Training Exercises: De-Sensitize

animationOnce your horse has started to join you in his journey to partnership, he must trust that you will not hurt him and that you will lead him only down safe travels. His natural instincts will keep him nervous, wary and ever-vigilant. He looks to the leader to warn of danger and to prescribe action in the face of danger. In the wild that function is performed by the head stallion or mare in the group. You have to overcome his “flight or fight” instinct becoming a strong leader that he can trust.

To do this, he has to be introduced to situations that are uncomfortable for him. He has to be introduced in Baby Steps.

Natural Horsemanship trainers incorporate these exercises in the very beginning. I think Parelli calls them “Friendly Games” and Clinton Anderson calls it “De-sensitizing” exercises. Whatever the nomenclature, they are the foundation of trust and learning.

A horse must learn how to “keep his head” in novel or frightening situations. He must learn to use the left side of his intellect that is logical and thoughtful to reason a response and not the right side that is emotional, reactive and uncontrolled. He must “learn to learn” (See Two Brains.)

Some breeds are more prone to right-side emoting: Arabs (hot bloods) are a good example. Some breeds are more easy-going and easier to switch to left-side thinking. Draft horses are probably the most mild-mannered (cold bloods).

In my practice I NEVER start the close-up de-sensitizing unless my horse seems to be at least somewhat relaxed. Your horse should have already “Joined up” and be willing to lead to your training area.

Under no circumstance should you start your session with hopped-up liberty lunging. Fast and pressured lunging only adds adrenaline to a horse’s system. Adrenaline causes the opposite of left-brain reasoning. If your horse will not calm down enough in the round pen to slow to a walk, he is not ready for up-close de-sensitizing.

When he is ready, he must learn to understand and respect the tools of your trade.

Your horse has already seen your lead rope or your training stick. He saw it when he lunged during the join-up lessons. However, he has not seen all of its twists and tricks. He has not been introduced to all of its pressures, touches and tickles. In fact, he is probably a little apprehensive of it since it was used to motivate him to move around the round pen in different directions during his round-penning and joining up exercises.

Now is the time to give him a new look at the rope; to desensitize him to all of its applications. Now is the time to desensitize him to your hands, a “carrot stick” or “handy stick”, a lunge whip (if you use one), maybe even your hat! There’s no telling what he will react to. Over time he will have to accept his saddle pad, his saddle, saddle bags, a rain slicker, a bed roll and a myriad of other new stimuli that will frighten him and challenge his thinking skills.

caspian horse

Then, believe it or not, he has to see all of these things from both sides of his body and in new and strange surroundings.
De-sensitize to the rope
on the right,
on the left,
in the round pen,
in the arena,
on the trail.
And so it goes through a life-time of new experiences – Like a Cat-in-the-Hat Dr. Seuss rhyme.

How about dogs, children, cars, tractors, bicycles, loud music or noises, crowds? How about bridges or trailers? It’s a process that continues throughout his life experiences, but it starts with your hands and the rope. The rest is just Baby Steps.

De-sensitizing to Your Training Tools


Start with your horse in the center of the round pen on a 14′-15′ lead (more lead is too cumbersome, less is too short to stay away from him in an emergency). Stand at a 45 degree angle to his shoulder. At that angle, you can keep control of his head and follow his avoidance moves, but you can get out of his way if he jumps forward.

Now raise your stick and string or rope and start to swing it on the left side far to the left of his body. Swing in steady rhythm: 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, 4-1000, 5-1000, 6-1000. If he is worried and moves, just move with him until he finally stands still. Stop swinging.

Repeat until he stops and shows you some relaxation sign such as licking his lips or lowering his head.

If he is so frantic that you feel endangered, swing further away from him. You need to establish a starting point where he may be a little worried, but not frantic.

When he is relaxed at your starting distance, move the rhythm closer by degrees. Ultimately, you will be able to swing and slap the ground without his being at all worried, jumpy or moving. Now do the same thing on the right side (remember two brains).

Do this with each piece of equipment until you can tap, slap, and pound right next to him on each side, in front, over his head.

Now, start to touch his front quarters, withers, and back with your stick or rope. Flop the string and your rope over his withers, back and forth from withers to tail and back again. Now closer to his head. Now start wrapping it around his legs. Each time you find a spot that bothers him (even a little flinch) work there until he is relaxed. Up and down, front and back, top and under his belly. Toss the rope everywhere. Let it give him little slaps with the leathers.

Rub him with the rope. Rub him everywhere, working hardest on “oh, no” spots: spots where he doesn’t want to be touched.

Flinches show problems. Work them through. Approach and touch the “oh, no”, then stop and relax. Approach and touch the “oh, no”, then stop and relax. Ad infinitum. You should be able to jump around, toss the tools, swing the ropes and string (even over his head like a helicopter), slap the ground next to him, behind him, in front of his face. You aren’t through until he is rock solid whihle you act like a maniac and he stands his ground with lowerd head and a look of pure boredom.

See More Desensitizing Exercises

Thank you Kristull Ranch in Austin, Texas for pictures.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

Please note that any advice given on is neither veterinary nor prescriptive in nature but offered only as an introduction to this topic.

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