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Many people think of desensitization as the old method of “sacking out” where the horse is restrained and presented with the scary stimulus – usually plastic bags, saddle pads, blankets, tarps, etc., until he no longer responds to them. While this is a form of desensitization, there are many other forms of desensitization that can be easier, safer, and more humane.

Desensitization is also called habituation and both refer to a horse “getting used to something”. This is a necessary process and occurs all the time for horses, both with and without our conscious effort.

Today, we will talk about four of the most commonly, and easiest, methods of habituation. The first is called systematic desensitization.

Systematic Desensitization

In this system, we first come up with a “hierarchy of fears” for the horse related to a specific object, person, or place. If the horse is afraid of the trailer, for example, the hierarchy of fears list might look something like this:

  1. Walk by the trailer
  2. Sniff the opening of the trailer
  3. Take a step on the trailer
  4. Put front legs on the trailer
  5. Walk into the trailer and come right back out
  6. Walk into the trailer and stand
  7. Walk into the trailer and stand with doors closed
  8. Walk into the trailer, stand with doors, closed, then for a short drive

When this system is used with people, the person is next taught a variety of relaxation techniques, then begins to go through the list, gradually being exposed to increasing levels of the fearful stimulus until there is no longer any reaction.

With our horses, we can use a similar system, utilizing relaxation techniques such as lowering the head or wither scratching as we gradually increase the level of exposure to the scary object or situation.

Approach Conditioning

Approach conditioning is best used when the horse is afraid of an object we can control. In this strategy, we use the horse’s natural curiosity and encourage him to move towards the source of his fear. When he does, we move the object away. Many horses have a natural inclination to follow it and their fear almost immediately begins to diminish as the object moves away instead of toward them. I have also used clicker training to teach horses to touch scary objects for a reward. Again, this brings out a natural curiosity and can trigger investigative behaviors.

Counter Conditioning

This method actually involves another form of learning that helps change the associations the horse has with something from fear to something positive such as food or rest. When we use this form of training for desensitization, we pair something good (usually food) with the fearful object or situation. For example, if a horse is afraid of the sound of clippers, we could turn on the clippers as we feed him a treat. In the article written by Andrew Mclean and cited below, he helped counter condition a horse who was afraid of applause by teaching the horse that applause meant food was coming.


We use this method often but probably don’t even realize we are doing it. In overshadowing, we ask the horse to do something while he is being exposed to the scary stimulus. For example, if we are leading the horse and he becomes frightened by a loud noise, we may ask him to take a step back, then a step forward, then another step back. By doing this, we “overshadow” the source of fear with our requests. The horse has to divert his attention from the source of his fear in order to respond and can soon become desensitized to whatever was causing his fear.

Important Considerations

  1. Avoid Flooding. Flooding refers to restraining or confining a horse and exposing it to a high level of whatever the horse is afraid of until it no longer reacts. The danger of flooding is that an animal (or person) can go into a shutdown state, where it appears that they are no longer afraid, however the next time they are exposed the fear is much worse. Another problem with using flooding with a large animal like the horse is that it can trigger a state of panic and cause very aggressive fight or flight responses, which may injure horse or handler, or if the behaviors work and the flooding process is stopped, the horse will be more likely to use these behaviors in the future.
  2. Remember Principles of Distance, Duration, and Intensity. Distance refers to the distance from the scary stimulus. Duration refers to the length of exposure, and intensity refers to how strong the exposure is. Here is an example of intensity in regards to trailer loading. Low intensity would be the trailer sitting in the horse’s field. High intensity would be the horse in the trailer going down a bumpy back road as a group of motorcycles ride by. As we increase one of these variables, generally we must decrease the others. For example, if we are working on desensitizing to clippers, if we suddenly trade in our hand held trimmers for a large body clipper we would be increasing the intensity and so would want to decrease the distance, perhaps running them further away from the horse before coming closer.
  3. Try to Keep the horse Below Threshold. Below threshold basically means that the horse is not being overwhelmed by the stimulus. To make this definition more definitive, I would consider below threshold to be that point where the horse can still shift his focus from the scary thing to the handler or rider and is still responding to requests and cues 90% of the time. So there may be a few errors as he gets distracted, but he is still well under control and safe. How do you keep below threshold? Decrease the distance, duration, and intensity – perhaps just one or perhaps all three.

Domestic life demands a lot from horses, we want to take them on trail rides, jump them over colorful fences, and haul them to horse shows. We expect them to stand still for injections and allow their feet to be handled, scraped, and hammered. In their lives with us, they encounter many new things, and desensitization is a vital process that allows them to adjust and live a lower stress life. I believe that when we better understand the desensitization process we can make it easier for our horses.


