Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Desensitization vs earning trust

One of our OTTB geldings, Sonny

The following is written by Fugly Horse of the Day author Cathy, over on It's a Really Long Way Down, her personal blog. I had some strong thoughts on it originally, but today was the day things really clicked for me to produce a clear picture. Please take note I am not endorsing Cathy or her FHOTD blog in any way, shape, or form. So, the quote (in regards to desensitizing horses):

"On a related note, do you believe that horses can get too desensitized to the point where they become dull and react to nothing, or is that your goal? I think it kind of depends on how you use them. I think a dull horse is the easiest horse to sell and the most likely horse to find a good home. But obviously that horse isn't going to be your star athlete in a lot of disciplines. I know many people who believe, for example, that spooky horses just have a prettier jump and there's probably some truth to that. They are not going to risk their hoofies touching a scary rail, that's for sure. Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?"

Personally, I think a dull horse is a horse who has been discouraged from being curious and who has been taught to not think for himself. It's a horse ridden with heavy hands and spurs. He reacts to nothing because he's learned he'd better not react and he really just doesn't care anymore. It can also be a very non-reactive, naturally laid-back and confident horse who has never been sensitized, or taught to be light. Some horses just are not naturally reactive as a whole (particularly if they are mentally and emotionally balanced horses) - the Left-brained horses. . I currently have two such horses myself even. The one, a left-brain introvert, is not going to give you much though if you have not earned his respect - earn his partnership and he's in - all four feet. With most people though he would be classified as "dull" and lazy. As far as the edgy horse, well I've got one of those as well. My own "edgy" horse is balanced emotionally and I have worked hard to develop a strong partnership with him. As such, while he is still very sensitive, he follows my leadership. He's relaxed rather than "edgy" and is no more liable to spook than I am (of course, if I spook, it follows that he will too - lol). He is also a very athletic horse, but I would not necessarily place him above my other horses, even my "dull" Warmblood cross (who is not at all "dull", but he would be classified as such in most hands). Take note too that I have worked with additional horses in either category have found the same. It's not about desensitization. I strongly do not believe you can "over desensitize" a horse. It (that is, whether a horse is dull or edgy) is dependant completely upon your program and partnerships with your horses.

But back to the topic. Desensitizing. This is one of the areas I feel the Parelli Natural Horsemanship differs from other methods, even John Lyons (where horses are taught to spook in place). See the Friendly game is about desensitizing, but it about so much more than that. All 7 games focus not only on earning a horse's respect, but also on earning their trust - on earning a partnership. Today I was tossing ropes around a new mare when it hit me. I've always said that you can't desensitize a horse to everything, there is always going to be something you run across one day that the horse has not seen, and that is where methods that rely purely on desensitization will fail. Tossing ropes over this mare, playing with tarps (a task for another day), and generally just playing all our games are not about desensitization. Sure, that helps. However it is more than that. I am placing this mare in an unfamiliar, scary situation, and I am leading her through it. I am using approach and retreat, never over-challenging her past thresholds she cannot handle, and am generally acting calm, patient, and consistent to represent a strong leader to her. With the ropes, I am introducing her to something she is leery of (as a prey animal), yet those ropes never hurt her. Eventually she becomes accustomed to the ropes but she also gains trust in my leadership, because to her, I ensured her safety. I proved myself a herd leader and went up a notch in doing so. Each task I present her with I am not simply desensitizing her or teaching her something else, I am also earning her trust by getting her through said task safely. That way next time we encounter something we have never seen before, it's not such a big deal to her, she will be willing to follow my leadership and touch or walk past the scary object without objection rather than spooking (a safety mechanism on her part). She'll have enough trust that I got her through all sorts of other prior situations that I can also get her through this one. The proof was really in the pudding today though as the aforementioned mare I was working with reacted less and less and grew calmer and calmer with each new thing I presented her with - she was already investing enough trust in me to get her past a few of the challenging tasks I put her through.

So rather than "making a horse deal" with scary objects (as per Cathy's personal blog It's a Long Way Down) and desensitizing them, does it not make better sense to simply earn such a high level of trust that they trust our leadership and so can follow our calm assertive leadership? That way when we encounter a new object, if we don't spook, they won't either, because our horses will be taking direction from us. I just think that our overall demeanor and methods of working with our horses play more of a role in how our horses handle situations later than actual desensitization does - overall.

Jumpers should not be over-jumping out of fear of a rail and naturally edgy horses do not necessarily have an advantage over naturally dull horses in competition - in my opinion. It is not simply about whether or not a horse is naturally dull or edgy, because so many other factors contribute and combine to create the horse in front of you. Furthermore, it is our job as a rider to 'balance' a horse mentally and emotionally and when we do so we take the extreme responses (whether dull or edgy) out of the equation - we create a horse who is neither overly dull nor overly reactive or edgy. A star athlete needs to be focused, not edgy or reactive (who wastes energy and lacks efficiency), nor dull. The same is required of the average amateur horse - no rider likes to be constantly prodding their horse along, and neither do they wish to be on a horse who is overly reactive and spooky. So with the naturally reactive horse, we focus on desensitization and earning trust (creating a quiet, calm, confident horse), whereas with the naturally dull horse, we focus on sensitization and earning respect (we create a lighter, responsive horse). In my opinion, there is therefore no such thing as too much desensitization because desensitization is not what creates a dull horse.

PS - Oh and for anyone noting the photo and panicking about the leadrope being on the ground...this horse is past the stage of exploding when he accidentally steps on his leadrope. Part of my program, part of the PNH program, is teaching horses to be calmer, braver, smarter partners and also includes teaching them to move off of pressure. So many horses explode when they accidentally step on a rein or leadrope, which is dangerous - but we've all been there. When I first start working with a horse, that is usually where they are at too - it's prey animal instinct to react in fear, often violently, when they find themselves trapped (ie. tangled in a lead, etc). As you teach them to remain calm, think situations through, and to move off of pressure though, this disappears. Sonny and I have put in a lot of time in this area, so I can say with 100 percent confidence and accuracy that if he steps on that leadrope, he's going to either calmly sit there and wait for me to 'rescue' him, or he is going to slowly back off of it so that he is free again. No safety hazards involved.


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