Horse Initiated Desensitization

Here’s a simple pattern Shiloh and I were playing with at liberty on Sunday afternoon

1) Shiloh approaches me and targets an exercise ball I am holding. Once he touches it with his nose, I click and give him a treat.
2) As I feed the treat in front of him, I move to his shoulder, ending with the ball resting against his side.
3) I place the ball on him, roll it around his back, click and give him another treat.
4) I let the ball roll off his far side, and give him another click/treat for standing nicely.
5) I move towards his hindquarters, fiddle with his tail a little bit, click/treat.
6) I go pick up the ball and walk to the other side of the round pen. At this point, he can choose to approach and target the ball, starting the pattern over again.

The Purpose of this Pattern

The most important aspect of this pattern was that Shiloh initiated the sequence of behaviors. Having a set of behaviors that was repeated created a pattern or a loop–he knew what was coming next. So, the most revealing part of the sequence was what would happen between step 6 and step 1. If he hurried over to target the ball again and restart the pattern, I knew that he was eager and willingly to play the game and for the most part comfortable with what I was asking him to do. If it took him a lot of time to come target again and if he seemed hesitant or distracted, I would know that he wasn’t completely okay with what I was asking.

Desensitization–Compliant Horses and Willing Horses

It’s good not to assume things with a horse, even if they’ve done it in the past. Shiloh’s played with a big ball before but it’s been a long time. He spooked in place when I first touched him with the ball this weekend, which told me it wouldn’t hurt to practice a bit more with the ball! He also was a bit nervous the other day about me messing with his tail, so I threw that into the game so we could work on it as well.

Desensitization is very passive for the horse and it’s a legitimate concern to worry that as we are doing things to the horse, he is merely putting up with us. I don’t want just a compliant horse, but a horse that would choose to participate. So, by making Shiloh touch the ball first to set off the chain of events, he chooses to engage in the game.

It doesn’t matter so much if we can put a big ball on top of our horse. What really matters is the horse’s attitude while we do this. If we use too much pressure or force during desensitization, we run the risk of creating horses that tolerate or accept what we are doing, but at a deeper level still really aren’t okay with it. The compliant horse will stand quietly while you bounce a ball all over him because he knows he suppose to. However, if he’s tolerating it but still fearful and quivering inside, there could come a point where you, without knowing it, push him over the edge. If the horse willingly accepts or even enjoys what you are doing, then when the going gets tough or if something unexpected occurs, he’ll be much better prepared to stay calm and level headed.

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