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Confrontation, Not Avoidance

By Jeffrey Rolo

Quite possibly the most intimidating aspect to horse training is the actual desensitization period. This makes perfect sense since all it can take is one sudden spook or unexpected movement for a trainer or rider to fall off the horse and/or become seriously injured. It's absolutely essential that we respect the mass and capacity for inflicting harm of our equine partners at all times; we won't allow it to influence our regimented training program, but we'll always be aware so that we can minimize potential dangers whenever possible.

The reason I brought this up is our natural desire to avoid potentially dangerous situations can actually create even more devastating situations down the road, so there are times when it's essential to embrace confrontation and draw a line in the sand. Let me illustrate this point with an example.

You ride regularly down a small country street and in one particular stretch of road the property along the right side of the road has been fenced with barbed wire. Just beyond this wire is a large boulder that for some reason intimidates your horse; anytime your horse approaches the boulder his natural inclination is to recoil from it and head towards the center or left side of the road.

Do you allow your horse to shy away from the right side of the road anytime he passes the spooky boulder, figuring no harm is done if your equine partner really prefers to walk in the center of the road? If so, you have set yourself up for a potential disaster later on down the line.

Now picture the same scenario, except this time a car is actually approaching you, thereby barring your horse from using the center or left side of the road as he usually does. If your horse recoils from the boulder he may slam into the oncoming car. If the horse recoils to the left, then back to the right to escape the car, this pinball action may send him running straight into that barbed wire fence.

No, the above isn't a pretty picture, but situations similar to the above are not at all uncommon among new riders and/or new riding horses. When a horse is allowed to avoid its fear rather than confront it, the problem rarely works itself out in the end. Later when an additional fear is tossed into the mix, it's often enough to completely overload the horse's brain and send him into a sheer panic, thereby hurting both you and himself.

There's no doubt that it's intimidating for both you and your horse to force your equine partner to confront his fear "face-to-face." At the time it almost seems as if you're tempting fate when you can practice avoidance and leave it all behind, but remember that when you save a problem for another day, that other day may present a far less convenient or safe period in which to confront the problem.

In the above example I would have done the following:

bulletReassessed my relationship with the horse. Am I sure that my horse and I have developed enough of a bond that he draws strength from my confidence and looks to me as a leader? Am I confident enough in my partner that I'm not inadvertently exhibiting signs of nervousness or tension?
bulletIf I was sure that both my horse and I were indeed ready for the challenge, I would gently but firmly insist he walk by the boulder as close to the right as possible. He may yield to the center some during the first few passes, but with each pass I would draw him closer and closer to the object of his fear.
bulletIf there were a way to bypass the barbed wire fence and lead my horse directly to the boulder on the other side so he could "nose" the boulder, I'd do so. Of course this would depend on both the layout of the area as well as obtaining the necessary permission from the landowner.

The third option isn't always available to us (in fact, it's rarely available to us depending where we live), but if you incorporate the first two methods then you will eventually convince your horse that the boulder is not the pressing threat he initially believed it to be. For the price of a little bit of sweat and inconvenience, you'll have desensitized him to the boulder permanently, thus eliminating any likelihood of the above disaster scenario I painted from ever occurring.

This article focused on one specific example, but the theory remains the same no matter what item or environment is triggering the horse's fear. If he's afraid of a car horn, honk a horn in a controlled manner until he's comfortable with it. If he's afraid of a plastic bag, make him nuzzle one and walk by plastic bags until he sees they are no threat. The key to desensitization is helping your horse confront his fears in a gentle and kind manner rather than allowing him to avoid the fears and reserve the problem for a future date.

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