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Controlling Movement (Part I) —
by Emily Johnson

Understanding Sensitization vs. Desensitization

The horse shies at the plastic, spooks at the tarp, and soars through the roof at the sound of clippers. Yet, when you cluck and wave your arms, asking him to move in a circle, he stands there, hooves stubbornly rooted to the ground. What is wrong with this picture?

Humans are terrific horse trainers. Yet, it doesn’t take long to hear of the numerous complaints from an equine enthusiast surrounding their horse’s behavior. What many don’t realize is this:

A horse that is hard to catch, difficult to mount, is unresponsive or excessively reactive has been taught those behaviors—-and had them reinforced--by their human handler.

Without a proper understanding of when to apply pressure and when to release pressure, it is possible to inadvertently teach a horse undesirable behavior. This week I will shed insight on how to properly sensitize and intentionally desensitize your horse, developing them into the best partner possible.

By now you have hopefully spent some undemanding time with your horse, simply being alongside one another, prior to building the activity side of the relationship. It is now time to put all that you’ve learned into action, using specific exercises that can help shape your horse’s behavior.

The horse possesses certain characteristics that make it a highly trainable species. For instance, horses, by nature, are exceptionally perceptive and sensitive creatures. They have the ability to detect sensory stimuli of which we are typically unaware.

Horses are also especially rapid learners and desensitize very quickly to frightening stimuli. Since a horse uses flight as the primary method of defense, it is necessary for them to quickly desensitize to things that will not harm them, otherwise the horse would be in perpetual flight.

In essence, the horse categorizes everything it encounters as either something to run from, or something not to run from.

This has great meaning to us, as it allows us to direct our horse’s beliefs and therefore, shape their behavior.

To sensitize a horse is to cause them to become more responsive to a specific cue or stimulus.

To desensitize a horse is to create an intentional disregard of a stimulus or object.

The goal throughout our horsemanship is to develop an equine partner that is balanced between sensitization and desensitization. Knowing how to appropriately sensitize our horse is just as important as being able to desensitize our horse to various things. An overtly sensitized horse that shies and spooks at anything and everything is not a safe or reliable partner. But, nor is the overtly desensitized horse, who shows a disrespect and disregard toward your important communications.

Whether a horse becomes more sensitive (sensitized) or less sensitive (desensitized) is determined by when we maintain pressure and at what point we release it. Horses learn more from the release of pressure than they do from the pressure itself. The release is the reward that tells them they did the right thing.

When sensitizing a horse, keep doing what you’re doing, using increasing stages of pressure until the horse responds with movement. As soon as the horse moves, release all pressure.

When desensitizing a horse, keep doing what you’re doing, using decreasing stages of pressure until your horse can tolerate and eventually ignore the stimulus. Once the horse relaxes and becomes unresponsive to the stimulus, release all pressure.

For the purpose of this week’s article, I am going to stick to desensitization exercises. I will introduce sensitization exercises next week.

Because the horses’ prey animal instinct brings about a natural suspicion of us as predators, it is of great significance that we win our horses’ trust early in the relationship. Building trust is a constant theme throughout our horsemanship, but at this stage, may be accomplished by showing our horse that we have a friendly intent. We must promise our equine partner that no matter what, despite our instinctive nature, we will never act like a predator and we must show our commitment to this in all that we do.

For partnership to occur it is important that your horse not be afraid of you or any of your training tools. A tool may be a leadrope, a training stick, a flag, or any other humane item you bring into the communication process.

The training stick has become an increasingly popular tool and is my favorite tool for enhancing communication, as it may be used as an extension of yourself.

We will begin by desensitizing the horse to some of the common tools. At this stage, I recommend not attempting to desensitize your horse to more advanced items, such as plastic, tarps, clippers, etc. until the relationship has progressed further. I will instruct you in introducing those trickier items in future weeks.

Before we jump into the exercises, it is important to discuss how to position your body and use your energy when desensitizing a horse. Remember, as the herd leader, your horse ought to be looking to you for guidance on how he should respond.

A few weeks back I discussed what I call, ‘The 4 C’s of Horsemanship’ – being Clear, Committed, Consistent and Congruent in your communication. As you begin implementing your leadership role through these upcoming exercises, be sure you are communicating out of a place that reveals those important qualities.

The one exception surrounds desensitization. When I desensitize my horse, I intentionally use casual body language. Because the object or stimulus I am desensitizing my horse to is something that would typically evoke fear and flight, I am sure to assume a casual body position that conveys a message to my horse of, “No big deal.”

Lead rope Desensitization (Stage I)

Goal: To be able to throw the leadrope over and around the horse’s body while having them stand still and relax.

To ask your horse to walk off, first bring the life up in your body as you give the horse's ribs a squeeze with your legs (stage 1 pressure). If your horse hasn't walked off, encourage them by rhythmically swinging the end of the leadrope against your shoulders, going shoulder to shoulder (stage 2 pressure).
With a relaxed stance and casual energy in your body, throw the leadrope over and around your horse, beginning just behind the withers before progressing to other parts of the body. Once desensitization has occurred your horse should be able to remain stationary and show confidence and relaxation the way my gelding is in this photo.

