If you’ve been around horses for any length of time, chances are you’ve heard about desensitizing. While the concept may sound positive—getting your horse to be calm around things that previously upset him—some methods can actually backfire and cause more problems down the road.
While you might think the horse that zones out is in a better place mentally than the horse that explodes, that’s not the case. He might be standing quietly at the moment, but if you look closely, his eyes and expression tell the truth. In many cases, the horse with dull eyes and an “I’m not here” expression has mentally and emotionally gone inward to escape what’s happening. This horse still has the potential to explode or react negatively and even dangerously.
That’s why it’s so important to take your time to teach acceptance and encourage confidence, rather than bombard a horse with an overload of stimuli in the name of desensitization.
“Acceptance and acclimation are probably better words to use than desensitization; what we want to do is get our horses acclimated to and accepting of things that are outside their natural world,” says Richard Winters, a longtime clinician and 2009 champion of the popular colt-starting competition, Road to the Horse. Winters conducts horsemanship clinics across the country, and his Richard Winters Horsemanship TV show can be seen on HRTV.
“When a horse sees something outside his paradigm, his instincts kick in and he thinks, ‘I won’t stick around for this!’ He reacts rather than responds,” Winters explains. “What we want to do is ‘reprogram’ or ‘recondition’ our horses so they respond rather than react. They have a program built in by God when they’re born, but they’re very adaptable and they can be reconditioned.”
The Things That Scare Horses
Two scary things a domestic horse commonly encounters are clippers and spray bottles. Winters points out that there are right and wrong ways to get your horse accepting of anything. Set the stage for success before you get started:
- Don’t wait until the day before a show when you have to clip or spray the horse.
- Don’t tie him up.
- Make sure the area and footing are safe.
- Be patient!
“Any time you’re trying to get a horse used to something, you can eliminate a lot of volatile reactions if you don’t tie him up,” cautions Winters. “Be organized with your lead rope so it doesn’t get tangled or wrapped around you, and you can move with your horse if he moves.”
If Your Horse is Afraid of Clippers…
“I’m a big fan of cordless clippers because you aren’t fighting the cord and have all the room you need,” says Winters. “Just make sure the batteries have a full charge, otherwise the blades may tug at the hair. Sharp blades are important because dull blades will pull the hair. You also need to keep the blades well lubricated with clipper spray.
“You have a big responsibility to the horse not to hurt him with the clippers so he doesn’t have a bad experience,” he adds. “Blades are sharp, so you really need to be aware of how you use the clippers and make sure you don’t jab the horse. If you want to know how it feels, just run the blades over your own hand and take off the peach fuzz.”
Consider your approach carefully. If you come at your horse’s head with the clippers, he’s naturally going to resist.
“It’s a matter of degree. Many horses are touchy about their ears and the hairs under the jaw, so start somewhere on the horse’s body where he can handle the clippers, such as his shoulder,” advises Winters. “At first, just hold the vibrating clippers in your hand and rub the horse in that area with the back of your hand. Don’t actually touch him with the clippers yet. Let him hear the noise and feel the vibration through your hand. Don’t be jerky and quick. Your hand needs to have smooth, fluid motions.”
Ideally, you want to turn the horse’s apprehension into curiosity and that curiosity into confidence. To do this, you can’t have a timetable and you must be patient. Let the horse sniff the clippers if he wants. Don’t be in a hurry!
It might take more than one session for the horse to become accepting of your hand holding the clippers and moving to different areas of his body. Once he’s quiet, you can actually use the clippers on him.
Again, don’t tie him up. Stand to the side, not directly in front of him. Horses aren’t fighters by nature, but a startled horse may strike out, so you want to be safe.
Use common safety sense when you start clipping. If working on the head, take your hand not holding the clippers and place it on the bridge of the horse’s nose. This will help steady him so he doesn’t move quickly and hit you with his head.
Clipping legs can put you in a very dangerous position, so the best policy is to have someone else hold the horse. You and the handler should always be on the same side of the horse. This way if the horse jumps or moves around, the handler won’t unintentionally swing the horse into you.
If you need to clip the fetlocks, start out by running the back of the clippers (or the back of your hand holding the clippers) up and down your horse’s leg to be sure he’s accepting. After you know he’s fine with this, then carefully proceed to clip the fetlocks.
Winters has found some horses are more sensitive to having their legs clipped than their heads, so use caution. With some horses, it’s helpful to pick up the leg and hold it while you’re clipping.
If Your Horse is Afraid of Spray Bottles…
You may think a spray bottle is nothing to be frightened of, but it’s not a natural thing to the horse. While it can’t cause pain like clippers can, the sensation of something spraying on the horse can bother him.
For your practice sessions, fill a spray bottle with plain water so you don’t waste your fly repellent, coat conditioner, or whatever product you want to use.
Hold the lead rope, but don’t tie the horse. Standing at his side, lightly spray near his body in the area where he is least reactive. Just spray the air near him—not the horse himself—until he begins to accept the sound and motion of the spray bottle.
“Use gradual, rhythmic sweeping motions with your arm,” says Winters. “Don’t spray him directly, but just spray a mist of water up so it drifts down on him. Then gradually get closer to him as you spray the air beside him. Using the sweeping motions, go back and forth, in closer to the horse and then away.”
As you actually begin to spray the horse, do so in the area where he is least sensitive, such as his barrel, shoulder or back, rather than his legs, head, neck or belly.
“Don’t continually spray the horse in the same area,” says Winters. “Just keep rhythmically moving your arm and he won’t have as much time to react to where he’s being sprayed.”
It may take several sessions with the water bottle for your horse to accept that being sprayed isn’t torture. Never spray product on your horse’s face, even when he seems accepting, because you might get some of the spray in his eyes or nose. Instead, apply the product using a cloth, or use a roll-on applicator, if available.
Ultimately, Winters reminds that lessons with the clippers and spray bottle are really about trust and confidence. Always end on a positive note. Take your time and be sure to reward your horse with rubs and praise in a soothing voice when he responds positively.
Horseman and clinician RICHARD WINTERS has been helping people through training, clinics, horse expos and horse training DVDs and videos for over 30 years. A performance horse trainer with a natural horsemanship touch, he is well known as the 2009 Road to the Horse Colt Starting Challenge champion. His credentials also include world championship titles in the National Reined Cow Horse Association along with being an AA rated judge. Richard and his wife Cheryl currently reside in Reno, Nevada. www.wintersranch.com
CYNTHIA McFARLAND is an Ocala, Florida-based freelance writer and horse owner. The author of eight books, her latest is Cow-Horse Confidence: A Time-Honored Approach to Stockmanship, co-authored with Martin Black.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!