moving the rope around briskly if it's nothing to do with them- if I was training a cow horse then it wouldn't be much good for roping if it was, but if I'm using it to back up a request for them to move then I do want them to respond to it. There is a difference between movement with no intention behind it and movement with intention behind it and horses are able to figure it out. It's like if I'm singing to myself or I'm talking to you- I'm making a noise with my mouth in both cases but you can tell when I'm addressing you and for the sake of your sanity you'll probably need to learn to tune out my singing pretty fast...

  19. My senior year in college one of my required classes was "horse production." We were handed a 3 year old told to train it to ride. My group had a sweet little anglo arab and, being the horse crazy woman who'd never had her own horse, I was out at the farm almost every day.

    One of my partners decided he was ready to back and as she was the "experienced horse trainer" who had worked on breeding farms, she decided she would be the first up. Never mind I'd done the bulk of the ground work and she'd showed up once or twice.

    She got up on him, he reared, she went off backwards.

    I backed him up and did a few more days of ground work with him, working on getting him to focus on me and what he was being asked. I got up on him, with our professor ponying him off the school's gelding babysitter. He was confused, but well behaved.

    Unfortunately, I don't remember his body language before she got on. I know I was angry at her (and myself) for stomping in when it should have been me up first. She also decided no one should be at his head when she got on, which I think was another mistake.

    I don't think the issue was desensitization (or the lack there of) I think we just pushed the poor boy a little too hard and a little too fast.

  20. Having read and enjoyed your blog for a while I finally have something I would like to add. FWIW

    When I see people on their horse's first ride with someone leading them around by the halter I think of it as sneaking rides until they're broke. It does work for some. Years ago I was discussing with a horseman what methods we were going to use breaking one of our colts. He said sure that will work if you want a horse that is broke by the time they are 5; then you will still need to finish them so they can do a job.

    Just a thought

  21. I have a general plan for my horses at all times: I expect that they will not spook, but am ready if they do. I'm constantly amazed by a horse's ability to pick up on the body language of its rider. My son's gelding is Mr Go Along and Get Along. Right up until someone tries to take up too much rein and lets their nerves run away with them. The BooBoo starts looking for the scary thing that is making his rider freak out.
    The worst behavior my babies have is the occasional head toss and trot. Well, with the exception of birds in the area. If there is a bird within 5 feet of me my horse (and I have 3 riding horses) will either A) try to run it down or B) attempt to drop me. I think they really are out to get me.
    The only 'sacking out' I've ever done is with a mustang and a tarp.
    Long lead line and i held the tarp and waited until getting to me was more important than the weird moving thing.
    BTW- for red alert behavior don't insist that the hose go to it or stand and take it. If all you want is for the horse to not run away, than only insist on that. Let them know that they can freeze for a moment or dance in place so long as that don't run. If you are 'lead mare' then they will take the reaction from you.
    Unless it is a bird...and they are out to get you.

  22. "This colt was learning not to spook. He was learning to accept weird weight changes and shifts in the saddle. He was definitely wasn't worried about the rider and he sure wasn't afraid...
    So how do we keep the lightness and forward that I want and still create the acceptance I saw from the colt?"

    And Holly said: If you are 'lead mare' then they will take the reaction from you.

    I think this goes back to riders knowing the difference between 'soft' and 'hard' eyes... of being able to close off parts of their mind, only letting the horse read the front part, while planning goes on in the rear. Learning that, and always maintaining a calm picture for the horse, is IMO the secret.

    For instance, I think teaching the youngster about riders pulling more into one stirrup while mounted, weight changes, resettling, is VERY important. As an Eq rider (later an eventer) the way to have a good position is to constantly work at your position. If you keep your mind closed to the horse while you do this, they learn you are just getting more comfortable, you're not requesting anything.

    If you got out of position over a big fence and need to get back before the next big fence a few strides later, your mind is 100% focused on "next fence" while your body pulls itself back together. A horse trained to only listen to the active, "intent"-ive mind will continue on true to the second fence, because your weight shifting isn't important. That same horse,in a dressage test, knows weight shifts are important, and that is because the rider's mind is focused on it.