Instructions: Stand near your horse’s shoulder with a relaxed and grounded energy in your body. I like to cock one of my legs the way a horse cocks a hindfoot when they are relaxed. Be relaxed in your breathing, allowing your breath to travel throughout your whole body. Also, avoid facing your horse directly as the horse reads this as pressure. Rather stand with your body turned at a slight angle to the horse, suggesting a passive and friendly demeanor.

Begin rhythmically throwing the leadrope over your horse’s back, just behind the withers. Keep repeating this motion until your horse can stand still and relax. This could be seen as a sigh, a lowering of the head or a lick and chew of the mouth. If your horse moves off, shorten the leadrope just enough so that they can only travel around you in a circle. Do not stop the motion of the leadrope, even if the horse moves. Doing so will cause the horse to become sensitized, inside of desensitized. Maintain the motion, until the horse’s feet stop and their body language relaxes. As soon as those two things occur, cease the motion of the leadrope so as to reward your horse for trusting and accepting this motion.

Repeat this same process by swinging the rope up the horse’s neck, over his rump and around both his front legs and hindlegs. Be sure that you can do it on both sides of the horse as well.

Stick Desensitization

Goal: To be able to rub the horse with the stick all over their body while having them stand still and relax.

Once your horse can accept the leadrope touching them in all areas, move on to rubbing the stick all over their body. Notice at this stage I am holding the string against the stick with my hand. Allow your horse to desensitize to the stick, before introducing the string as well.
Once your horse can accept the leadrope touching them in all areas, move on to rubbing the stick all over their body. Notice at this stage I am holding the string against the stick with my hand. Allow your horse to desensitize to the stick, before introducing the string as well.

Instructions: With the same relaxed energy and body position, begin rubbing your horse with the stick using a rhythmic motion just behind his shoulders. I like to hold the string against the stick with my hand so the horse does not encounter the string just yet. Keep repeating this motion until your horse can stand still and relax. If your horse moves off, simple shorten the leadrope enough that he can only travel in a circle around you, while maintaining the rubbing motion. Do not cease the motion until the horse can stand still and relax.

Repeat this same process, rubbing the horse with the stick on his neck, hindquarters, and belly and up and down each leg. Be sure to do this on both sides of the horse.

Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 1)

Goal: To be able to swing the stick and string over and around the horse’s body while having them stand still and relax.

Instructions: This exercise follows the same pattern as the ones above, just with the string hanging down from the stick, instead of being held against it. You are going to use the same motion as when swinging the leadrope over your horse’s back. I like to extend my stick and string all the way out behind me so when I flick it over his back, there is momentum to help carry it all the way up and over. Continue rhythmically throwing the string over your horses back until he can stand still and relax.

This series demonstrates how to use full arm extension to get the string up and over the horses' back. This full motion technique should also be applied when throwing the leadrope over the horse. Notice that although there is great motion in my arms, my body still has a grounded feel and casual energy, indicating to my horse he can stand still and relax.
This series demonstrates how to use full arm extension to get the string up and over the horses' back. This full motion technique should also be applied when throwing the leadrope over the horse. Notice that although there is great motion in my arms, my body still has a grounded feel and casual energy, indicating to my horse he can stand still and relax.

Repeat this same process, swinging the stick and string up the horse’s neck, over his rump and around both his front legs and hindlegs. Be sure that you can do it on both the left side and the right side of the horse as well.

Although we have focused primarily on desensitization exercises, the coming weeks will reveal sensitization exercises as well as additional desensitization exercises. Once you feel comfortable with a few of each, I recommend you alternate between sensitization and desensitization, working toward the goal of a balanced horse.

Which type of exercise you start with depends on your horses’ demeanor. If your horse tends to be flighty, reactive and overtly sensitive I recommend starting with some desensitization and doing as much as you need throughout your time with your horse until he shows a greater confidence.

Once your horse can accept being touched by the stick all over this body and allows you to throw the string over his back, neck, and rump, you may then progress to desensitizing both his front and hind legs. A confident, trusting and desensitized horse can stand still while the string wraps around their legs without feeling the need to kick out in defense.
Once your horse can accept being touched by the stick all over this body and allows you to throw the string over his back, neck, and rump, you may then progress to desensitizing both his front and hind legs. A confident, trusting and desensitized horse can stand still while the string wraps around their legs without feeling the need to kick out in defense.

If you have a horse that tends to be dull, mentally disengaged, or otherwise unresponsive, I suggest starting your session with a sensitizing exercise to encourage your horse to wake up and pay attention.

Not unlike a student in the classroom, your horse needs to be alert, attentive and confident in order to learn effectively.

Becoming the best horseman or horsewoman you can be enables your horse to become their best.

Shaping our horse’s behavior can take time. Keep in mind that as prey animals, they have a very strong instinct of self-preservation. It takes time, patience, and persistence to convince our horse that although we look like a predator and smell like a predator, that we are not going to act like one.

I want to encourage you with an old horseman’s saying – “Take the time it takes, so it takes less time.” Have patience – your horse—and you---are worth it!

This article was featured on MyHorse.com