Recently on Horse Master is an episode filmed in LA about a driving pony who was deathly afraid of anything plastic—bags, tarps and the like. Her owner, a very competent horsewoman who I have known from clinics, had been working for some time to desensitize the mare, but to no avail. Like many people, she had been using a technique known as “flooding” or “bombardment,” wherein you over-expose the horse to the aversive stimulus until she basically gets tired of spooking. Well, that would work for her eventually in each session, but she’d start over again from scratch the next day. Essentially, she was teaching the mare a pattern of behavior which is to spook first then eventually relax. Not really what we want, is it?
I much prefer to use a desensitizing technique known as “advance and retreat.” There are articles on my website about this but basically it means that you advance with the aversive stimulus only so far as causes the horse discomfort, then hold your ground until the horse relaxes, then take the stimulus away (retreat) and repeat. This technique teaches the horse to relax when there is something scary and when she relaxes, the scary thing goes away. Eventually the horse loses all fear because she feels a sense of control.
Even though this little mare had the spooky response well-engrained into her, she responded very well when we switched techniques. She’s a smart little horse and was only acting spooky because she thought that was the expected response. Once she realized the expected response was to relax and be still, that is what she did.
This makes me think about something I say all the time in clinics—if things are not getting better, what you are doing isn’t working and you need to break the cycle somehow. If you are using a training technique again and again and it is not effecting a positive change in your horse—it ain’t working. Time to try something different. Now I am not saying you need to switch techniques every day, but there comes a point when you are not getting through to your horse and you need to make a change. Otherwise, you end up training the wrong thing to your horse.
Have you ever had a situation like this with your horse? Maybe you are trying to correct a bad behavior, like, let’s say, biting. And you correct your horse again and again for his bad behavior but he keeps nipping at you. Clearly what you are doing is not working and in this case, it is because you are not applying enough pressure to the horse to motivate him to change. If the pressure or penalty is not harsh enough, he’s happy to keep doing what he’s been doing. Depending on how motivated your horse is to act that way to begin with and depending on how sensitive he is to pressure, these things will dictate how much pressure you have to use. But don’t keep doing the same thing with no response.
All the best,
Gosh. This is a good topic. It proves that just because a training technique is popular, doesn’t mean it’s right for every horse. The “bombardment” thing might work well with pushy or dull horses, while “advance & retreat” is probably a better choice for the more sensitive types.
Personally, I’ve had better luck with advance & retreat but as Julie pointed out in her tv show, the timing is critical. If I’m not fast enough with the release, I miss a teaching opportunity & maybe even confuse the horse. Fortunately, our horses have all been very forgiving of my mistakes. But like people, some are smarter & pick up on things right away, while others require a different & sometimes stronger approach to understand what I’m asking of them. Since every horse is different, it’s my job to modify the method to fit the circumstances.
My son’s 8 y/o QH gelding was one that needed a different approach. When we got him last summer, he hadn’t been ridden in over a year and beyond leading, he’d had no ground work. Since ground work is the foundation for everything, the 1st step was teaching him some manners in the round pen.
However, my usual quiet but firm, laid-back approach just wasn’t working with this pushy and lazy older gelding. But as soon as I switched from a flag to a training stick and adopted an in-your-face, let’s do this NOW attitude with him, he started making progress.
At first, it was hard for me to whack him with the stick as often as was necessary to get a response from him. (No one likes to hit their horses.) And of course, knowing when to whack & when to release was really critical. But he progressed through his round pen training within a month which is pretty good for an older horse. This made him safer both on the ground & under saddle. And ironically, like the other horses I’ve done extensive ground work with, this gelding follows me around & views me as his leader in spite of all the spankings I had to give him!
to GunDiva: Wow. What else to say but WOW. My old mustang would have reacted just like that years ago. I remember we were having her side pass along a rail once (from the ground). She did really well but just plain would NOT go into the corner. We finally figured out that it was too hard for her to overcome that trapped instinct and we let it go. A couple years later she would do it. We also tried to get her to drag objects, starting VERY VERY gradually. She just was NOT accepting it and we finally turned her loose in the round pen with something tied to the saddle that would follow behind. Not a good idea. She FINALLY slowed down but I was afraid she was going to blow out a tendon or something. I finally decided this was something she really didn’t need to do. She did accept it but she was NEVER comfortable with something following behind her. My other mustang has no problem with dragging stuff but he’s been raised in captivity. She was too but she her mom wasn’t and she learned much from mom. Thanks for the story. I’m glad it worked out ok.
This was a helpful post as my horse has gotten more pushy and strong lately. Who knows why but the winter weather and less time with him may contribute. This horse is so darn tough that I sometimes end up beating on him to get the desired response. I’d sure like a better way but so far I don’t have one. If I get a real tough attitude then sometimes it won’t take as much physical force but it’s hard to muster that at times. If my timing is faster that helps too but I often get tangled up in the lead etc. and the response is more slow. He’s smart and gets bored easily and comes up with stuff. His latest is to get away from me while being led to the round pen. He did this by dropping behind me slightly and ducking behind me and turning off to the opposite side of where he began. He has figured out leverage. I’m pretty sure I got this fixed but it took getting turned around and clobbering him pretty hard on the side that was turning away to keep him from heading off. My timing happened to be good and it seems to have left an impression. It’s sure never boring around here! I see other people who look cross-eyed at their horses and they submit. The good thing is once he submits he is WONDERFUL. I just have to be a really, really, really worthy leader in his mind. I hope everyone had a nice holiday.
We found out the hard way that “bombardment” doesn’t always work. I’ll admit that I’ve seen it work with a few horses, but when my step-father tried it with Ranger, his BLM mustang, it almost had a tragic ending. Like the mare in the episode, Ranger had a fear of plastic. In order to desensitize Ranger, Bill tied him up and proceeded to tie plastic garbage bags to his saddle. Ranger initially asked Bill to get rid of the scary things, but when Bill didn’t, he reacted the only way he knew how – he panicked and bolted, breaking his halter and taking off into Roosevelt National Forest.
Despite daily tracking, Juanita and Bill couldn’t find Ranger for ten days and Bill was beside himself. Luckily, we had an amazing vet (who has since retired) who assured Bill that since his horse was a BLM mustang, that he stood a much greater chance of surviving than a domestic horse would despite still having his saddle on. Doc told us that a domestic horse would eventually get sore from the saddle and quit trying to graze or drink because it would be too painful for them to extended their necks downward, but that a “wild” horse has an uncanny will to survive.
Ten days after Ranger’s escape, one of the wranglers from the livery across the street found him while she was out with a ride and came screaming back to the livery – “Ranger’s alive!”
He was alive, but in bad shape. He’d attempted to rub the saddle off on trees and had only succeeded in rolling the saddle so that it hung under his belly. He had open wounds on his withers and under his right front leg from the rubbing of the saddle. The wounds were deep into the muscle belly and infested with maggots, which saved his life.
Ranger lived through his ordeal and Bill changed training techniques. He now uses one similar to what you describe, only he makes Ranger touch the object at his own pace. Any time Ranger spooks, Bill makes him face it and gives him the “touch” command. Ranger may huff and blow, but he’ll eventually touch whatever it was that scared him.