“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear.”
I decided to take a new look at the process of desensitization, or teaching a horse to get over its fears. Through the little experience I have had, I know that overriding the fear instinct in horses is not an easy thing. I’m still recuperating from a fall almost three months ago, so I’ve had some time to think about the subject.
As you know unless you’ve been living under a rock, bomb-proofing is all the rage these days. It is the legitimate offspring of natural horsemanship and the practical desire not to have your horse leap from under you at the slightest provocation.
I attended a bomb-proofing clinic myself. After a long afternoon of asking Maira to stand still under uncertain conditions, I am pretty sure my horse will not spook at some inopportune moment due to the appearance of an umbrella, a flying plastic bag, or any other object the clinician can cook up. But what are we really asking for when we “bomb-proof” a horse? Trainers usually call the process desensitization.
Deconstructed, desensitization means to “eliminate sensitivity.” This seems to me to be the exact opposite of what we should want in a horse. I’m not talking about allowing a horse to spook at a shifting blade of grass, or encouraging it to notice every little thing.
When we ask a horse to stand and accept scary thing after scary thing without reacting until they shut down completely, we are causing them to stop reacting to stimuli. This is a completely natural action born of equine instinct. Trainers in the natural horsemanship movement exploit the horse’s instinct to fight, flee or freeze during training, and it works! In these clinics, they mostly freeze.
People say the horse is by nature an “emotional” animal, meaning it relies on instinct instead of thought much of the time. This is our way of saying the horse is instinctual by mature.
Emotion/instinct has the power to override thinking and learning. You have only to think of trying to memorize directions while you’re both late and lost to know what I’m talking about.
In terms of evolution, the survival advantage of the flight/flight mechanism in horses has been covered by every trainer out there. Automatic reactions of this sort are, as Joseph Le Doux says, “quick and dirty, but not very precise.¹” Such precision is not necessary when erring on the side of caution will save your life.
But horses of the modern era are the products of thousands of generations of genetic manipulation by man: the need for the fight/flight response is not so vital. Most equine fears are nuisances for the rider/trainer rather than crucial for the horse’s survival.
Vital or no, horses (and their riders) often suffer these vestigial neural alarms going off left and right. We as humans have a huge repertoire of tools for dealing with these alarms, including calling 911. But what can the horse do? What do we teach them to do?
If bomb-proofing trainers exploit instinct in training, they are not teaching a horse to think. In fact, I’d argue that they are doing just the opposite: creating all sorts of neural static by flinging things at the horse sabotages the horse’s ability to use its brain. Unless the horse is asked to move, think, and respond while being exposed to “de-spooking” stimuli, you are inducing the very state you’re trying to avoid.
According to Frank Bell, “a horse is not truly desensitized to something unless he can well tolerate while also moving”(in a rational manner)². I think Frank Bell is a master at teaching a horse to deal with random frightening input while keeping all four feet on the ground. He calls it desensitizing, but I think it’s really teaching by touch: “Remember: your assuring hand is the best tool you own!³”
According to Linda Tellington-Jones,
The Tellington Method takes the horse beyond reflexive, fight-or-flight instincts and teaches him to think–to overcome fear, feel safe and cooperate willingly and trust the rider.⁴
Primary to both Tellington-Jones’ and Bell’s methods is the lowering of the head. This seems to throw a temporary shut off switch to the flight response while at the same time allowing learning to take place. The applications of lowering the head both in the field and in the training ring are numerous.
A thinking horse beats a reacting horse for safety every time. A reacting horse is dangerous. We should be teaching them to think when they encounter something scary. Trust in the “lead mare” or “boss horse” to keep you safe is one thing, but understanding that a given phenomenon will not eat you is another altogether.
We as riders can’t control every new experience for our horses. We can’t control whether it’s a ringside umbrella or a deer in the woods that unglues Dobbin and sends us flying. What we can control is this: the habitual way in which our horses respond.
I will explore methods of “de-spooking” in later posts. Please let me know what has worked for you.
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¹ Joseph LeDoux, “How Scary Things Get That Way”Science (Nov. 6, 1992), p. 887
² Frank Bell, Gentle Solutions: Frank Bell’s Seven Steps to a Safer Horse Rexburg, ID, 2004 (Frank Bell and Sylvia Scott) p. 82
See also Frank Bell’s website for many informative articles
³ ibid p 79
⁴Linda Tellington-Jones with Bobbie Lieberman, The Ultimate Horse Training and Behavior Book (Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2008), page 7
See also, <a href=”http://www.ttouch.com
“The Neural Circuitry of Fear,” Appendix C, Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman, (New York: Random House, 1995) In its entirety, this book is a gold mine for understanding the mammal brain.