To Sensitize or Not to Sensitize …

Training a horse to be a safe and solid partner while allowing him to express his personality and preferences is a challenging process that requires trust, respect and plenty of creativity.

I don’t want my horses so programmed to a narrow set of responses that they lose all their individuality and seem more like machines than sentient beings. I want to see a horse’s expression change as he considers his options and makes a choice that will earn him praise and comfort.

The question I have asked dozens of times of people practicing various versions of “natural horsemanship” is: after you’ve spent time desensitizing your horse to all manner of stimuli, when do you than selectively sensitize him to the things you want him to “hear” well and clearly? So far, I have gotten no substantive answer.

I’ve tried a number of times to organize my thoughts and write about the differences between exercises that desensitize and those that sensitize a horse, but I haven’t managed to finish anything that said all that I wanted to. It seems British horsewoman Susan Rainbird has had no such problem. She recently wrote her thoughts on the subject; coincidentally, so of mine as well.

Here’s an excerpt from her blog post on the topic:

During the desensitisation are we also numbing the horses’ natural ability to process information and replace their basic instincts with learned responses.  Horses throughout their lives process every external stimuli as either something to ignore or something to fear, it is important for their survival for them to do this, if they ran from every perceived danger using their basic instinct of flight they would never eat, drink or rest.

For our safety and enjoyment we need our horse to not react adversely to certain objects and situations, like cars, plastic bags, loud noises, etc, etc, so we put training in place to expose them to these things and then continue to expose them until they learn to ignore them.

There are some flaws in this procedure.  By continuously ‘dulling down’ the horses’ senses we are at risk of removing their ability to deal emotionally with new stimuli.

We often talk about us taking on the position of leader when we are interacting with our horse, it is important to establish a lead role but it does not mean that your horse has no role in the relationship. You need to work together as a partnership; your horse needs to remain an important and interested party in the activities you are undertaking.   You want them to look to you for direction and to trust your judgement, but you also want them to be confident and emotionally strong enough to investigate and develop positive learned responses to new experiences for themselves.

The danger of de-sensitising horses too much is that they become switched off and unresponsive. They can be emotionally unreachable. This state of psychological apathy can sometimes present us with an unpredictable horse, one that is normally docile and compliant, but has episodes of seemingly uncharacteristic and irrational behaviour.

Oh, yeah. Thanks to a total stranger for putting on paper what I try to convey to my students every day.

7 thoughts on “To Sensitize or Not to Sensitize …

  1. Again, you have found clarity for me too! When I was a faithful ‘natural horsemanship’ student, my horse definitely had that stoic-explosive attitude, and no matter how much we worked on it, he was not reliable enough for me to consider riding. Being thrown for no apparent reason only solidified my fears that he was just a little bit crazy besides. Watching videos of natural horsemanship students, putting their horses through their paces like automatons made me wonder also, what had happened to the once free horse within? Great article! Thanks!

    • So important to find the right balance between sensitizing and desensitizing for each horse. Some have to be helped to be braver, others to respect boundaries better. When you get the ratios wrong, the horse doesn’t develop the confidence he needs in himself or in his human herd leader.

      I also think some people, perhaps out of fear, mistake desensitizing or sensitizing with punishing. If a horse is only reacting (whether moving away or staying still) out of fear of punishment, he’s not learning anything about how and when it’s appropriate to respond or chose not to.

  2. I never thought it was about desensitizing them to every little thing. I thought it was about making their worlds big enough and safe enough so they have the personal resources to put new stuff into their own sensible context. No fear just because something is new…and the world isn’t a constant stream of “newness.” YMMV?

    Sometimes that results in a reaction to things, of course–my guy is pretty unflappable, but has made it clear that smoke in the air is a bad, bad thing. In this forest fire zone, I happen to think he’s right! ;>

    • Doranna, I love your description “making their worlds big enough and safe enough so they have the personal resources to put new stuff into their own sensible context.” Yes, yes, yes! That’s exactly what I would aspire to. I want my horses to have what you so eloquently define as “personal resources” – a thinking brain that has practiced making good choices enough times that it’s easy, normal and stress free.

