Desensitization vs. Empowerment – how do we inspire bravery and confidence in the horses we love?

I asked you all last week, “what topic would you like me to write about next Friday?” and the topic of building confidence in a horse was suggested. I chose this question because I have been asked it many times and believe it is so important to know the difference between a brave, empowered horse and a horse who feels helpless and shut down. Both responses in a horse may make a person feel safer when with a horse… the horse may be less reactive… but the effects of these two mindsets are very different on a horses’ psyche and your relationship.
Understandably, people want their horses to “spook less”… to be brave when it comes to new objects and places. It scares us when horses spook – they have big bodies, and it is understandable that we feel nervous. Situations can become dangerous when a horse feels terrified, and many times, we are not sure what to do when happens. We may lash out in anger or panic because we ourselves feel scared. This often ends up escalating the whole situation and adding to the horse’s terror. We may need to escalate our angry reaction until the horse feels more threatened by us than he does the thing that spooked him in the first place. We haven’t helped him overcome his fear, but if he is more worried about what we may do to him than how the other “monster” (whatever originally scared him) could hurt him, then he may appear to be “listening” again. This reaction from a human has big implications for the relationship between horse and human. Many times in moments like these where anger and fear get the best of us, a lot of trust is lost. The horse begins to believe that when they feel scared, their human is going to get scarier and scarier – he has to watch his back from all sides. We aren’t a place for him to look for comfort or confidence; we become another threat he needs to keep a close, frightened watch on. However, it’s understandable that we react this way… after all, we feel scared too. We don’t know what to do, and we need to give ourselves compassion for that. Instead of beating ourselves up, we simply need to think of solutions before hand that can help both us and our horses gain confidence and courage. Together as a team, you can conquer the fear of fear in a fun, loving way.
But how do we get there?

Desensitization – a very common term and tactic you see in both traditional and natural horsemanship. Many people have been told that this is the best way to make a “bombproof horse”. However, many of the techniques used to “desensitize” a horse resemble the technique known in learning science as “flooding”.

Flooding – simply put, flooding refers to forcibly overloading the horse (or human) with whatever they are most scared of. Unable to get away, this can be a very traumatic experience, and while the horse may stop reacting to the feared object/situation, this often occurs because the horse feels shut down and/or helpless to save himself in the situation.

Sadly, many techniques for desensitizing horses use the method of flooding without knowing that is what is happening. A shut down horse often becomes less reactive, but that doesn’t mean they have conquered their fear. This is not an empowering process – quite the opposite actually. It usually leaves the horse (or human, if they experience flooding) feeling quite helpless.

What does this form desensitization usually look like?

 

 

One scenario could look like this: Plastic Bag
We are holding a horse by a halter in an arena. We bring out a crop with a plastic tied on the end of it. The horse is really scared of the rustling sound and odd movement of the plastic bag – when he sees it, he spooks and tries to get away, but we keep him there, with the halter, not letting him get away. We don’t want him to get away – we want to “show him” that there is nothing to fear, so we keep him confined. We start rubbing the plastic bag all over the horse’s body.
He is really scared and tries to shift away, but we keep the bag present. After a while of this, he realizes he can’t get away, and the horse begins to stand still. He freezes – shuts down. We can rub the bag all over him now – he doesn’t seem to care. He has conquered his fear we think! He no longer reacts. We don’t recognize that he is shut down. He feels helpless… there is no way to escape the bag, so he shuts down into his own powerlessness.

Another Scenario: First Time with a Saddle

We hold a young horse by a bridle and strap a saddle onto her for the first time. All cinched up, we put her in the round pen to “buck it out”. Terrified, she does just that. She bucks and bucks like we knew she would. It feels like there is a predator on her back, but no matter how she bucks or rears or bolts, it doesn’t release it’s grip on her. She is panicked, but nothing she does seems to help her. Finally she grows tired, physically, mentally, and emotionally. She has been fighting this predator on her back but to no avail. She begins to give up. She accepts her helplessness… she can’t do anything to save herself in this situation, so she stops reacting.

These are two common methods of training you see fairly often. They are pretty standard techniques, but after studying learning theory and coming to understand flooding, I have to ask myself: does this typical form of “desensitization” actually build up a horse’s courage?

 

There is a term in learning theory called “learned helplessness“. Often times when we try to “desensitize” horses to objects, we don’t actually up their confidence and make them braver – instead we ingrain in them a sense of learned helplessness.

Imagine this….

