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.