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.
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:
- Walk by the trailer
- Sniff the opening of the trailer
- Take a step on the trailer
- Put front legs on the trailer
- Walk into the trailer and come right back out
- Walk into the trailer and stand
- Walk into the trailer and stand with doors closed
- 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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.