You are terrified of snakes. When you see them you can’t handle it… you feel really scared. Someone enters the small room you are in with a snake; it may not be poisonous, or maybe it is! It doesn’t matter – you are scared and the emotion is just as real either way. You feel really terrified. This person walks directly up to you with the snake stretched out at you. You try to back away, but no matter where you go they persistently follow you, putting the snake in your face relentlessly. They are chasing you with the snake. Finally they pin you in a corner and put the snake right by your face. They want you to look at it and touch it. They put the snake on your body, it slithers up your arm, and you feel terrified. But there is no escape… you are pinned. This person isn’t letting you move out of the corner, and now the snake is slithering up your body. You are afraid to move – every time you move the person becomes more persistent on putting the snake in your face. You freeze. You just want it to stop and the only way to cope at the moment is to freeze there, mortified. The snake is on you, but you haven’t overcome your fear of snakes – you haven’t even had time to process. If anything, you feel further dis-empowered knowing that if you try to leave the room or situation, this human is going to chase after you with the thing you fear more. So… you cope.
This may seem extreme, but it closely resembles the techniques we use on horses. Flooding has been deemed as unethical for humans – you may see why.

You can replace this with any fear you may have… spiders, heights, small spaces…

Imagine being claustrophobic and someone forces you into a small, coffin like box…

Curled up in the box, unable to move around, they shut the latch and lock it – you can’t get out. You aren’t in any real danger – they have the key to the box right outside, and you can breathe in the box. Still, you are claustrophobic and terrified. You didn’t ask for this – you were not ready mentally or emotionally to face this. You feel no Empowerment or overcoming of your fear here; you feel extreme panic, but you can’t do anything about it. You freeze – it’s the only thing you can do besides having a panic attack, which there is no room for.
Perhaps someone who is not very experienced at reading human expression could mistake your fearful freeze response as calm – acceptance even.

You haven’t over come your fear – but you have accepted your helplessness to do anything about it. You feel completely disempowered – you can’t do anything to change your terrifying circumstance.

This is learned helplessness. You haven’t actually overcome the fear – you have simply learned there is nothing you can do to change the situation, so you stop resisting. Still scared, it is a disempowering experience – certainly not confidence or courage building. Sadly, this is what flooding and common practices of desensitization do to horses. It’s not empowering – it’s the opposite. It causes many horses to shut down – which the blank stare we see in a lot of desensitized horses. There is no reaction because the horse is partly gone, out of body, out of the experience.

If we want to restore the full horse, the answer is not in breaking her or teaching her learned helplessness – the answer is to build her up!

Empower her while empowering yourself!

What does an empowered horse look like?

A scared or helpless horse sees something new and unknown and worries: “what is that and how is it going to hurt me!?”
An empowered horse sees new things and wonders: “what can I do with that? How can I play and explore with this new thing??”

An empowered horse shifts from a mindset of fear to one of playfulness. When in a playful mindset, we are more likely to face new or challenging situations with courage, wonder, and humor. Playful horses and people are more likely to see the unknown as an opportunity.

When we don’t know what to do in training situation, this tends to be when people resort to anger or violence to the horse – because we are scared. Changing your perspective to one of play helps you face unknown situations with more creativity and less reactivity. This is so so helpful, especially when you don’t know what to do or how to handle a horse. Changing both the horse’s and our own perspective to one of play can dramatically shift our experiences together.

So… what can we do to help a horse grow her confidence and courage while growing our own?

Play!

Games focused on building a horse’s empowerment rather than breaking her down!
Here are a few games meant to empower your horse:

Chase the Ghost

Chase the ghost is a basic game that uses targeting to help horses concur their fears at their own pace. This game is somewhat of the polar reflection of flooding with a plastic bag.

Most people have seen a “desensitization” video where a human is chasing a horse with a plastic bag on the end of a lunge whip around an arena or round pen. The horse runs from the bag until he is forced to accept his helplessness and stop reacting to the scary bag.
In this game, the plastic bag isn’t going to chase the horse – the horse is going to chase the bag. That’s the game!

You are giving a horse her power, showing her that she an concur her fears head on – that she doesn’t need to run and hide from the plastic bag… she can chase it away! This is a very empowering game for many horses. I have seen some insanely nervous horses that seem to be afraid of the world blossom with this game. The courage it creates usually doesn’t just effect their relationship to plastic bags; very commonly it flows over to other things they are scared of, making them braver all around.

