Desensitizing Horses – How To Calm A Nervous Horse

Someone once said that there are only two things that horses are scared of: 1) things that move, 2) things that don’t! As funny as this is, many of us have, at some point or another, discovered just how frustrating this can be. We know that the empty candy wrapper that’s just blown into the yard isn’t going to hurt your horse but no matter how many times you tell him he just doesn’t seem to understand that. Fear not though, help is at hand.

Why should you desensitize your horse?

You might think that it doesn’t matter if your horse always spooks when he sees that ‘scary’ bush while you’re out riding, after all, you can always avoid it but this is the wrong attitude to have. Avoiding the object your horse is scared of though is totally the wrong thing to do because this will reinforce your horse’s fears which, in the long run, will only make the problem worse. Instead, it’s far better to help your horse to confront his fears and eventually overcome them.

Desensitizing your horse can also help to make him easier and more pleasurable to ride, after all a calmer horse is safer and easier to handle which will make him more enjoyable to ride and therefore improve your confidence as a rider too. Also by helping your horse to overcome his fears you’ll be increasing the trust between the two of you which will help to strengthen your bond.

What does it mean to desensitize your horse?

By desensitizing your horse to something, whether it’s a sound, object, or an event, you are, by definition, making him less sensitive to whatever it is that would otherwise frighten and scare him. The process of desensitizing your horse though isn’t just one of making him less sensitive, it’s also to help him understand that he doesn’t need to be frightened of everything.

How to calm a nervous horse

Why do horses get scared?

To understand why horses get scared its important to see it from the horse’s perspective, they’re prey animals which means that if they think something is a threat their instinct is to run away from it (after all if its a cougar you don’t want to wait around to see if it’s hungry). This means that horses live in an almost constant state of alertness and while this can obviously help them to stay alive in the wild it can be problematic for domestic horses, especially if they’re overly sensitive and shy way from almost everything.

Some horses are more spooky than others but it helps to understand what’s going through their mind, if your horse tries to pull away when you’re tying him up he probably thinks that he doesn’t have control over his head and won’t be able to see any approaching threats. Likewise, if he won’t go anywhere near that strange vehicle parked near the arena he could be thinking that it’s a predator. Understanding your horse’s thought process will help you desensitize him.

How do you identify what your horse is scared of?

Horses will never spook for no reason, it will always be because something has scared them but what scares one horse won’t bother another which can make the process of identifying what is frightening your horse difficult, especially if he’s a very nervous horse that’s petrified of a lot of different things. Horses can be scared of anything but watching him and reading his body language will help you to recognize what he’s frightened of. That said though there are some common things that horses can be scared of:

  • Uncommon or foreign objects – Anything that your horse hasn’t encountered before, this can be worse at shows where there’s a lot of strange objects such as flower boxes, parked cars, and other people.
  • Whips – This is one of those fears that a horse can learn if a whip has been used excessively.
  • Plastic bags and floating rubbish – Any rubbish blowing in the wind will often move suddenly and erratically, making your horse more scared because he won’t be able to work out where it’s going or what it’s doing.
  • Clippers – A lot of horses can be very sensitive about their bodies being touched (especially vulnerable areas such as their belly, legs, and rump) so the vibration from the clippers just increases their anxiety.
  • Loud or unexpected noises – Loud noises can be startling to horses but they can also prevent your horse from hearing any approaching danger which will also put him on edge.
  • Flapping tarp or tape – Anything that flaps about in the wind will scare your horse, much in the same way that plastic bags and floating rubbish will but if its something heavy, like a tarp, then it can also be quite noisy as it blows.
  • Vehicles – Generally horses are okay with parked vehicles but when doors are opened and closed and engines are started they can often frighten horses, particularly if they weren’t aware it was going to happen or couldn’t see the vehicle beforehand.
  • Water – Horses have limited depth perception which means they can’t judge distances so well and an expanse of water (whether its the ocean or a water jump) can often be an unknown for them.
  • Other animals – This is more common away from the yard but horses can be, and often are, scared of other animals such as deer, cows (especially bulls), and even dogs.
  • Narrow gates – Any narrow space can be scary for a horse but if that space appears to close on him (as would happen when you shut the gate) will only heighten his fears.