Mclean, A. (n.d.). Habituation. Horses and People, 37-40. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from


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21 Responses

  1. I have a very skittish dog and have used many of these with him.

    One thing I have learned through working with my dog as well as watching others work with their horses is that you shouldn’t even make desensitization a goal for the day if YOU have already had a bad day before getting to the barn! You need to work on this on a day that you have a world of patience and a good and kind attitude. I try to remember this now as I work with Wildfire and it makes such a difference. I also try (as you have taught us in other lessons) to always end on a good note.
    I want to try moving the object away to see if she follows as I know if I seem very interested in something she always tries to “see” what I’ve got!

  2. Outstanding article. Especially appreciate trailer example step by step, since that is something I need to work on. I’ve not been comfortable with the pressure and release approach, partly because of my own experience many years ago where the only release ever given an unhappy loader was getting on the trailer and being locked in. Needless to say, that particular horse never got any better, and it’s also caused anxiety in me ever since. So thanks for giving me permission to take it as slow as I need to and use curiosity and reward.

  3. Thank you for this excellent information. I have a related question. I have a new 9yo Arabian gelding that has been ridden primarily in arenas. I would like to trail ride and possibly long distance ride. He is relaxed in arenas but 110% on alert outside. He invaribly spooks and is snortingly excited on trails. Since your suggestions lend themselves to desensitizing to known monsters, can you give us ways to desensitize to unknown trail issues? Thanks.

    1. My fjord horse is just like your Arabian gelding. I don’t believe desentization can solve this problem on its own. since it obviously has to deal with overall confidence. I am very much aware that my horse and I haven’t attained the kind of relationship where he totally trusts me and believes I’ll be on top of just about any situation. That’s why he gets all worried as soon as he leaves familiar ground. IMHO, the only way to address this is 1) to make sure you’re feeling so confident that YOUR HORSE is allowed to relax (no point in hitting the trail when your nerves are frayed before you get started) 2) do LOTS of ground work so as to establish rapport ; part of this work (but only part of it) is desensitizing work and it is crucial, as Callie says, that we ALWAYS respect the horse’s thresholds and never push past them That way, he learns to trust us and not to overreact to strange things. But it’s also something your horse will learn through interacting with you in lots of different ways as long as you never frighten or bulling him.

    2. When horses feel comfortable in an arena or corral but not outside in the “wide open spaces” they can be helped to overcome their fears by being desensitized outside the enclosed arena. Lead them outside to do your ground work which should include both desensitizing and sensitizing. Introduce him to the same objects that you desensitized him to in the arena…but now you’re in the great outdoors! When you change locations your horse sees everything new all over again. It’s important to move around to different locations going farther away from home to longe and desensitize with objects you can take with you on your journey outside (or bring some items outside prior to taking your horse there) and re introduce each of them! Funny thing: you could spend a week desensitizing to something like a spray bottle (for example) until the horse is so calm that he seems half asleep…but change the location and often times the horse acts like he’s never seen or heard the spray bottle in his life! The other thing I’d like to share about desensitizing is that at first we want our horse NOT to move his feet when we desensitize to an object that moves and makes a noise. BUT, when he gets good at a stand still, try the same thing when the horse is in motion (longeing around you). When you think about it, on a trail ride isn’t the horse usually in motion when he gets frightened? That’s why we should desensitize him in motion as well. Don’t take the stimulus away until the horse calms down or you will be teaching him to be reactive! “When you release is what you teach!” You can slow your motion and let out more lead rope so it’s not as scary for him, but whatever you do, don’t release the pressure/stimulus when the horse is reacting….UNLESS YOU ARE UNSAFE! which case, stop and get help from a professional or someone with more experience. Hope this is helpful.
      Judy Weinmann

      1. I’m afraid there’s a limit to desensitizing to everything. There will always be something a horse will be afraid of. That’s why it’s more about gaining the horse’s trust and, as Pat Parelli says, doing lateral thinking. Fear problems are not only addressed by desensitizing, the way leading problems are not addressed by working on leading all the time.

    3. Hi Sherri, Great questions and there is already some good input here, but I will add my two cents. It sounds as if being on the trail is putting your horse a bit above threshold – meaning he’s just getting too excited and thus reactive. So in this case, I believe that the issue at hand is probably not so much desensitizing your horse to things on the trail, but rather lowering his “state of arousal” or his level of excitement when he’s ouside the arena. Think about the principles of distance, duration, and intensity here – where could you take him out of the arena but at a location where there isn’t as much going on, he’s closer to the barn, there is another horse along, etc – whatever helps keep him more calm. As he gets used to being out of the arena and you notice his general excitement decreasing you can then increase the distance, duration, and intensity of those rides. Hope this helps!