      Instead, I see people who seem to be trying to ensure their horses never react to anything, punishing them when they look or startle at something. They seem to think they are desensitizing their horses with this approach and I don’t believe that’s what they’re doing at all. I’m thinking specifically of one nice woman who has worked with two different professionals in the area who advertise themselves as NH trainers and somehow she has gotten the idea that when her very solid mare even so much as looks away in response to a loud noise that the horse is 1) being disrespectful and 2) out-of-control dangerous. And the horse is sweet and kind and sane and well-trained and both she and her human are totally stressed out by all of this. So sad to see and so not necessary.

  3. I disagree completely and believe that the only people the believe this are the ones that don’t listen to the entire training process that is being taught. You can’t desensitize without sensitizing in fact one particular NH trainer basis his entire method on finding the balance between the two. If you just focus on desensitizing you will dull your horse and in addition when you finally ask your horse to do something and are serious about it he probably is going to get mad. On the other hand the trainers that just sensitize horses or have no sense of timing and release of pressure are going to turn just about any horse into a psycho.

    So don’t go blaming the method without understanding it, and just because most people only focus on the desensitizing side of it doesn’t mean that is what the trainers are teaching or doing. I’d also like to say you need to blame the people who don’t know how to sensitize a horse to pressure and even worse dont know how to release the pressure at the right time so the animal learns. Horses don’t learn by pressure they learn by release of pressure in BOTH situations!
    The person that just continues to throw stimuli at a horse is not desensitizing properly and most trainers will tell you you don’t do it over and over and over again .. That is a different method that most don’t use that overloads a horses senses to the point they don’t respond (like sacking out).

    Ok off my high horse .. Take the time to actually listen end to end to some of those NH trainers .. One in particular is constantly talking about how both sides need to be used .. Follow each sensitizing exercise by a desensitizing exercise. With a hot horse start and end with a desensitizing exercise with a quiet dull horse start with a sensitizing exercise and ask AND expect a response and if you don’t get it increase the pressure immediately until you do .. Another failure in humans is that they don’t increase the pressure appropriately .. Oh that’s ok darling you must be tired today!!! The method used in combination is actually extremely effective in producing a quiet but RESPONSIVE horse .. Come ride mine :-)

    • Melinda, I think you’re exactly right that a big part of the problem lies not with the training theories of the better NH trainers, but with the people who don’t know enough or don’t stay with a good instructor long enough to learn both sides of the equation – desensitize and sensitize. Or those who, for whatever reason, just can’t master the timing or learn to read those subtle signs a horse gives when he’s processing new information and trying to understand what he’s supposed to do. Stimulus/response is simple, but certainly not easy. It’s hard work to be clear and consistent and keep the emotion out of the training long enough for the horses to understand what and when and how the response should be.

      And, of course, it requires a good deal of thoughtful creativity, figuring out what works with each individual horse – like your example of structuring the work differently with a hot horse than a mellow one. (So logical. So simple. So not something an inexperienced horse owner who hasn’t been around many different types of horses would even think of.)

      I’ve been asking my desensitize/sensitize question of people for about 10 years now and have found very few who seem to have gotten further into a NH program than the very most basic desensitizing methods. It’s as if they went to one weekend NH clinic, learned a few very introductory pieces of a whole method, then went home and practiced that over and over as if there weren’t many more layers of learning both they and their horses needed. When I say “sensitize,” they wrinkle up their foreheads in confusion or look horror-stricken because they’ve been diligently desensitizing their horses, sometimes for years, and they think that’s the be-all, end-all training method that will make their horses safe and obedient. You and I both know it takes a whole lot more than that.

      Hope you and your somewhat diminished herd is well and you’re getting some nice, wet snow to make for green pastures in the spring (notwithstanding all the mud that will be created in the interim.)

  4. Stacey says, “…I don’t want my horses so programmed to a narrow set of responses that they lose all their individuality and seem more like machines than sentient beings. ”

    I couldn’t agree more. I don’t want that for my horse(s), dog, cat or any living being. I don’t even want that for those unthinking ones on Fox ‘news’!

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