It can often help to write down what you think your horse is scared of, this will help you to work out a plan to desensitize him, that said though it never hurts to desensitize him to multiple objects, sounds, and events. After all, a calmer horse is a happier horse.

Pool noodles can help to desensitise your horse

How long does it take to desensitize a horse?

How long is a piece of string? It’s one of those questions where there’s no right or wrong answer so it’s better not to ask. All horses are different and will react differently to strange things so the whole desensitizing process will take as long as it takes, some horses will relax very quickly and will only require a handful of sessions while others may need fifty.

If you put a time limit on how long it should take you’ll be putting unnecessary pressure on both you and your horse which will almost definitely mean that it’ll take longer. Instead, just work one session at a time and see how your horse progresses.

Before you start to desensitize your horse

Before you begin desensitizing your horse you need to consider a few things:

  • Establish personal space –  When a horse panics he loses all perception of boundaries and forgets about your personal space which can be dangerous for you. Before you start desensitizing your horse make sure you’ve taught him to respect your personal space.
  • Don’t rush things – Its important to make sure you’ve got enough time to desensitize your horse properly and that you work at his pace. Forcing him to confront things too quickly will only increase his fears. Don’t start a session if you don’t have the time to see it through.
  • Set small goals – You might think that getting your horse to ride quietly through a field full of cows is impossible or that you’ll never be able to stop your horse from panicking every time you get the clippers out but if you set smaller goals you’ll reach your main goal much faster. After all, lots of small goals add up to make one big goal.
  • Be consistent – Be calm all the time, don’t raise your voice to your horse, or start waving your arms around. He’ll feed off of your behavior much more than you realize, therefore if your relaxed he’ll soon realize there’s nothing to be scared of.
  • Protect yourself – When you’re desensitizing your horse you’ll be putting him in situations that obviously scare him and he may react by trying to get away from them (and from you) which is why you need to make sure you’re wearing the right protective gear. You should always wear a helmet, gloves, and sturdy boots, but if you’re riding then you should also wear a body protector. Your horse should also wear overreach and brushing boots, just in case he catches or treads on himself.

How to desensitize your horse

If you can you should work with your horse, at least in the beginning, in an enclosed area, this will help your horse to focus on you without being distracted but will also mean if your horse does panic and tries to run away he won’t be able to go too far. As you progress though you can move to a more open area.

Its often a good idea to desensitize your horse to multiple things but its always better to focus on one thing at a time. Depending on what it is that your horse doesn’t like you can desensitize him from the ground or while riding.

From the ground

Before you start it’s important to make sure your horse has a well-fitted halter and if possible use a long lead rope that’s comfortable to hold for a prolonged period of time. Where you desensitize your horse is up to you but if he’s particularly nervous it might be helpful to start the training sessions indoors where he won’t be distracted by outside stimulations.

A calmer horse will help to reassure your horse that they's nothing to worry about

While the training sessions should involve you and your horse working together to overcome his fears it can be beneficial to have another, calmer horse, present. Being social animals horses take their cues from each other and if he sees another horse not reacting or being frightened of something then he will, in time, realize that he doesn’t need to be scared either. If you’re trying to desensitize your horse to loud noises then it can also be helpful to have other people to help make the noises for you. This will allow you to stay calm and reassure your horse, telling and showing him that the noise is nothing to be scared of, if it’s you making the noise you can’t do that.

When working with your horse make sure you’re relaxed and calm, your horse will not only listen to the tone of your voice but will also read your body language, if you’re stressed or angry he will pick up on that and be more likely to spook. If you feel that you’re starting to get tense then take a minute to take a few deep breaths and relax and lower your shoulders.

Horses will always spook more easily from the front or back so its better if you stand to his side but nearer the front, that way he can see you there and won’t be suddenly surprised, depending on how nervous your horse is will determine how close to him you’ll stand, if he’s really skitty then you should start by standing around 5 feet (1.5 meters) away, moving closer as he becomes more relaxed.

