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The Purpose of Desensitisation in Horse Training Part 1

In this first part of my desensitisation in horse training article, I describe the purpose of desensitisation in horse training and outline the differences between desensitising and sensitising.
I hope this article will help you get cleared on how and why to desensitise your horse. We offer a variety of services to help and guide you and your horse through this process.

In the second part of this article, which will be published soon, I explain the two different types of desensitising and when and how to use them.


Desensitising horses is a very controversial topic among modern day horse owners and trainers. Some horse trainers and horse people put a lot of time into trying to desensitise their horse to things, while others don’t feel that it is a necessary part of working with horses. In my clinics and lessons, I have seen such a vast array of different horses and people. As a result, I have noticed some interesting patterns that often emerge when it comes to desensitising and de-spooking horses.

Desensitising your horse is a very delicate balancing act. Often times you can do as much damage by mindlessly over desensitising your horse as you can by not doing enough. So, the two most important aspects of desensitising are, firstly understanding the purpose of desensitising your horse and secondly learning how to do it a balanced way that avoids unnecessary and mindless desensitising.


The purpose of Desensitising

In my opinion the purpose of desensitising horses is to build their confidence with certain sensations, environments and things that they are scared of. When a horse has fear of something, it will see that object, place or thing as negative and something which it should avoid at all costs. This response is the same response that we have when we are scared of something, we will often try to avoid the thing we are scared of at all costs. In time, with the right approach to desensitisation, we can dissolve a horse’s fear by creating lots of positive experiences around the thing they are scared of. We are essentially rewarding the horse for demonstrating acceptance, calmness and bravery when it is confronted by the scary things.

Desensitisation is also about teaching horses how the manage their energy when faced with adversity. By proactively exposing your horse to adversity, in a controlled way, you can teach your horse to be calmer in adverse situations.


Desensitising and sensitising

A big part of understanding the purpose of desensitisation in the training process, comes from knowing how to make the distinction between things that you want to sensitise your horse to versus things that you want to desensitise your horse to. In other words, sensitising versus desensitising.

When I am training a horse, I want the horse to be sensitive to my cues and aids that are part of the communication. Therefore, I reward the horse for being sensitive and responsive to my cues and aids. By releasing the pressure when the horse becomes more sensitive and responsive, I am sensitising the horse. When I am training a horse and the horse becomes scared of something, I want the horse to learn to be desensitised to the thing it is scared of. Therefore, I reward the horse for being calmer, braver and more relaxed while in the presence of the scary things. By releasing and quitting when the horse becomes less sensitive and reactive, I am desensitising the horse.

It is important to understand that the purpose of desensitisation is not to dull your horse down and make them shut down emotionally. Instead what you are really teaching your horse to do is to remain calm enough to think its way through adverse circumstances. If you utilise desensitisation correctly, your horse will also learn to put its trust in your leadership and guidance when it is feeling scared and vulnerable, instead of fending for itself and relying on its instincts. Nothing beats the feeling you get when your horse chooses to be with you in the face of adversity and crisis.


Have a look at this video to get some practical advice on desensitising your horse to water crossings or ditches.

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