Issues From The Saddle: Desensitizing To Speeding Vehicles/Cars Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I thoroughly enjoy your newsletters and look forward to receiving them! I’m also really looking forward to seeing you in West Springfield, MA at the Equine Affaire in November. I have a rather peculiar problem that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere before, so I thought I’d let you have a go at it.

On July 4 my husband and I were trail riding on the multipurpose trails in the area (we’re located in far northern Maine). A speeding ATV came around a blind turn out of control and hit my horse broadside on the right side. We experienced a miracle because he was not hurt. I was thrown to the ground and sustained some injuries to my left hand, but it wasn’t serious. I believe the only reason we weren’t injured or killed was that my horse was rearing and plunging in an effort to get away from the noise of the rapidly approaching ATV (it was a racing ATV that has a very loud, high-pitched popping sound for an exhaust). Naturally, both horses are now quite skeptical of ATV’s or any motorized vehicle that they hear in their vicinity. My horse, a 13-year-old Racking Horse gelding, was, up to this time, a very mellow, wise horse when it came to dealing with situations on the trail. However, now, when he’s really startled or scared by something he backs towards it at high speed. I almost got creamed by a flatbed truck that was traveling at high speed because he started backing towards what was scaring him. I don’t know how to deal with this problem, but it’s gotten very nerve wracking and dangerous. How can you get a frightened horse to move forward, instead of backward in a dangerous situation? HELP! (looking for a horse to “fix” at the Equine Affaire? Both our lives may depend upon it!)


Answer: Elizabeth,

Whenever a horse is injured (or even thinks he was injured) a ‘fear memory’ is logged in the amygdala of his brain, where unconscious thought and instinctive behavior originates. For the rest of his life, whenever he is put in a similar situation, that fear memory will surface. You can never get rid of the fear memory; it is there forever. However, you can over-ride the fear memory through training. In other words, your horse has good reason to be afraid of speeding vehicles and you cannot erase that memory, but you can train him, through desensitization techniques to act a certain way, even if it goes against his instinct.

There are several articles on my website about the desensitization process that I use, called ‘advance and retreat.’ It is the opposite of stimuli bombardment and I think it works much better because it keeps the horse thinking rather than reacting. Like everything in training, your timing and ability to release the horse at the right moment is paramount. Read up on this process and maybe even practice it first with other stimuli that your horse might be afraid of, like clippers, fly spray, water hose, plastic bag, etc. To desensitize your horse to the stimuli of speeding vehicles coming at him, you will have to put him in that situation in a controlled environment, with the assistance of the driver of the vehicle and in the safety of your own barn. Using advance and retreat, you’ll work on this at home until you’ve really got it down. Then try it away from home.

As for making a horse move forward when he is backing in evasion, this requires a lot of rider skill. For one thing, most people instinctively and unknowingly pull back on the reins when a horse spooks or does something the rider doesn’t like (like back-up). Many horses have been programmed by the rider to back-up in evasion. To make the horse go forward, you must reach as far forward toward the horse’s ears as you can and urge him hard with your seat and legs. If all else fails, disengage the hindquarters (but be careful not to pull back on the rein as it may cause the horse to rear). Disengagement will not give you forward motion but will stop the backward motion.

Until you and your horse work through these issues, he is not safe to take out into an environment that is uncontrolled. Work hard at home to overcome this before taking him out again. Good luck and be careful!


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