Look for signs that your horse is relaxed (such as his head is lower, he’s working his jaws or taking a deep breath) before slowly introducing him to the object of his fears. Don’t start waving the object (such as the clippers or a plastic bag) around just hold it still so that he can see it but so that’s it’s not too close to him. Watch for signs of him starting to relax and then remove the item as soon as you see the signs, making sure to praise and reward him. You can repeat this a few times getting slightly closer every time before again removing it and praising your horse. It might not seem like you’ve done much but you’ve both successfully cleared the first obstacle so now is the perfect time to stop. You can repeat this later but should never do more than two sessions on the same day.

Each time you do this bring the object nearer until your horse is able to touch it, once he’s happy with it being that close you can start to move it around in front of him. If you’re using a plastic bag it can be helpful to attach it to a training stick, that way you can wave it around in front of your horse, if however its something like clippers then you can move them away and turn them on. Each time your horse relaxes, stop, and don’t forget to praise him.

Once your horse is perfectly happy with this you can try doing it while he’s moving, some horses are more likely to spook while they’re moving so doing this will help desensitize him to this as well.

If your horse is frightened of bigger objects that can’t be moved so easily, such as vehicles or trailers then instead of bringing them to your horse you’ll have to take your horse to them but the principle is still the same, introduce your horse slowly to them then when he’s relaxed praise and reward, but also walk him away. In this instance, your goal would be to get your horse happily loading in the trailer without being stressed in any way at all.

While riding

The principles behind desensitizing your horse while riding, to some extent, are exactly the same as those for doing it from the ground, you’ll still need to be patient, keep calm and reward your horse, again it also helps if you have a calm horse with you to show your horse that there’s nothing to be scared of.

If you can its better to begin desensitising your horse towards the end of your ride, there’s two reasons for doing this; 1) your horse is more likely to be calmer towards the end of the ride, 2) if your horse gets worked up then it can make the whole of the ride more difficult. 

To start with calmly walk your horse past whatever it is he’s scared of (if its livestock then make sure you account for them to move as well), don’t allow him to speed up in order to get past it quicker. As with desensitizing from the ground you’ll need to repeat this process multiple times until your horse is much calmer. If your horse just won’t walk calmly past the object without shying away or speeding up then dismount and walk him lead him past it, this should though only be done as a last resort, after all, you’re trying to get your horse used to riding past something not being lead past it.

Talking to your horse can help to reduce his anxiety

How to desensitize your horse to sounds

Most of us will jump if we hear a loud unexpected sound but imagine how you’d feel if your life could depend on what that sound was! That doesn’t mean to say though that you should just except your horse will always be frightened of sounds, after all many sounds can be predicted so if you’re aware that it might happen (such as 4th July or the noise of a show) you can help prepare and desensitize your horse to the sounds.

It can help to have a recording of the sound (or sounds) you want to acclimatize your horse to, that way you can play it in a controlled manner from a distance, all the while talking to your horse to reassure him. As your horse becomes calmer and more relaxed you can play the sound closer to your horse or even walk him nearer to it.

TIP: If your horse is frightened of sudden loud bangs such as fireworks you can use things like bubble wrap to simulate the sound and help desensitize him.

Using a desensitizing obstacle course

Some horses can be very sensitive to being touched but building an obstacle course using pool noodles and a bit of wood can work wonders for this. Obstacle courses can often be fun for your horse and while he’s having fun he’s not so aware of his fears which is a great way of desensitizing him.

You can buy pool noodles in lots of different places but I always prefer to get them on Amazon, I find them to be the cheapest and they have the best selection.

https://youtu.be/LRRhbRRxPNU

Conclusion

The most important factors to remember when desensitizing your horse are to be calm, relaxed, and patient. You might think your horse is crazy but in his mind (and to his survival instinct) it all makes perfect sense. Don’t rush anything and, in time you’ll both be rewarded.

Further reading

Recommended products 

Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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