Horses, just like people, have different personalities, some of which are attractive, and some which are not. One of the most undesirable traits a horse can have is “spookiness”, which is automatically tantamount to “dangerous”. A spooky horse can jump or flee or spook at the worst possible moment, unseating his or her rider and potentially causing injury to other horses and riders in the vicinity. In order to deal with spookiness, you must desensitize your horse.
Horses have fight-or-flight responses to stimuli just like other animals, which means that their bodies prepare them for fighting or fleeing when they perceive a threat. For humans, a threat might be a man with a gun or a runaway train; for a horse, a threat could be as simple as a beer can on the side of the road. They don’t realize that the beer can isn’t a monster, so they react as though they are genuinely in danger. To desensitize your horse, you must teach them not to react with the fight-or-flight response to things that aren’t actually dangerous.
Desensitizing your horse can be a long, painful process, depending on how spooky your horse actually is. A horse who only spooks at large objects, for instance, will be much easier to desensitize than a horse who fears everything along the beaten path. It takes patience and understanding to achieve results with this process.
The first step to desensitizing your horse is identifying his major problems with stress. For example, if your horse is afraid of objects that make noise, you automatically have a starting point. We’ll use this as an example. The next step is to gather objects that might set your horse off, such as plastic bags, whistles, horns, candy wrappers and rattles. Take those objects and your horse into a 40- or 60-foot round pen.
When desensitizing your horse, the goal isn’t to send the animal into a fearful frenzy. Instead, it’s to acclimate him to the things he fears the most. As mentioned above, this is a slow process that requires patience and understanding. If your horse is too afraid, the process isn’t going to work and you’ll wind up with an animal who is more scared than when you started.
In our example of noisy objects, I would start with the easiest to handle: the candy bar wrapper. It’s small and unthreatening and won’t be hard to manipulate. Stand in the middle of the round pen with the wrapper in one hand and the lead rope in the other. Make sure that you’re holding the rope up near the bottom of the halter for maximum control.
Holding the wrapper down by your side, crinkle it between your fingers and watch for your horse’s response. If he flinches or shows any sign of fear, continue crinkling it by your side until he settles down. Once he appears comfortable, continue the desensitizing process by moving it closer to his head by small increments. Each time he flinches, pause where you are and wait until he settles down.
To desensitize your horse, he must be completely comfortable with one object before you move on to the next. By completely comfortable, I mean that you can move the object around his face, then back toward his haunches, without eliciting a reaction. This process works with objects that scare your horse visibly, as well. For example, if your horse is afraid of objects flapping in his face, you can use a saddle pad or blanket to desensitize him.