Whether you realise it or not, your horse learns from every interaction he has with you. Every time you go near your horse, you teach him something. Even when you clean his stable, you teach him something.
Every time you ride your horse, you teach him something. Horses don’t think “We’re out on the trail so we’re not having a lesson, we’re just going for a ride.” Neither do they think “Oh, we’re in the arena today so we must be having a lesson.” Every horse simply learns what brings him pleasant experiences and what brings him unpleasant experiences.
We can use this to teach our horses whatever we want them to do. When you squeeze with your leg, your horse finds it slightly unpleasant. When he moves forward as you ask, you take your leg off and make things relatively pleasant for him. And so your horse learns to remove the pressure of your leg by moving forward.
Some people say that horses can become ‘desensitised’. They say that if a horse doesn’t move forward, it’s because he’s desensitised to your leg. This is nonsense. Every horse can feel your leg on his side. He may have learned to move forward from the slightest squeeze or he may have learned that there’s no unpleasant consequence if he doesn’t move forward and so he does as he pleases.
Another common theme is that horses can be ‘desensitised’ to things that frighten them. Many trainers believe that they must keep confronting a horse with a frightening item or situation until the horse ‘settles down’. They say the horse will then reason that the offending item or situation is nothing to worry about. This is completely untrue. Horses don’t reason in this manner. They can’t reflect on what happened even a few seconds ago. They certainly don’t think “I’ve been extremely frightened but now everything’s okay.” The truth is that horses never forget frightening experiences.
Many people say that ‘desensitising’ is a different process to teaching. This is nonsense. Horses don’t think any differently when they’re frightened, they still try to avoid the unpleasant and find an easy and pleasant way. It’s unpleasant for a horse to be near something that frightens him and so he tries to escape by rushing away or kicking or bucking.
Some trainers don’t give a frightened horse any easy or pleasant option. They keep flapping flags and tarps when the horse rushes away. Some even tie a tarp to the horse’s tail or chase a young horse around as he bucks. In each of these cases, there’s absolutely no escape –no easy and pleasant way –for the horse. Situations like these are extremely stressful and confusing for any horse.
These trainers excuse their approach by saying “It’s okay, I’m desensitising this horse. He’ll soon get used to it”. Horses that are frightened in this manner eventually become physically and mentally exhausted to the point where they shut down altogether and stand still. Then the trainer says that the horse is desensitised.
This is not the case. The poor horse is so tired and stressed and confused that the only thing he can do is stand still. Some horses get over this sort of treatment but others never do. The whole concept that a horse can be desensitised is wrong.
There’s no need to put your horse through frightening experiences. It’s easy to introduce new items to horses. It must be done by building confidence and showing every horse that there’s always an easy and pleasant way, even when he’s worried. There must always be an obvious answer for every horse before you set him any problem. There must always be a way for every horse to relieve the pressure of a worrying situation.
New things must be introduced in small increments that a horse can understand and accept. Horses must never be pushed to the point where they become frightened and see the need to rush away or buck or kick. There’s absolutely no need to put any horse through frightening experiences at any stage of his training. And remember, you’re always teaching your horse, you’re never desensitising him.
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