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Controlling Movement (Part III) —
by Emily Johnson

Pause for a minute in silence to notice all the noises around you that typically you don’t give much attention. It may be the rhythmic sound of the clock on the wall, the hum of the refrigerator, the traffic out your window, your kid’s blaring music, or the rumbles of your snoring husband on the coach. Likely, their presence is no longer noticeable to your mind because you have become desensitized to them. It is as if the sounds are no longer there – well, maybe with the exception of the blaring rock music and snoring husband. If only those could be so easily ignored.

A similar process can occur with our horses. In fact, one of the qualities that sets the horse apart from other domestic animals is their ability to desensitize so rapidly. The horse can habituate to sounds, sensations and objects that once caused them great fright, as long as those things do not hurt them.

Since I addressed sensitization last week, this week’s exercises will focus on expanding our desensitization skills. So that we may have a horse that is in balance, I recommend alternating between sensitizing and desensitizing exercises when you work with your horse.

Before I jump into this week’s desensitization exercises, I want to readdress some ideas that will help keep your relationship with your horse thriving and strong. Not unlike our interactions with people, it is important to balance the relationship between being and doing. If your time with your horse becomes overrun with “doing” tasks and activities, you may find that your horse loses enthusiasm for your arrival.

As you are learning to do these new exercises with your horse, I encourage you to nurture the “being” part of your relationship, as well. Regardless of how far along you or your horse are in your skills and abilities, placing importance on spend undemanding time together is a true gift that will keep the relationship alive and well.

This week’s desensitization exercises will focus on building your horse’s confidence around faster-moving, more intense forms of pressure, utilizing your stick and string. This will prepare your horse to be desensitized to more advanced stimuli, such as plastic and flags. The ultimate goal in desensitization is for the horse to be able to maintain the same relaxed posture and demeanor whether an object or stimulus is present or not.

Carefully consider the following ideas, as these suggestions will help you be successful in the following desensitization exercises.

Before moving onto these stage 2 exercises, be sure that your horse can confidently allow you to touch him all over his body with the stick and string as described in Controlling Movement (Part I). Give some extra time to swinging the lead rope and string around your horse’s hind legs and rump, as this tends to be a place most horse’s lack confidence. Be sure your horse trusts the presence of the stick and string in this particular region, before moving on to the hindquarter exercise of this week.

A horse that is frightened by something will often go into physical motion (this comes from their instinct for flight). In the following exercises, the instinct to flee may be seen as the horse wanting to nervously walk or trot around in a circle at the end of the lead rope.

Sometimes the horse does not deem physical flight necessary and will instead stand in place, but be physically very tight. This horse will hold its head very high, be straight and tense in all four legs, may not blink, have tight lips, tense muscles and may snort through their nostrils. In this scenario, although the horse may not be physically in flight, they are thinking flight and therefore it is important to not release pressure until the horse has relaxed and accepted the presence of the object or stimulus.

It is very important you notice the physical changes in your horse while they are emotionally “letting down,” as these are indicators of his emotional state and will guide you in determining when to time your release.

Signs of relaxation in a horse can be cocking a hind foot, lowering of the head, sighing, softly blinking, or licking and chewing. One of the best indicators that a horse is no longer thinking flight is when they lick and chew, as this is a telling sign that they are accessing the thinking side of their brain.

The size of my horse’s reaction to a given stimulus will influence how far I want to see my horse let down and relax before releasing the pressure. For example, if the first time I try a certain stimulus my horse attempts to run away, I will maintain that stimulus until the horse can stand still and let down to the extent where he licks and chews. Only then, once he has fully let down, will I release. As your horse progresses in these exercises, his reaction will become less and less, until ultimately there is no reaction at all – this is the ultimate goal of desensitization. If my horse just slightly raises his head when I begin the stimulus, I will wait until he can lower his head back to a relaxed position for which I will release the pressure.

Keep in mind that when desensitizing, it is possible to do too few repetitions (i.e. stopping when the horse is still thinking flight), but not to do too many. If in doubt, maintain the motion until you get a conclusive sign from your horse that they have relaxed. I know as well as anyone that the following exercises can become fatiguing to the arms. Try to push through your tired arms and instead of quitting, encourage yourself with the reminder that desensitizing your horse is far cheaper than a gym membership! Just think, “Toned arms and a confident, calm horse.” What a deal!