  23. - "I let her arc and look at things but never NEVER force her to sniff it, which I think is more about the rider's ego"- OK. How is this ego? In my experience it is just how someone is taught to handle a spook.
    The best way to get somebody to listen to you is to simply tell them how you do something different. It might work better, might not.
    Liz - Why can't you turn your back on him?

  24. He charges, bites, and strikes. Pretty much no social skills with other horses or boundaries. WAY better than when I first got him, but not trustworthy yet. He was gelded in late October right before I got him.

    I really should write of, in detail, his full story. But it's sunny out and I have some gardening to do before the sun disappears. Spring is in full for this year in the PNW. :)

  25. Hey Mugs, what do you think is the difference between hot and spooky? I use the words interchangeably and maybe I shouldn't.

  26. I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately as well. My past experiences have been mostly with OTTBs. The TBs I've worked with have been reactive but good minded. I was able to teach them to focus on me and relax which elimiated most issues with spookiness. Most of them I still wouldn't have put a beginner on because they were sensitive horses, and beginners don't always have good enough feel to know when there might be a problem. But I think to a large degree that sensitivity and reactiveness made them better atheletes.

    I've entered a whole new world now with pleasure riding. Grace is a dull horse even by pleasure standards. Forget densensitising, I have to be very careful not to overuse my aids. If I want her to listen well I will have to be extremely consistent. She's a forgiving horse though and not spooky at all. These things will make her a fine kid's trail horse. She's also going to make that kid a better rider in the arena because they have to do their job. All-in-all a nice horse but she won't every be super competitive in the breed shows.

    Now, I've been offered a fantastic opportunity to show a very, very nice 4 year old gelding. He's a different kind of horse. He's not dull like Grace but just a very calm laid back horse. I watched his owner, a 17 year old kid, ride him around for weeks with his mouth gapping at a pace that was too slow for his body which made him tense and then he'd crow hop. I rode him for the first time today and he was so relaxed and quiet. He's always listening to you and once you ask for something you just need to leave him alone and get out of his way so he can do it. No mouth gapping or hopping around with me onboard. I really like this horse and he seems like how I ride too.

    I'd never rub any of these horses above with tarps or bsgs because I don't think it teaches them anything useful and it's just not necessary. There are better ways to focus their enegery and keep them relaxed and happy without creating a duller animal.

    My sister's horse is a little quirky though. He's an example of a horse that gets too panicked over things. He's great under saddle but when you're on the ground with him every movement can cause him to blow backward to evade the horse eating monster. With him we do tap his legs with our feet and rub him with common objects. Not to the point of making him dull but we want him to know that his saddle pad really isn't going to kill him everytime we pick it up. I think it's a matter of teaching him to trust that we're not going to let him get hurt. With consistent patience he's gotten so much better in the last year.

    I'm somewhere in the middle but I think you need to know the horse and plan for what you need to accomplish. I started a binder recently. I have a section with note paper to write my monthly horse goals and maybe outline some training rides. I have a calender to plan out my upcoming show season. I also have cut out any training articles from magazines I wanted to keep. I included all of the vet bills, registration, and receipts for my current horses. I also printed out information on most of my local trails so when I want to take a trip I know what ammenities are available.

    When I was younger, all I every did was get on a horse and just ride it. Now I plan more then I ever have in the past, and I think it's paying off. I'm a better rider, I'm getting back some of my confidence and I'm working with really good people who don't mind taking the time to teach me new things (not to mention what I learn here).

  27. Reluctant - Me too. You should post more.

    Funder - Hot is a horse who wants to move, has a wicked active brain and is ready to go, all day, every day.

    Remember when Horse of Course talked about getting a horse ahead of your leg?

    A hot horse will scatter out in front of you like buckshot. You have to reel in his energy.

    A spooky horse has a strong flight reaction and is slow to think first.

  28. I think there's a fine line between desensitizing to the point of creating a "dead" horse that just won't react to anything anymore and desensitizing to the point that the horse just accepts whatever you are doing as just another day on the job.