  4. Bought a mare last year only to find out she was pregnant. Never having the foaling experience I did not know what to do. Using desensitize like I did for my adult horses. I now have a four month old colt who is not afraid of fly spray, rope around his legs , ears being touched and can get a halter and fly mask on easy. I plan on doing more as time goes on. Ground work is most important. Your web site helps me a lot. Thanks

    1. Good job, Rita;
      Sounds like you used imprinting (if not, you may want to read Dr. Miller’s book about “Foal Imprinting” to check yourself and your techniques out…but it appears you had great success. Keep up the good work! Remember babies are cute, but you need to teach them to be respectful (staying outside your “safety bubble” unless you invite them in!) Even at this young age they need to be taught what is acceptable behavior and what is not, otherwise when they become adults, they might be walking all over you. I love that you plan on continuing with your foal training!

  5. Just getting caught up with your articles. My rescued Tennessee Walker will not walk under saddle. He starts off fast and gets faster, no matter what I do to slow him down, e,g, figure eights, circles, 1 rein stops. The methods explained in the article don’t seem to apply to this situation. Any suggestions?

    Thanks, Dave

    1. David,
      Perhaps you’re giving up too soon. If you and your horse know how to do the one rein stops in your sleep (meaning really good!) with your horse stopping promptly without making you dizzy doing circles before he gets stopped…then I would keep stopping him the second after he goes faster than a walk (and do NOT try and micro manage him to keep him in a walk by holding on to the reins with contact) but let him commit to the mistake of trotting before stopping and re starting him on loose reins. By giving him slack reins after the one rein stop, you’re telling him he will be comfortable as long as he walks, but as soon as he trots,(no more than 2 or 3 trot strides) the comfort goes away…. you’ll quickly bring him down to a stop and begin all over again and again, and again,…until he offers to walk for a few steps more each time. Your goal is to quit when you make some positive progress…like he walks 20 steps (or whatever you choose for your goal) without trotting. That’s when you quit for the day. I would get off and lead him home. With some horses, I’ve also used backing them up with energy for at least 20 feet, instead of using the one rein stop and either method should work if you give it enough time (choose one and stick to it). By that I mean allow enough time to make some progress before you quit. This might be 10 minutes or 3 hours! And if you can do this at least 3 days in a row to habituate him to it, it works much quicker. If you do it once, then don’t ride for 2 or more days before doing the drill again, it will take a long time for a positive change to occur. Consistency and repetition are your allies. I hope this helps.
      Judy Weinmann

      1. I’m very worried by the backing up thing. Horses shouldn’t be taught that backing up is punishment. Although I ride western, this is one of the things I never do and strongly disapprove of. In the same fashion, the one-rein stop should be trained in a positive way. The fact that it’s an emergency move mustn’t allow it to be turned it into punishment either (and it’s not about riding circles forever, a real one-rein stop means disengaging the hip and, after some considerate training, it can be done almost on the spot).
        I like Mark Rashid’s way much more: reward the smallest try and start at the slowest pace possible (his DVD Finding the Try is a gem). That way, you don’t have to use one-rein stops all that much. Start in a small corral so your horse just doesn’t have room to run away until he’s got the point.

