Whether you ride the trails, the show ring or the streets, your horse can benefit from the exercises in this new series by building both horse and rider skills and confidence. Call it what you will, bomb-proofing or de-spooking aims to condition a horse to respond “non-instinctively” to frightening objects and also to generalize this response to anything new and potentially frightening.
Generalization is the ability to apply a concept to a situation that is different from the one it was initially learned in. Humans do this quite easily and quite naturally. When you learned to write, for example, you didn’t have to relearn the process when you went from school to home, changed from notebook paper to chalk board, or switched from pencils to ballpoint pens. Generalization is “big picture.” Discrimination, by contrast, is the ability to focus on the smaller picture – the details. Humans generalize more easily than they discriminate. Police officers, for example, spend many hours honing their observation skills to take in important details. Horses, like most animals, are master discriminators.
Generalization is considerably more challenging for horses than humans. They focus largely on the differences between things. Hence, “whoa” may not always mean “stop” to a horse. With improper generalization, it may mean “halt next to me when I stop and pull on your lead line while we are walking together,” but not necessarily “while I am lunging you, or while I am riding you, and not while I am far away from you and don’t have a lead in my hand (or chain over your nose).” In many cases, that may not matter much. But in building a reliable response to stressful situations, you want wide generalization. You don’t want the horse to think, “I am okay with the blue barrel in the corner and the mailbox, but the pile of lumber/plastic bag/white barrel by the fence is different and scary.” The key to generalization is variability and repetition, especially since you are asking the horse to override his instincts.
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating. Horses are flight animals. As potential prey, they instinctively (without thought) flee from potential danger. Horse ancestors that stuck around to check if something really was dangerous often became dinner and did not reproduce. Just because we know something is harmless is pretty irrelevant to the horse.
For a human example, think of fire walking. Our instincts (and experience) tell us not to touch burning coals with our bare skin. Should we somehow end up on a bed of hot coals, our instinct tells us to get off them as quickly as possible by running. Yet, running over coals causes far more burns than walking over them so, to avoid being burned, we’d need to resist our instinct to flee. This, as you can imagine, is not easy to do.
Key Strategies for Bomb-Proofing
First of all, avoid using force. All you will achieve, at best, is a temporary fix. You will have lost the horse’s trust, created more anxiety and perhaps even created an accident. There are a number of tactics that will provide longer lasting, safer results.
- Let him look. Sometimes it only takes a few seconds of observation for your horse to decide that the monster really isn’t so bad. A horse’s eyesight is designed for distance viewing. Sometimes things that are closer up require the horse to raise or lower his head for a better view or even to sniff the object. If you have a trusting relationship with your horse, you can try some calm (not rapid) stroking and a happy tone of encouragement.
- Change direction. Horses don’t like to approach new things head on unless they are being aggressive. Try circling the object or approaching it from a different direction or angle. Ride the horse very gradually out of its comfort zone. You’ll know you are within his comfort zone if the horse is alert to the scary object, but still responsive and soft.
- Keep moving. It helps neither of you to freeze in place. If your horse has no intention of investigating the item in question, keep him moving. Not only will movement help dissipate nervous energy, but it will keep him under better control and prevent evasions.
- Make him work. Retreat to a distance at which the horse is comfortable and ask him to perform something simple. Figure eight trots or some transitions or spins will keep him too busy to spook and keep him in thinking mode rather than reacting mode. You will also be demonstrating that the scary object is not scary to you as you go about business as usual.
- Use a buddy. Often a horse will follow a confident horse where he won’t go alone. If you have access to such an animal, use it where you can. You can also try ponying your green/ young/spooky horse with you on the more experienced, calmer mount. Just make sure you have the skill to accomplish this and have practiced before adding challenges. Having a train wreck of an experience while attempting to instil confidence in a horse is not a recipe for future success!
Be Proactive About Bomb-Proofing
You will be best able to take on this training if you are a proactive rider rather than a “passenger” or a rider that freezes under adversity. If you are not, you may need to take lessons or a clinic that will help you develop this skill.
A proactive rider is one that not only rides with the horse under excellent control, but is also able to assess situations quickly and decide what input the horse needs and what she may need to change to be successful. This can involve anything from changing direction or increasing impulsion to gain the horse’s attention to dismounting when necessary or totally avoiding a potential wreck.
It helps to learn to read your horse better as well. The best way to learn to read horses is to watch them. Spend some time watching them interact with one another. Even if you only have one horse, you can learn more by watching him frequently. Pay attention when you are riding. Did he raise his head to get a better view of something or is he tense? Is he still soft in the bridle or is there resistance due to anxiety or distraction? What does your horse look and feel like when he is relaxed and confident? Improve your foundation work so that you can immediately feel when your horse is tensing or bracing and learn what you can do to help him give and relax.
The groundwork you do in Part II of this series will help you read him even more and you will learn how your particular horse deals with fear. Is he flighty or thoughtful, responsive or dull and how long does he take to recover from a spook or startle. All useful information when you start adding monsters to overcome.
A horse’s comfort zone is the distance at which she is comfortable dealing with a threatening stimulus. A stimulus is anything that causes an animal to act or react. Cues are stimuli as are various sounds, smells and sights. Your horse will be aware of the stimulus and may even show some concern (snorting or tilting her head) but is not so worried that the flight response kicks in. You should still be able to communicate effectively with her and get a good response to the aids when she is in her comfort zone.
Each situation will have its own factors that will affect the horse’s comfort zone. It can be related to distance from the stimulus, the appearance (how unusual or startling or how similar to something else frightening), the intensity (a quietly sitting dog is less threatening than a barking dog, for example), and movement. These will be different for every horse. One horse may be able to tolerate walking over a tarp after a few sniffs, while another will have to have the tarp folded to a width of a foot or so before being able to step over it.
The goal for desensitizing your horse is to work within her comfort zone. You will increase the size of it by pushing close to the edge, but not beyond it. If your horse “blows up”you’ll know you’ve breached it and you will need to reduce intensity, increase distance or otherwise reduce the threat of the stimulus before continuing to train. You will then need to greatly increase the number of exposures to the stimulus to get back to the same starting point. Once a horse is sensitized to something (the fear has become greater), it will take some time to rebuild the comfort zone.
You will help your horse increase her comfort zone by finding the edge of it and ask her to stretch just a little a bit beyond it. Once your horse becomes soft and relaxed again,you will have built her confidence in you and a greater level of comfort with the stimulus. Repetition will allow you to expose the horse to progressively more concerning stimuli without losing the horse’s trust and focus.
Through his experience in the late 1950s in extinguishing laboratoryinduced neuroses in cats, a researcher named Joseph Wolpe developed a treatment program for anxiety that was based on the principles of counterconditioning.
Counterconditioning is based on Pavlovian/classical conditioning in which a stimulus can be “conditioned” to change the emotional and associated behavioural response it formerly produced. It is the reduction of the intensity of an undesirable response (anxiety, for example) by establishing an incompatible response (relaxation) to the conditioned stimulus (a snake, for example).
Wolpe found that anxiety symptoms could be reduced when the stimuli to the anxiety were presented in a graded order and systematically paired with a relaxation response. This process came to be called systematic desensitization. Wolpe’s Systematic Desensitization program proved to be highly successful. In fact, it revolutionized the treatment of neurotic anxiety.