    As I see it, my horse's job is to put up with whatever weird thing I'm asking him to put up with that day. It might be anything from carrying a tarp, hoses, pipe, fencing to just standing somewhere while I chat with a friend.

    My horse has worn a tarp. Why? I don't know really - seemed entertaining at the time. Someone was doing the torture their horse with a tarp thing at the barn and I figured I'd toss it on my colt to see what he'd to. He cared for about 5 seconds and then decided it was much more fun to continue pestering the people at the rail for attention. I've also had him walk across it just to see what he'd do. I don't however repetitively harass him with things like tarps. I may introduce them once if I'm bored and something weird is handy, but I leave it at that. Once he's seen it I assume the lesson has been learned and I leave it at that. Would he still spook briefly if I threw a tarp on him today? Probably, but the point with me is not that he doesn't spook at all, its that he doesn't lose his mind when he spooks. That he looks to me and says "Oh god, that thing is scary...what am I supposed to do now?!" If I say, "Ignore it" or "walk past it" that is what he needs to do.

    I want my horse to have some semblance of his own mind. One of his main jobs is trail horse and I'm planning to foxhunt with him this coming year. As such, I'd like him to be alert and thinking enough to get us out of a tight spot if need be. I'd like for him to have what in the guide dog world is called "intelligent disobedience". If he knows the bridge up ahead is out and I ask him to go over it, I'd sure like him to refuse.

    I want him to notice things. I'm okay with him pointing things out, but I want him to chill and be cool with whatever I say is okay.

    He's allowed to spook and tell me he's convinced the big scary rock/leaf/line on the road (yes, I have an Arab...) is actually a horse eating monster. He is not allowed to do anything more than tiptoe around it. I don't think making him sniff it is productive. I'd rather his feet keep moving in the direction I want them to go. I've found that making them stop and face things just tends to produce big, huge unpredictable reactions.

    I hope that made sense, I'm running on about 2 hours of sleep right now.

  29. Huh. I was thinking about this just yesterday while riding my 4 year old. He has been under saddle off and on for a year now. Very off and on. I'd get him going good doing walk/trot, and life would interfere for a few months, and I'd have to start over. I started working him seriously about a month ago. We are now doing a very solid walk/trot/whoa, introducing lateral work (we had some BEAUTIFUL leg yeilds yesterday!), and if the ring would dry up a bit, we'd start cantering.

    When he was younger, I spent much time introducing him to "scary" things and allowing him to check them out in his own time. As he is not naturally spooky, that usually took about three seconds for him to check and see if the offending item was edible. Is there a difference between desensitizing and introducing? I know I never forced him up to a scary thing. I let him check it out on his own time. That way he learned to trust that I won't ask him to do anything dangerous, and he learned confidence in himself and in me.

    Anyway, I now have a horse that is very much not afraid of whips, bags, and strange stuff on the ground (although he seems to have developed a strange aversion to puddles. We are working on that). He does respond to light aids, and when I used a riding crop yesterday to back up my leg, he responded perfectly to a very light tap. He wasn't ignoring my leg, but he's still very narrow, and therefore it's kind of hard to find him when riding. I use the crop as an extension of my leg/arm for now.

    He still spooks. Especially at birds in an indoor arena. But so far, he hasn't ever refused to do anything I ask, he just stops and looks around, or he gets quick.

    Getting back on target, I am thinking we should introduce our horses to strange and scary things, not flood their minds with the item so that they quit reacting to it. By flooding (a term we use in dog training by the way), you teach the animal to quit reacting, not to handle the situation. That way, we have a horse that isn't afraid of strange things, but can still react to light cues.

    OH! Funny story. I was at a smallish show that was near a big cat sanctuary. As one of the trail "obstacles", they brought in a live mountain lion in a cage and put him in the corner of the ring. The trail horses were asked to walk about 25 feet from the lions cage. As our area was mostly WP type horses, it was more of a WP type trail class. All the horses but one walked by the cage without giving it a glance. One horse stopped, stared, then refused to go by the cage. That horse won the class. When the other entrants protested, the judge informed him that this was a TRAIL class, and he darn sure wanted his TRAIL horse to react to a mountain lion, and not just go by it without thought.

