The Truth About Desensitisation



This mare has been ridden about fifteen times. This is her fifth five minute lesson with the whip.

The most misunderstood part of horse training is the idea that you have to get horses 'used to' new things. Many trainers advocate to keep exposing horses to things that frighten them and they'll eventually 'get used to it'. Others say, when a horse is frightened of something, just keep frightening him with it and he'll eventually become 'desensitized'. I wonder…

There are hundreds of examples on youtube of people supposedly 'desensitizing' their horses. Hundreds of horses are harassed with flags, tarps, ropes and other paraphernalia in preparation for their first saddling and first ride. Trainers spend hours on the ground chasing horses with flags and ropes, yet the horses still buck when they're saddled for the first time. Guess what – desensitization doesn't work.

When a young horse bucks with the saddle, he's frightened for his life. He thinks the only way to save his life is to get rid of the thing from his back. Yet trainers often say, “It don't matter. It's no big deal. It's nothing to worry about. He's got to work it out for himself”. In other words, the trainer can't work it out so he'll leave it to the horse.  

Have you ever been so frightened that you instinctively ran for your life? Have you ever been so terrified that you stopped thinking and fled?

When I was young, I worked in a coalmine for a couple of years. Whenever the roof fell, it made a distinctive cracking noise. Many times, my workmates and I had to run for our lives. No matter how many times we heard that noise, we were never desensitized. Whenever we heard that cracking sound, we ran. We didn't stop and think. No one ever got used to that noise.

Many years later, our shed burned down and made the same cracking noise when it collapsed. I immediately ran for my life. I didn't stop and think. I certainly wasn't desensitized to the sound. I was immediately terrified, just as I had been all those years ago in the coalmine.

The same thing happens when horses are frightened. If you frighten a horse even once, it's burned into his mind forever. If a horse bucks once with the saddle, it's burned into his mind forever. He may not buck in his next lesson. He may not buck next week or next month. However, if he's frightened at some point in the future, he'll react in the manner he's learned and he'll buck.


The saddle cloth is introduced to the foal for the first time. I don't flap it around or frighten him. I work in small steps that the foal can understand and accept.

The golden rule of horse training is: Introduce everything in small steps that every horse can understand and accept. Never frighten any horse at any time.


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