Your horse spooks at the plastic bag in the barn aisle … unless it has his treats in it. He doesn’t want to go past a garbage can at the end of a driveway or a big rock on the trail. He avoids going into that one corner of the arena. You’ve worked at desensitizing him to all kinds of objects, but he still spooks occasionally at new objects or situations.
There’s a perfectly valid reason for his behaviour. It’s called self-preservation. As a prey/flight animal, being fearful of unfamiliar objects (or familiar objects in a different place) is how horses stay alive in the wild.
Your horse’s natural first reaction is to flee if he can because speed is his super power. He needs to put some distance between himself and whatever he perceives as a threat to his safety. Watch a horse that is free to leave (i.e. not restrained in any way). He’ll react first and think later by moving to a distance where he feels he can safely check out that scary thing.
Many riders are taught to make the horse directly face his fear and stand still while he’s confronted with objects being flapped about or touching his body, the belief being that forcing him to deal with the situation will make him braver. In learning theory, this technique of putting the horse in a fearful situation until he stops reacting is called flooding.
Flooding has commonly been used in horse training because it does get the desired result in many cases. But often what looks like the horse being okay with the object or situation is really the fear behaviour of freezing or learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness makes the horse dull and unresponsive in general. He has learned that there is no escape from the situation, so he gives up trying.
Another downside to this type of training is that the horse’s trust may be damaged as he associates the stress, fear and inability to escape with the person doing the training.
Build Trust And Confidence
To build a positive partnership and increase your horse’s trust in you, a better training method is systematic desensitization. You gradually expose your horse to the object or situation that frightens him in small, progressive increments, being sure to keep him below his fear threshold (i.e. the point where fear starts).
It is always safest to start the systematic desensitization from the ground. The same techniques can also be used when you’re riding, but if you or your horse become too tense, it’s best to dismount and go back to your and/or your horse’s comfort zone.
The first step in systematic desensitization is to find the distance from the stimulus (the scary object or location) where your horse notices it, but is still calm. This is your horse’s comfort zone. You start here so that he’s feeling relaxed and safe. You’ll return to the comfort zone whenever he (or you) starts to become overwhelmed.
Next, gradually move closer to the stimulus ‒ watching carefully for subtle signs of tension (eg. high, head, tented eye, not blinking, puckered nostrils, holding his breath, etc.) ‒ so that he is just at the point of feeling a little bit anxious without being in full fear or panic. Approach the object or problem area indirectly either by going past it at an angle or circling around it.
Avoid asking your horse to stand still. As a prey/flight animal, movement will make him feel less stressed.
Always return to his comfort zone before he reaches his fear threshold and give him time to relax.
Keep Yourself Safe
Put yourself between your horse and the stimulus so that he feels more protected by you. Being in this position also allows your horse to bend his body away from the scary thing and reduces his stress because he feels less boxed in and knows he is able to move away from it if he needs to. You’ll also avoid being run over if he suddenly moves sideways away from the stimulus. And he’ll feel less stressed by having the open space to move into.
Notice where your horse’s attention is at all times. If his full attention is on the stimulus then he isn’t focused on you. In that case, move him away from the stimulus until you regain his attention.
Patience is key to building your horse’s confidence. It’s rare to resolve a strong fear in one session. Keep your training sessions short and use lots of positive reinforcement ‒ telling your horse what he’s doing right.
Using systematic desensitisation pays off in the long run by really helping your horse overcome his fears and building his confidence and trust in. He’ll become generally less anxious and you’ll avoid creating other behavioural problems. You’ll both be calm, confident and connected as you build your positive partnership together.