  30. I just wanted to tune in on the "sniff the object" thing. I have a spooky (but not the least bit hot) TB. His first instinct when he spooks is to spin & bolt, and in the past, one bad spook had him on alert for a loooong time afterward. Pretty delightful. I haven't been able to ride for the last 9 months, so we've done a lot of groundwork, including having him approach & touch "scary" objects with his nose. It's not that I want him to always do that, especially not undersaddle (it would be pretty silly on the trail or pretty much anywhere), it's that I want him to learn to turn his brain back on when something scares him. I NEVER make him go up to the object; I just walk over to it & wait. He's a horse; his curiosity always gets the better of him. I think it's crucial that the horse has to make that choice to approach the obstacle, otherwise you really are just dulling him to stimuli. Anyway, just the other day I saw the difference this approach has made for him. We live in the midwest & we are finally (thank the Lord!) getting warmer temps, which is melting stuff. All day we had huge chunks of snow/ice falling off the barn roof, which makes a sudden, very loud crashing sound (you feel like the roof is coming down). Mosco would jump & snort when this happened, but he instantly calmed himself down. There wasn't the extended period of high alert, live wire horse that he used to have. So, overall I think it's helped him learn to process scary stuff better than he used to.

  31. As always- you guys have to do what makes you feel the safest around your horse. That's rule #1.
    If you want to do ground work and show your horse stuff than that's what you need to do.

    BUT - Again, in reined cowhorse our reward to the horse comes with reaction, not when they don't react.

    So we ignore the stuff we don't want, i.e. spooky things and reward what we want, a lightening fast turn on a cow.

    See what I'm getting at? I want my horse working those plastic bags and tarps.

    To get that I'll take the negative movement from the spook and turn it into positive action.

    So my trail rides are interesting, my yellow horse will stop to work a jacket hanging on a fence if I let her, or a llama or donkey or pack of barking dogs.

    No I'm not reccomending this as something you all want, but parts of it would be a good thing.

    I think that's what I'm researching here, the parts. What parts do we decide we want and do we know enough to understand whether we sensitize the horse to the stimulus or desensitize it?

    So keep those thoughts coming, this is great.

  32. What about traffic? I need to ride down a couple of side roads to get to the trails in my area and I sure don't want my boy to spook at a semi and end up with both of us in it's path. How do I desenitize/sensitize him to big loud scary moving vehicles where spooking could get us hurt or worse? Thanks for the help.

  33. mommyrides- I would lead him down the road until he's OK.

  34. What an interesting dicussion in these comments.

    I understand that I have a reactive horse. He's alert and very smart; that's what I love about him and wouldn't change it.

    I know that he will spook at something somewhere eventually. Luckily, I'm very used to it by now. I stay solid and in the middle. And when I say spook, I mean he will attempt to spin and run. 99.9% of the time I catch him as soon as he steps off with a front leg to do his spin. He stops for me and thats when I usually wait a second to let him see what he just about blew up over.

    I was taught to walk him around whatever the spooky scary thing is, both directions and let him see it. That usually works very well. Unless we're on a tight one track trail.

    He gives fair warning most of the time when he's going to blow. he will drop his shoulder towards whatever the offending item is and tip the ear on the same side as the shoulder. That is my warning.

    I react by sitting deep and relaxing. I do not shorten my reins, I just get ready to go two-handed if I need. And I squeeze with my calves and kiss at him.

    Most times we just go foward and he will snort or eyeball evil horse killing item and continue on.

    I had tried the desensitize thing when I first got him but it made no difference, like I said.

    I like your way Mugwump. It wouldn't give him more time to think and the situation would be over and behind us. I'm going to try this way. I'm sure i'll get to use it tomorrow at some point on my ride. ;)

  35. Mugs I should have been more specific about the "ego" thing and making the horse sniff or face the scary object. I've been with plenty of riders who think "that is letting the horse win" if you let them "get away" with being afraid, or maybe want to trot by something scary. To them getting off the horse is winning, like it's some sort of battle of wills.

    That's all I meant. Not the best writer to get across what I'm trying to say.

