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 de-sensitize him to all of its applications. Now is the time to de-sensitize 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

animationStart 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).

twirling the lead rope

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.

more lead rope twirling

Rub him with the rope. Rub him everywhere, working hardest on “no, 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, slap and pat everywhere: his whole body. Even run up to him and quickly pet his face or rub his cheeks, then retreat. Your job is not done until he is approachable, touchable, huggable – steady as a rock.

The mare in the photos is having her teats rubbed and manipulated because she will be foaling in about 60 days. We want her to be relaxed about both ourselves and her foal rubbing and butting that spot. She is also practicing having her tail pulled. If she pulls against me and moves, I hold on until she stops moving and relaxes. (Use some common sense here. Don’t get behind a horse who might kick. Even though I doubt that this mare will kick, you can see that I am out of the kicking zone.)

pullhorse tail

De-sensitizing to Environmental Objects


Now try some “scarey” objects such as a grain sack and then a plastic bag. Be prepared. These can be very frightening to a horse. (See this little Caspian stallion learn about the grain sack)
desensitize a horse to a grain sack
Start far away at a 45 degree angle to his front. Flap and swing the bag low while holding the lead. Follow his frantic flight to get away until he stops and relaxes. If he seems too frightened to manage, lower the bag to the ground, and drag it away from him. A scary object running away from a horse becomes a curiosity. He won’t be able to stop looking at it and ultimately following it.

As his curiosity gets the better of him, let him approach the bag, smell it, and taste it if he wants to. Then start moving it away again. Do this a few times until he is bored. When he no longer reacts, start moving it toward him again. Find his fear spot. Approach to that spot and a little closer. Follow him as he moves, but don’t make him frantic.

Stop immediately when he stops and relaxes – even drag it away again if he stops. Then approach a little closer. Stop when he stands still and relaxes. Remember, SLOW and LOW.

Approach and retreat as many times as it takes to get him to stand still. then begin to raise it higher on his body until you can flap it, swing it, touch and rub him all over with it and it’s “No big deal”.

Arabs and other particularly hot, emotive horses may have to repeat this time after time, day after day. They take much more precise timing and a lot of patience.

You can desensitize a horse to anything if you start SLOW and LOW. Give him a chance to approach the situation slowly, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting anything that scares him. If he is taught to stand still whenever he sees anything frightening (not a natural instinct), then you will win the spook-and-run game right here on the ground. You can turn it into stand-and-face.

desensitize a horse to a plastic bag

Use your imagination. Teach him to walk across a tarp, approach a big ball, step over boards and logs, walk through water. It all works the same way. Approach – Retreat. Slow and Low. Release Training, Introducing Maneuvers, and Fight or Flight

De-sensitizing to situations: Once my horse is able to walk calmly on a lead and has respect for my space, I start taking him on walking journeys with me – all around the ranch training and working areas. We bond during these trips. I separate him from his pasture mates during our training weeks, so that I am his only friend. He welcomes the relief from the boredom of his solitary paddock. When I arrive he gets exposed to the activities of other people in some of the busier areas. Each new area presents new challenges and discomforts that we overcome together.

desensitize a horse to all

caspian horseThe Rare and Endangered Caspian Horses I use in many of these pictures, spend hours and hours with me. This one followed as we built a new barn. It was like taking a big dog everywhere I went. Skill saws, hammering, boards dropping, echoes and shouting became absolutely common place to him. We played body-touching games at every opportunity – I trying to duplicate how a child was ultimately going to hang on him, pat him, climb around him, make sudden movements etc. Nothing could scare this little guy. And I didn’t even feel like we had been training. Just me and my pony doing a day’s work.

A good trail horse may encounter many natural and man-made obstacles in his journeys. He will be like a fine-tuned car with you in the driver’s seat. It takes maintenance, imagination, and persistence to obtain the safe and easy horse you want.

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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