“My mare lies down trembling when she gets frightened.” “My horse has jumped on top of me several times when he sees the scooter.” On my travels each year, I meet hundreds of horses and their human companions, and statements like these are far too common. Dealing with a frightened horse can be frustrating, difficult and at times as terrifying for the person as it is for the horse. De-spooking may be the answer.
Now is the perfect time of year to prepare your horse for the many possibly frightening things he may come across in your upcoming adventures together. Too many people wait to train their horses until after they are out on the trail or at the show. Worse, they don’t take the time to expose their horses to enough stimuli beforehand and are suddenly faced with a potentially dangerous situation of new “scary” experiences.
Even well seasoned dressage horses, show jumpers, western pleasure horses and general performance horses have been faced with barking dogs chasing them down the trail, plastic bags blowing in the wind, and those loud cars that seem to sneak up from behind to maximize their startling effect. The more prepared you and your horse are for these unexpected moments, the better you’ll be able to deal with them without the bolting, rearing, bucking and other behaviors that can make horsemanship so dangerous.
How “Reaching Out” can help
I recently conducted a two-week Reach Out to Horses Introductory Course in Ashville, North Carolina, where we worked in depth on the art of de-spooking, as it is sometimes called. One very effective tool I used during the course was a tarpaulin or “tarp”. As many of you know, there is nothing like a tarp: the crackling sound, intimidating size, and odd, unnatural feel scares most horses right out of their hooves!
Using the tarp as a desensitizing tool can be quite challenging so I would not recommend you just throw it on your horse. In an ideal situation, I always recommend that people first “Reach Out” to their horse in a round pen environment before they attempt to introduce any new stimuli. Reaching Out to your horse is a unique experience. During this process, you communicate in the horse’s nonverbal language. By adopting the gestures and movements already familiar to your horse, you begin to create a trust-based partnership from the ground up you’ll also be able to:
• Get an instant physical assessment of your horse’s abilities.
• Determine conformation, personal limitations, and what is natural to his breed.
• Discover immediate insights into your horse’s personality and character traits.
• Learn his likes, dislikes, needs, willingness, and levels of concentration and sensitivity.
In short, it is an invaluable opportunity to create a relationship based on mutual understanding and respect in an environment that’s safe for both you and your horse.
De-spooking in 5 steps
Learning how to desensitize your horse to the things that scare him isn’t difficult as long as you take a methodical approach. Here’s how Tina, one of my course participants, used a five-step process toward de-spooking her horse Prophet.
1. In the beginning, she took time to introduce herself by conducting a number of “getting to know you” exercises involving relaxation techniques, head-drops, and neck yielding. Prophet was already accustomed to a pressure halter (another invaluable tool when introducing horses to new objects) and by taking a few moments to teach him pressure and release, Tina saved time and possible future conflicts.
2. When the time was right, Tina let Prophet explore the tarp. Horses are curious by nature and will usually want to examine new objects, cautiously smelling and feeling with their feet as they go. Horses have limited depth perception, so this allowed Prophet to examine the texture of the tarp and realize that his feet weren’t about to be swallowed up to his knees, as in water! Tina then brought him around to approach the tarp on the side he found easiest, acknowledging his tries along the way.
3. Once Prophet became more comfortable with this new experience, Tina approached the tarp from the opposite direction. Horses process information separately from the right to left side of the brain, so Tina knew that Prophet would need to experience this as a new event to create a complete picture.
4. Folding the tarp so it was small enough to rub all over the horse was the next very important step. Tina rubbed Prophet with the tarp, covering his entire body, while gradually increasing the size of the tarp. She was able to quickly discover how Prophet felt about the tarp as it changed size and touched his body.
5. Finally, Tina asked Prophet to completely relax by lowering his head. Horses need to carry their heads high to see far in the distance and negotiate their flight path. By taking away this primary form of defense, Tina asked for an enormous amount of trust. But she had taught him this relaxation technique at the beginning, and even with additional stimulus he understood her request. This was the perfect note to finish the lesson with.
Once you and your horse have mastered the tarp as Tina and Prophet did, you can explore many other objects. Always remember the golden rule that horses are, by their very nature, flight animals, and you’ll be able to approach de-spooking from a whole new perspective to help your horse overcome even his worst fears. More importantly, you’ll become the genuine leader of a trust-based herd of two!
Anna Twinney is an internationally respected Animal Communicator, Equine Specialist, Natural Horsemanship Clinician, and Reiki Master. She has been featured on TV , national and international magazines and travels the world educating people and horses by working in the horse’s own language. The founder of the Reach Out to Horses® program, she remains on the cutting edge of genuine, gentle communication techniques with all our planetary companions. For more information, go to www.reachouttohorses.com.