I thought I’d share a desensitising experience I had last week. It made me very late for child pick up, but you can’t turn down these opportunities – or discourage others from helping horse riders in the future.
Phoenix is usually great with tractors, as they provided her with forage when she was a youngster, and she’s usually quite happy with them around the yard. However, when an elderly tractor rattled and rumbled up behind us on the lane on our way home the other day, she wasn’t impressed. She just got a little uptight with it behind us, and when we pulled it to let the tractor pass she fussed and fidgeted, and when I turned her round she wasn’t convinced about going past.
I was about to hurry along home with the tractor huffing and puffing behind, but the driver shouted, “she’ll have to get used to it… I’ve loads of time!”
He turned the engine off, and we walked back and forth past it until Phoenix deflated and breathed out. Lots of patting and verbal reward. Then the engine was turned on and we repeated the process.
Then we just stood alongside, while the engine grumbled away. She did relax a bit, and in her own way enjoyed the stroke she got from the driver when he got out to introduce himself to her.
Once Phoenix was happy in this situation we all moved forwards. And I mean all. We walked next to the tractor up the narrow lane for five minutes, with Phoenix eventually deciding that she could have a look across the fields without fear of the tractor pouncing on her. At this point, I let the tractor draw away so that she could completely relax before getting home.
Teaching a horse to accept a “monster” is all about finding their comfort zone, and making sure they are relaxed, before slowly pushing their boundaries, only taking another step when they accept the previous one. Body language is paramount here: a drop of the head often signifies when they move away from flight mode, and an exhalation huff can only be achieved when they’re relaxed, so watch out for these signs, as well as feeling your horse physically relax.
Let’s take a similar situation, of a plastic bag. If your horse spooks at it then find the distance from the bag that they will stand, watching it but without tension. Then just wait patiently, scratch their wither, chat to them, until they lose interest in it. They’re now in their comfort zone. Next, walk past the bag, at the same distance away as when they were stationary. Repeat until they have accepted level two. Now, move slightly closer to the bag and walk past. And wait. Then a bit closer. Wait and repeat. And then some more. With each extension of their boundary, the horse will feel anxious, adrenaline will kick in as the fight or flight response is initiated. Waiting for them to accept this situation makes it a less stressful process and means it is more likely to be successful in the long term.
Of course, you often need to repeat the exercise over a few days, starting hopefully from a comfort zone that it slightly closer to the “monster” and potentially getting closer and closer to said monster in each session. I always find that this slowly slowly approach results in a happier horse, who is less stressed in future similar situations, and is more confident. It takes time, but all good things do.