  36. Also, wanted to add that I love the idea of working my horse on those scary bags. That's an awesome idea, because I know it worked on the scary ducks/crows/bunnies.

    I never thought about it but I guess I mean bolt when I say spook. I call it spook because I've never let him take off on me. But his previous owners did. He was pretty bad with their kids and I know that's how he learned to do what he wanted and go home if he chose.

  37. Sorry, came in a bit late here.
    Very interesting post, Mugs.

    Your subject is (to me) very much related to the difficult balancing act you have to do in dressage.
    You have to have a reactive horse, strong and full of energy, and at the same time that horse has to relax.
    If you are into show jumping, the horse has to concentrate on the jumps.
    But if you get into the arena in a dressage competition, the horse has a large, empty arena and the only life-threatening objects are the things around the arena.
    People, umbrellas, exits.
    And you enter with a horse that is bursting with energy, that should be ready to go at the slightest touch. It is not always easy for the horse to wait, to keep the concentration without getting tense, and to relax.

    What kind of problems do you encounter in Western training/shows?

    I have been struggling with my spooking/tense horse this autumn, and we have been working very much on relaxation as it is a basic requirement.
    There is no use to spend time on more demanding exercises when the foundation is deficient.

    I have been turning my brains inside out to why her spookiness has been worse for this period of time.
    She has always been a horse with much energy, and sometimes spooky, but not as much as in that period.

    I believe her tenseness was due to a combination of new surroundings (which gave us the problems), not exercising herself as much as normal during the day in the muddy period, as well as getting stronger and more reactive in the work.
    But it's just a guess.

    She is better now, TG, but it took quite a while with dedicated work.
    To me it is a matter of training her to concentrate on me, and to trust me enough so that she listens to the forward aids even if something is scary.

    If she tenses up for a couple of steps, that is OK, but it is not OK to stop, or to shy away from the object.

    De-sensitizing is not something people do here, so I am not familiar with it. I guess it is how you define that term?
    To me, the ultimate test will be now when the show season starts.
    I have to de-sensitize her to different arenas, as that has been our trouble.
    I cannot see any other way than to just get out there and start.
    I have been "groom" to my daughter on shows, so my own horse has not been out and about enough.
    I guess I am paying for it now!

    We'll see what happens!

  38. Cross-posted from latigo-Liz's Dodger-ride post.... I thought it was relevant.

    Okay, can I make a suggestion? Your lead line person keeps turning around and looking at the pony while trying to lead him, and that doesn't seems to be working well. She needs to face forward, and if he still doesn't want to move, you can cue more heavily with legs, or wither you or her can swing a rope to increase the pressure behind.

    The other thing, and this really ties into the thread @ Mugwump Chronicles... are you trying to sensitize, or desensitize? You are all over the place up there, not only with the petting, but your weight and the shifting saddle. just from this video, to me, pony looks PLENTY desensitized, and needs to be resensitized to the whole "go forward" concept. When my mare was super bad about balking, I got an over-under... I cued with the leg, if she refused to move, I started softly flogging with the over-under... myself first, then her, and if she still ignored it, harder and harder, sometimes until I was really walloping her... let me tell you, this stubborn mare (and a wonderful trainer) have taught me how to ride a buck... Dodger looks like her has that balky thing going on, and like he might buck to get out of work... I would be prepared to ride the buck out until you get FORWARD.. even a couple steps... then pet, then tell him "good boy!"

    I ended up having to put some training on my mare, because I didn't quite have the nerve to really punish her for her evasive behaviors... bucking, turning around to bite the leg, balking.... now, after having the trainer put 90 days on, she rarely balks, and if she does, she normally responds to the leg to keep going forward... we are at a point where we are working on collection, and cantering... I wish you luck, he just reminds me so much of my little trouble-maker.... if nothing else, if he does turn you into an arena-dart... at least he's short? :)

  39. I found this so interesting, I actually wrote my own blog post about it, and I think I might even send it in for Mouthy Mondays. :)

    But, I would like to add.... I make my horse walk over tarps, wear tarps, lunge around me and approach/back up while I hold a tarp... why? Because there are an inordinate amount of tarps in this town! And because I frequently ride around town, I find it very useful to have a horse that doesn't entirely lose her mind about them.