        1. Francoise;
          First, I’d like to say I’ve read all of Mark Rashid’s books and absolutely love them. I have not seen his DVD “Finding the Try” but I guarantee I’m going to get it ASAP. Thank you!
          There is nothing more annoying than a horse that “jigs” when you want him to walk. The reason they jig is because the rider tries holding them back…which is giving the horse something to lean or push into. A horse without something to lean into, won’t jig….sure, he may trot or gallop, but he won’t jig. Jigging is created by holding the horse back! It’s a human created stiff up and down gait with tension involved…you won’t see a horse in the pasture doing it. It’s not a piaff or passage, either!…and you WILL see horses in pasture doing both of these! So a slack rein is necessary to teach the horse his responsibility. If you “hold a horse back” you will always have to hold the horse back. With the method I’m suggesting (and many other clinicians as well),you are simply teaching by giving the horse choices. Work, or no work! This philosophy goes way back to Ray Hunt, Tom and Bill Dorrance, and their many followers: “Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy AND REWARD THE SLIGHTEST TRY!” Please understand that holding the reins (micro managing or trying to prevent the trotting (jigging) from happening is, in itself the real punishment AND it most often shows up on a trail ride when the horse and rider are headed home! (this is why fixing it in a small corral usually won’t be effective when you go outside the corral). I would prefer to “shut it down” quickly…by using the one rein stop or backing the horse up and be done with it. Yes it will take many repetitions, but there needs to be a “motivator” for the horse to change a behavior (same with kids/people.) I would love nothing more than taking the horse into a small corral to teach the horse to stay in walk…but if you train, you would discover that horses naturally will have more “go” in larger open spaces than in a small enclosure! So once they get anxious (and you can not train “anxious” out of them, nor shying out of them…it’s in their nature for self preservation) you need to motivate them in a way that they figure out on their own that their idea of jigging (becomes work) isn’t as comfortable as walking (no work, and loose reins). You change their idea into your idea by using the motivation of “which one do you prefer?…work or no work?” I have had continued success using these techniques on horses that jig…or want to go faster than you want them to go.
          I absolutely love learning all I can and after more than 50 years of riding, training, showing, (many of my own Arabians raised and trained by me), instructing people, reading hundreds of books, attending clinics, watching DVD’S and anything “horse related” on TV, I still have more to learn…can never know it all! Thanks for your comment. It’s a pleasure to chat with you and others about horses. We all have our own opinions, philosophy, and beliefs and that’s what makes life a joy. It would be a boring world if everyone thought the same! I would enjoy chatting horses with you any time.

    2. Hi Dave, I have retrained several gaited horses and they do tend to be quite fast by nature! They have long legs and big steps and many were trained to go fast. For example, I just had a Standardbred at my farm who was a speed racking horse – the only thing he thinks to do is go fast. I don’t use one rein stops on these horses because I feel their primary challenge with going slow is their balance. They have to learn that they are supposed to go slow, then they have to physically learn to balance themselves in order to go slow. The concept of how to train this is very simple, but the actual feel and timing of it can be very difficult. Here is the concept of what you want to do: stay balanced with your body, keep steady but following contact with the reins, using soft cues with your legs to bring the horse’s body into correct bend – might be a little move over with the rib cage, or a flexion of the head. When they find balance there will be a moment when everything softens – release your contact here, but only by moving your hands forward a bit. In the next few steps you may have to help the horse find that balance again so you can release again. The principle is maintain pressure from the reins and tension with your body until you get the correct response – a slower more balanced step – then you release. It will be a continual shaping process from here, getting 2 balanced steps, then 3, then 4, etc. I have a video of the Standardbred I just finished working with – seeing this video may help. If you would like to see it email me at [email protected] and I will send it to you. Correcting a problem like this takes patience, good feel of the horse’s balance, and fast timing for releases. Be patient with the horse and yourself – its not easy – but these fast gaited horses definitly teach us to be good accurate riders!

      1. I wanted to add to this that I also used positive reinforcement for all the gaited horses I have worked with when I got to the point that I could have a few steps consecutively in the correct gait – just enough to give me time to be accurate with the reward. For example, with Tate the Standardbred I was focusing on teaching him to trot slowly and in rhythm so when I started to get a few steps of nice trot I would praise, click, then let him stop and feed him. It is amazing what true positive reinforcement can do, especially for adding value to slow gaits.

  6. Hi Hertha,
    thank you again for the clicker information. I have a belly bag that is full of cookies – actually they are special Cushing cookies baked by a friend of mine – they contain no sugars, so quite crumbly but fantastic – and I have him so tuned in to the zipper on the belly bag, that when he hears me zip open the zipper he stops doing what he is doing and bends down towards my belly bag for a treat. So when we are confronting major stress situations – for example this afternoon we were out – together with my bomb proof mare – and a two horse drawn carriage was coming in the distance – I saw them and walked out in to the field to get away from the bridle path – and gave him tons of cookies as they past. But he nevertheless in the last instance still jumped to the side – now would I be riding him – then I don’t find this safe enough, because I have to lean down to be able to give him the cookie – in the moment he is afraid and needs the cookies as distraction/reassurance and that becomes a tricky situation for the rider to bend down, giving the cookie, and should he then decide to turn or bolt anyway, my position on the horse is then far from optimal. But I will go tomorrow and buy a clicker and really start to train with the clicker and stay home in his surroundings for the next week and see how things go with the clicker. I look forward to reporting again:-)

  7. I’m so glad I found your videos! Your explainations have been helpful. I have a non-profit horse rescue, and I’m wondering if you feel it possible for a horse to have PTSD?

    1. Hi Lisa! I think horses can definitely have PTSD, I think they can also have really bad associates with people!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

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