How to (not) desensitize a horse

A few days ago during a lesson. We had a bag attached to the stick and were waving it in front of the horse's nose and to her shoulder. The owner pondered: "Sometimes I have the impression that she doesn't respect the whip anymore". 

And this is why today's post is about sensitizing and desensitizing (and the mistakes we tend to make). 


"What is she doing with the whip?!" Drawing: Nadja
Desensitizing the horse is a vital part in the training according to horsemanship principles. The horse learns that he can ignore certain stimuli, but needs to react to others (our aids) - which is then part of sensitizing the horse. 

It's often sound or movement that trouble horses and make them spook. Desensitizing the horse we confront him with swinging whips and rustling plastic bags (among others). 
Some may assume that that is not exactly rocket science, but don't underestimate the process! Timing is essential - if we miss the right moment to take away the pressure, we'll easily teach the horse the opposite of what we wanted.


Furthermore it is not enough that our horse can bare certain stimuli without running of. Horses can freeze in the standstill. Us humans assume he is fine because he doesn't bolt, but that is a misjudgement. So standing still is only the first step towards the goal (I know this idiom sucks): A truly relaxed horse accepting us waving a flag or a plastic bag. We want him to think: "Ok, there she is again with her bags and whips. I'll go to sleep in the meantime."

But how can the horse tell if we want him to relax or if he is supposed to react?
We help him to tell the difference by presenting the stimuli in a different way

When we desensitize, we swing the rope, the stick, the whip or whatever we are using in a regular, swift rhythm. The regularity helps the horse to tune into the movement and the sound and to accept them as something unthreatening. 
When we sensitize, we start with a subtle cue and little pressure and we increase it until the horse reacts. When he does, we immediately stop the cue. 


"Ok, she is still swinging the thing." Drawing: Nadja
Working from the ground, the horse can also tell by our hands if he is supposed to relax or to respond: Our leading hand operates the rope, our supporting hand the stick or whip. For example, if the horse circles me to the right, my right hand is my leading hand.
When we desensitize, our leading hand is passive. It holds the rope, which has slack, but carries no tension. Our supporting hand does all the work swinging the whip. 

If we want our horse to move by contrast, we lift our leading hand and give the horse some feel and direction over the rope. It's the first cue. If necessary, we support with the other hand and the whip.  
The horse needs to rely on us that with an inactive leading hand we don't ask for anything but relaxation at a standstill. Whereas, is our leading hand active, we'll follow through with the supporting hand and the whip, if necessary.

Common mistakes and solutions

- You want to prove to your horse that he doesn't need to be afraid of the whip. You throw the whip over his back, your horse pulls backwards immediately and you stop. You've now taught your horse that he just needs to pull back in order to make you stop moving the whip.
The solution: Stick to the process (quote: Warwick Schiller). Stay with your horse even if he moves and tries to get away. You are not trying to keep him from moving. Allow him to drift but follow him. Remove the whip when he slows down and comes to a halt. This way, your horse learns that you have an off-button. And he can switch you off by standing still. If he is able to stand still while you are swinging the whip, you can progress working on him not dreading the whip further. You want him to relax completely


"Whatever. I'll have a nap". Drawing:Nadja
How you can tell that he is relaxed? 
I've written extensively about reading horses in my small ebook. You can download it here by signing up for my newsletter

- You want your horse to move out on a circle around you. You start waving the flag like crazy. The horse makes some indecisive steps, then comes to a halt and looks at you. You confused him. 

You did not use your leading hand pointing in the direction your horse was supposed to go. Meaning you told him to stay put. The waving of the flag had no direction but carried a lot of energy - ambiguous signals for the horse. 
The solution: Just be clear. Use your leading hand to direct your horse and support with your whip if necessary. Be serious about it. Some people hesitate to come through and touch the horse with the whip. The horse realizes it and might find it unnecessary to move out in the future. 

What to pay attention to when desensitizing the horse - the summary


- the right timing
- aim for a truly relaxed horse
- strictly separate leading and supporting hand
- strictly separate rhythmic and increasing pressure 

Do you desensitize your horse? What is your experience?

In this video Warwick Schiller adds another approach to desensitizing. He works with a horse that is afraid of a plastic bag.

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