Last, do not make actual contact with the horse in the following exercises. The stage 1 desensitization exercises from a few weeks back were designed to build the horse’s trust and confidence to pressure put on him. The soft and gentle motion used in those exercises made it permissible to touch the horse with the stick and string.

Because we are increasing the pressure of the stick and string this week, making contact with the horse may feel uncomfortable and actually prevent the horse from becoming desensitized to the stimulus. In order to learn to ignore something, the horse mustn’t be physically hurt by it. This week’s exercises are meant to build the horse’s trust and confidence to pressure around him. Do not actually touch the horse with the kind of pressure I am suggesting you use in the following exercises.

Once again, the principles of desensitization are: When desensitizing a horse, keep doing what you’re doing, using decreasing stages of pressure until your horse can still and relax. Only then may you release the pressure.

Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 2) – Shoulder Position

Goal: To be able to rhythmically slap the ground with the stick and string on both sides of the horse’s front end while having them stand still and relax.

Instructions: Stand at a 45-degree angle to your horse’s front shoulder, looking toward his tail. Assume a relaxed and casual body position. I recommend angling your stance slightly away from the horse, as having your front straight-on to the horse places unnecessary pressure for this type of exercise. Remember, as the leader, you want to convey to your horse a “no big deal” kind of attitude.

Using a fully extended, circular motion with your arm, begin rhythmically slapping the ground with the string out to the side of your horse’s shoulder. This should be a quicker and firmer motion, than the slow and gentle desensitization done in Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 1), but should be done about 6-8 feet away from the horse at this stage. Have the lead rope in your hand or draped in the crook of your other arm, where you could grab it if need be.

The relaxed, low headed body language of this mare suggests that she is desensitized to the stage 2 pressure of the stick and string near her right shoulder.
The relaxed, low headed body language of this mare suggests that she is desensitized to the stage 2 pressure of the stick and string near her right shoulder.

Until your horse is fully desensitized, your horse may move around on the end of the lead rope once you begin this motion. Do not hold the lead rope tight by any means. We do not want to try and make our horses be stationary. Instead, allow a little slack in the rope, but keep it short enough so that the horse can only travel in a small circle. A tight circle will discourage the horse from being in motion long, and will cause them to consider other alternatives to flight (such as stand still and relax).

If your horse moves away from the pressure, quietly turn with him, maintaining the same 6-8 foot distance from him and the same quiet demeanor in your body. Remember, do not stop the motion until your horse can stand still and relax. If you do, you will inadvertently sensitize your horse.

If after a minute or so your horse is not able to handle this motion any better, you may slow and soften the slapping motion or extend the slapping to 8-10 feet from his body. But you mustn’t stop the motion until he can stand still and relax.

Practice this motion by both the left shoulder and the right shoulder of your horse until he is confident on both sides.

Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 2) – Hip Position
This mare's slightly raised head and neck and about to move off stance suggests that although she is not significantly bothered by the pressure of the stick and string, she is still more aware of it's presence than is preferable. With continuing and proper desensitization, she can get to the point of taking no notice of the stick and string.
This mare's slightly raised head and neck and about to move off stance suggests that although she is not significantly bothered by the pressure of the stick and string, she is still more aware of it's presence than is preferable. With continuing and proper desensitization, she can get to the point of taking no notice of the stick and string.

Goal: To be able to rhythmically slap the ground with the stick and string around the horse’s hindquarters while having them stand still and relax.

Instructions: Stand directly alongside your horse’s hip, facing his tail, with the arm closest to his body draped over his rump. Assume a relaxed and casual body position. I recommend angling your stance slightly away from the horse as having your front straight-on to the horse places unnecessary pressure for this type of exercise. Remember, as the leader, you want to convey to your horse a “no big deal” kind of attitude.

Using a fully extended, circular motion with your arm, begin rhythmically slapping the ground with the string out to the side of your horse’s hindquarters. This should be a quicker and firmer motion, than the slow and gentle desensitization done in Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 1), but should be done about 6-8 feet away from the horse at this stage. Have the lead rope either in your hand or draped in the crook of your other arm, where you could grab it if needed.

