I’ve been on a new and exciting adventure recently. It’s been quite a journey already and, coincidentally, it relates to the video in the Horse Conscious Newsletter about desensitizing… Approximately two months ago I purchased two young ponies. I am pleased to introduce to you Ciara and Friday.
Initially I was looking for one pony (they always seem to multiply don’t they…) that I could work with to eventually be a learning partner for kids who want to learn about horses. Enter Ciara and Friday. Ciara is a 4 year old (going on 5 this year) APHA mare. She is naturally very calm and quiet and will be a great learning companion for kids. Friday is a 3 year old (coming 4 this year) blue roan mustang gelding. They’ve been together for one and a half to two years. I decided after working with both that they were a great package. I had Ciara that would be ready for kids quite soon, and Friday that could be my next project. Well, I got what I asked for…
Ciara and I have had challenges that I will discuss later, but she will indeed be ready for kids quite soon.
Friday, on the other hand, will take time, a lot of it. There is more knowledge to be gained from our relationship that I can fathom. Here’s a bit of back story on Friday as far as I know. Friday was orphaned at a couple months old. His mother and a couple of other herd members were killed in a traffic accident. He was young enough to be taken to a sanctuary rather than the BLM. He was raised by people. As a yearling, the previous owner purchased him and he and Ciara have been together ever since.
Even though Friday has had far more interaction with people from a young age than most mustangs born in the wild, I discovered that very little of that handling seemed to be focused on preparing him for life as a domestic horse. For example, despite all of his handling, he was not trained to tie and, despite having his feet trimmed before I bought him, wouldn’t let our usual trimmer near him.
Thankfully, I found a wonderful woman who is a vet and a barefoot trimmer that has a lot of experience with mustangs. I was initially nervous for someone I didn’t know to work with Friday after the tough couple of weeks we had after our usual trimmer visited. I had no reason to worry. This trimmer is spreading out Friday’s education about trimming over weeks, as long as it takes, and Friday is improving quickly because she is desensitizing him a certain way.
I realize now that there is subtle difference in my work with Friday prior the new trimmer working with Friday and my work with Friday after it. I also realize a layer to Ciara that I had noticed before, but wasn’t sure how to explain.
All of this ties into the video about densensitizing featured in the Horse Conscious Newsletter. The type of desensitizing used in that video is called flooding. The handler continues to do the movement, noise, etc. until the horse shows some signs of tolerating it (standing still, a deep breath, lowered head, twitching and/or licking lips, etc.). Flooding often gets people the results they want, a horse that doesn’t react to certain things. However, it achieves that goal by forcing the horse to tolerate it, rather than the horse choosing to accept it. This creates a horse that is not calmly desensitized in order to be a trustworthy partner, but a shutdown desensitized horse that, in reality, is a ticking bomb.
So how can we desensitize a horse while preserving their peace and their curiosity? I prefer the term “introducing.” When working with a new object (a stick and string, a rope, a tarp, a ball, a flag, etc.) bring it as close as the horse allows with the goal of stopping its progress towards the horse BEFORE the horse’s adrenalin goes up and then move the object back a step. Continue this process until the horse ACCEPTS the object around them, touching them, on them, etc. The horse accepts the new objects because they were introduced in such small steps that the horse was able to think and decide for his or herself that the object was not a danger.
As much as it was hard to admit, I was closer to using flooding with Friday prior to the new trimmer coming out. I wasn’t removing the object BEFORE it concerned him, but AFTER he demonstrated some amount of tolerance. Yes, I made progress with him this way, but it was unreliable progress, filled with steps backwards. Since the new trimmer came out and unknowingly demonstrated a desensitization more like introducing and I have carried that over into all the sessions with Friday, Friday has calmed down considerably and learns more quickly. He’s an aware horse that will still look at an object he’s seen before, but almost immediately accepts it because it didn’t hurt him last time. Furthermore, I realized that the type of desensitizing used with Ciara has been flooding. She is naturally gentle, kind and quiet, but she was also shut down. She didn’t accept new objects, she ignored them! I have experienced many dangerous situations with shut down horses, so took immediate action to help her feel safe. It has taken a lot of vulnerability and self-coaching on my part for her to open up, a lot of tears too if I’m honest, but it is worth it.
Are you, like me, realizing that, despite your best intentions, you’ve been trying to desensitize your horse by flooding them? Or have you already figured out the art of introducing and seen its tremendous benefits? I’d love to hear your stories and am happy to talk to anyone experiencing challenges with horses that are spooky, sensitive, shut down, or anything else and help if I can. I look forward to reading about your experiences!