How to Play

How to Play

1. Tie a plastic bag to the end of a long stick or lunge whip (never touch or chase them with this whip!)

 

2. Teach the horse to target this plastic bag with his nose using positive reinforcement (if even the sight of a plastic bag is too much for him at this point, teach him to target just the end of the stick – when he has gained some more confidence, then you can bring in the plastic bag – remember, we are trying not to bring in stress)

 

3. Every time the horse reaches out his nose close to the bag, click or say “yes!” to mark the behavior, and give this horse a reward (I recommend a treat like a few timothy pellets or bits of carrots if you want something higher-reward. You can also use rewards such as scratches and praise if your horse likes such things. A reward is anything your horse enjoys; however I recommend treats for this one if you are working with a nervous horse. It takes a lot of courage and mental energy to face your fears – we should try to make it as positive for the horse as possible.)

 

4. Wait for the horse to touch the bag with his nose, click, and reward (Do not bring the bag to him – you want him to seek the bag. If you start advancing the bag towards the horse, he may feel chased or unsafe. You want the horse to pursue the bag on his own so that he can feel empowered as he faces his own fear, especially in the beginning. Give him the space he needs to be brave. No matter how patient you must be, it is worth it for him to discover his own bravery in his own time.)


5. Take the bag away from the horse between touches
(This begins the idea that the horse can pursue the bag, rather than the bag chasing him.)


6. Once the horse is consistently touching the bag with his nose, start walking away with the bag and see if the horse will move forward to chase and touch it
(If the horse is scared and walks away, take it back a step – you can always take it back a step, no big deal!)


7. When the horse will walk forward to touch and chase the bag, start trotting or running away with it, inviting the horse to chase and concur the “monster” that once scared him!

 

 

This can become a really wild, exciting, and fun game!

The handsome, red quarter horse Ricochet is a great example of a horse who this game really transformed. When I first met him, he seemed to be terrified of life. He shied away from halters, quick movements, cars, bags, noises, dogs… the list goes on. He always seemed on edge. He had a lot of really sweet people working to gain his trust and help him recover his bravery, but one of the biggest shifts I ever saw with him happened as a result of playing “Chase the Ghost”. When I first introduced him to Chase the Ghost, I couldn’t wrap the plastic bag around the stick – even just the sight of it far away caused him stress. We had to build up slowly, starting with just a stick. After Ricochet learned to chase the stick, he was already feeling more self-assured. The act of chasing something he had been weary of before was already building his confidence. I started to bring in the plastic bag when I felt he was ready and it wouldn’t cause him stress, and before long, he was chasing the ghost. He seemed to feel so good about himself after a session of chasing the thing that once scared him – taking control and becoming his own protector. Before long, he felt like a completely different horse.
I didn’t know that the benefits of his newfound confidence would overflow into different areas of his fear. I was walking him back from a session one day, and when we passed a car (something that used to freak him out so much… he would jump away from the car as you passed it, very scared) he offered to touch it! He was showing that he could! All on his own without being asked, Ricochet was demonstrating his bravery. You could feel how empowered and free he felt. Today, he is a completely transformed man than when I first met him.

A few tips:

  • Never chase a horse with what scares her – this breaks trust and disempowers
  • Reward brave expressions – such as when Ricochet showed me that he could touch the car. Reward acts of curiosity and bravery in all aspects of “training”
  • Bring this game along when exploring new places – it can really shift a horse’s mind (and yours!) from one of anxiety or fear to one of play and courage

 

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5 Comments

  1. Jenni Bender

    I absolutely love your article. I stopped doing Natural Horsemanship a few years ago. I felt it used too much negative reinforcement. However, having a really nervous and easily scared horse at my side, I’m constantly looking for alternatives to encourage him. Sometimes I fall back in old patterns from my Horsemanship days. But this article gives me a pretty good idea what to play with him next. I’d love more articles like that. Thank you!!

    Reply
  2. Sandy

    Please share more games to help us play with our horses!

    Reply
  3. Cristina

    Great post, thanks!

    Reply
  4. Lisa Duntley

    I trained my mare with CT and she offers on her own to go touch things in the neighborhood that I did’t even realize she was afraid of… (parked) heavy equipment, gigantic construction signs, ribbons hanging from trees. She did spook at sage grouse suddenly flying from the bushes, but only a quick 4 footed stomp, thankfully! Love CT and the benefits of giving the horse a choice.

    Reply
  5. Angelina

    Great article!!!! I would love to read more about games you use. Will definitely try this 🙂

    Reply

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