    Lic can be very spooky at times, I agree that leading in-hand around the scary stuff before riding near it is important. Mommyrides... considering that my mare can be very spooky, she really acts very good about traffic, the only thing she CANNOT handle right now are dirt bikes, otherwise she can usually hold it together around school busses, garbage trucks, motorcycles, etc. It's all a matter of doing it over and over again.

  40. Ever since I read this post the phrase 'You get the dog you pay attention to'(from a poster on Dr. Patricia McConnell's blog that deals with dog/people interactions) has been bouncing around in my head.

    So I'm thinking that if you pay attention to the 'go!' part of a reaction-working the plastic bag-you keep the momentum on and forward. For me, I'm all about 'What is it?! Oh, plastic bag, let's keep going.' So I want an alert(not a spin and bolt!) but a quick settling down too. So I pay attention to calmness too. (And for the dogs, I'm paying more attentionn to them when they're not in my face, or barking at cows, or eating chicken poo.)

  41. Ok, I've been mulling this over in my head, and here's what I've got.

    Horses (and most nonhuman animals) are really bad at generalizing. A plastic bag on a stick in the arena is not the same as a plastic bag on a bush on the trail. The bunny rabbits that hang out in the pasture are not the same as the killer bunniculas that dart out on the trail. So I kind of think desensitizing is a waste of time.

    I do desensitize to things I want to do to the horse. If the horse is too jumpy about the longe whip, or my leg thumping her when I lean forward in the saddle, or my dog running in front of her, then it's hard to work with her. So I'll get her used to all the things I do, and just ignore the stuff on the trail.

    Killer bunnies and feral plastic bags in the wild - I just want her to live through them. We've gone from spin and bolt, to half-spin, to leap in place, to stop and snort. I can live with stop and snort. I want her to move down the road at the pace I set, but if she needs to stop and snort, that's ok.

    Trash cans were a really scary booger for her, so I did some clicker work with them. Now, about half the time she ignores them, and half the time she walks up and noses the trash can then turns her head back to me for her treat. I can live with that too - if I don't let her go touch the trash can, she doesn't get pissy about not getting a reward.

  42. I do the sniffing thing if I can, the reason being that it's not difficult to do- just direct life when you have it and don't put pressure on the horse when they're nervous.

    The main reason I use it is that I never have to do it twice. So the first time we go down the road in bin day and pony gets all up and concerned about the first dustbin, we go through the simple process of offering direction until he stops being scared and gets inquisitive and then once he's checked it out from every angle, on we go. It takes a minute or two at worst and then we don't have any problem with any of the other bins right the way up and down the road - or indeed in my experience ever again, unless they do something really surprising - and so for a couple of minutes of work we gain a longer term benefit. Also maybe I gain a little reliability in the eyes of my horse for saying something was safe and being proved right. I don't see that as egotistical, just a practical way of resolving some anxiety in my horse. I'd prefer that he wasn't needlessly afraid and doing it this way isn't taking out anything I might want later, just letting him learn to be confident around something that was presenting a problem for him.

    You can't do it for everything of course- go past a wall with some pigs on the other side of it and there's no equivalent way of resolving it, so you need different tools in your box for different times, but I've found it practical and useful.

  43. Desensitize? Nope. I don't bother with tarps or plastic bags, or garbage cans. I want my horse to notice things, and spook if she thinks it's necessary, but I want her to do so without hurting either of us. My personal space is nothing to negotiate, and she is to keep her feet as still as possible (no jumping, spinning, bolting).

    I've found, if my space is respected, and we've worked on keeping those feet quiet, we do pretty dang well with the boogiemen that come along. Stop, snort, jigg a little bit to the side....ok, I'll take it. And the chances are that the next time will be better.

    Ya know, I use to ride a gelding that my good riding friend considered to be a spook. That same horse alerted me when we my friend rode up on a skunk....because of his 'stop and snort' spook, I was able to warn my friend and keep her from riding home alone! :)