Until your horse is fully desensitized, your horse may step his hindquarters away from you once you begin this motion. Do not try to prevent him from moving away. Instead, quietly follow his movement, attempting to stay by his hip, maintaining the slapping motion as you go. This is where having your arm hooked over his rump will allow you to follow his motion more easily. Once your horse realizes the pressure does not go away when he moves away, he will likely stand still and begin relaxing. Remember, do not stop the motion until your horse can stand still and relax. If you do you will inadvertently sensitize your horse.

If after a minute or so your horse is not able to handle this motion any better, you may slow and soften the slapping motion or extend the slapping to 8-10 feet from his body. But you mustn’t stop the motion until he can stand still and relax.

Practice this motion by both the left hip and the right hip of your horse until he is confident on both sides.

Stick and String Desensitization (Stage 2) – Combining Sides
After ensuring that the mare is just as confident with the stage 2 pressure of the stick and string by her left shoulder, it is possible to combine sides. In this photo, the string has just come down on her right side. Keeping my arm extended I will swing the stick over my head and slap the ground near her left shoulder, repeating this motion back and forth. Because she is well desensitized, she shows no concern for the swinging stick and instead respectfully pays attention, waiting for further direction.
After ensuring that the mare is just as confident with the stage 2 pressure of the stick and string by her left shoulder, it is possible to combine sides. In this photo, the string has just come down on her right side. Keeping my arm extended I will swing the stick over my head and slap the ground near her left shoulder, repeating this motion back and forth. Because she is well desensitized, she shows no concern for the swinging stick and instead respectfully pays attention, waiting for further direction.

Goal: To be able to rhythmically slap the ground with the stick and string, alternating between the left side and the right side of the horse while having them stand still and relax.

Instructions: Once your horse is confident with the slapping motion on his left side and his right side at both the shoulder position and hip position, you may combine the motion, alternating from one slap on the left side to one slap on the right side, back and forth. Continue the side-to-side motion until your horse can stand still and relax.

Combining Sides at the Shoulder Position: Stand slightly off to one side, up in front of your horse. That way if your horse tried to go forward you will not get run over. Do not stand directly in front of your horse at this stage. Assume the same “no big deal” casual and relaxed body stance and slap the ground once by the horses left shoulder, then once by his right shoulder. Continue on this way, once on the left, once of the right and so on. To make the motion smooth, allow the stick and string to travel over your head and your horse’s head so that it arrives on the other side. Do not try to switch hands to do this exercise as attempting to do so will make the motion cumbersome.

Combining Sides at the Hip Position: Stand near your horse’s hindquarters on one side, facing toward his tail. Do not stand directly behind your horse at this stage. With the arm closest to the horse rested over his rump, begin slapping the ground with the stick and string once on the left side of the horse, once on the right, back and forth. Again, do not try to switch hands to do this exercise as attempting to do so will make the motion cumbersome.

Circles Overhead
This mare's fussiness about her head becomes apparent in the circles overhead exercise. She clearly notices the string above her head and acts bothered by it's presence. Through repeated exposure to this stimuli, assuming she is never harmed by it, she will learn that it is not necessary to raise her head high and will be able to maintain a relaxed and care free demeanor, regardless of the swinging string.
This mare's fussiness about her head becomes apparent in the circles overhead exercise. She clearly notices the string above her head and acts bothered by it's presence. Through repeated exposure to this stimuli, assuming she is never harmed by it, she will learn that it is not necessary to raise her head high and will be able to maintain a relaxed and care free demeanor, regardless of the swinging string.

Goal: To be able to swing the string rapidly above your horse’s head while having them stand still and relax.

Instructions: Stand slightly off to one side, up in front of your horse. That way if your horse tries to go forward, you will not get run over. Assume the same “no big deal” casual and relaxed body stance. Using a fully extended arm, beginning rapidly swinging the string above your horse’s head in a helicopter motion. The key to this exercise is to use a committed and rapid arm motion, as this allows momentum to keep the string above the horse’s head. A too slow or timid motion will not put enough momentum in the string and will cause the string to bump your horse in the head—resulting in an unhappy horse. It is important the horse not be caused physical discomfort when getting desensitized or they may become suspicious of the motion rather than learning to ignore it.

While it may seem there a lot of details to these exercises, your commitment to learning them and practicing them will reap great rewards with your horse. Each exercise learned with confidence is one more step toward a balanced and trustworthy partnership.

This article was featured on MyHorse.com