How to Desensitize a Horse

Some horses seem to be able to handle any situation they face with relative calm. Then there are some horses who seem to get spooked when the wind blows a little stronger than expected. Every horse, even those who seem relatively calm, can benefit from training that helps to desensitize them from their fears.

The first step in knowing how to desensitize a horse is to form a relationship with the animal. You need to be able to understand the fears and anxiety that the horse faces. Once you can recognize what triggers the animal’s flight-or-fight mechanism, you can begin to work on the skills required to calm the horse down.

Once you’ve built up that relationship, you’ll be ready to take on these additional steps.

#1. Start from the ground up.

If your horse is afraid of deep or moving water, you wouldn’t just throw the animal into a raging river and hope for the best. You’d slowly introduce the elements of water to the horse one step at the time.

You might start with an introduction to the sound of rushing water. The noise of water movement may be the initial trigger for the horse’s anxiety. You’d then continue with the daily introduction of this sound until the horse became familiar with it without a negative reaction.

Then you might take the horse to the rushing water just so it can be viewed.

It might take a few minutes for a horse to grow comfortable with the obstacles that trigger anxiety. You don’t want to let them run away from it. You want to use your relationship with the horse to support the animal. Be there by their side and work to keep the adrenaline levels down. That will boost the learning success you’ll experience later on.

#2. Add pressure to all aspects of the horse’s body.

Horses often associate pressure with support. It’s sort of like how you feel when you’re having a bad day and get a hug from someone you care about. The pressure of the hug lets the brain reset so you can think outside of the stress that has been affecting you. The same reaction occurs with a horse.

The only problem is that you can’t really give a horse a whole body hug on your own. What you can do is work on desensitizing one area of the horse’s body at a time.

It usually works best to work from the ground up. Give him a good rub. Use various objects that make different sounds. Let the horse experience the different ways that things might rub up against its body and make sure the horse can hear the various sounds. Tarps, plastic bags, inflatables – they all can help to desensitize the horse.

Be patient with each object. You want the horse to be able to accept each different feeling before you move onto the next one.

#3. Ride through the fear.

Once you’ve given the horse an opportunity to experience different sensations, it’s time to put that resiliency to the test. You’ve introduced the various anxiety triggers to the horse. You’ve shown the horse that different sensations might happen, but that safety has always been present. Now you’re ready to give the horse a chance to ride through its fear.

Go easy at first. Some horses can have a rather short memory. They might balk at the idea of even walking toward a river, much less think about standing next to one. If you’re working on obstacles, take it slow and ride over them at a pace that seems comfortable for the horse.

After the first couple of times, try to increase the difficulty for the horse a little bit. Go faster. Stay longer. Jump higher. Sometimes the horse may refuse. You might see some anxiety begin to return. That’s when it’s time to take a break and play one of your horse’s favorite games.

Then return to the anxiety triggers. This may take several minutes, several hours, or several days depending on the level of fear the horse experiences. Once you feel that the horse has become comfortable with what you’re asking, then it is time to go to the next step. 

#4. Advance the technique.

One of the best tools that you can use to desensitize a horse is a smoke bomb. Here’s why smoke bombs are effective, no matter what the anxiety trigger may be.

  • It teaches the horse that it must be able to trust you as the rider because it may not be able to see where you want it to go.
  • The sound of a smoke bomb can sometimes be startling, which can help you measure how effective your training has been so far.
  • Smoke bombs are relatively inexpensive.

Start with two smoke bombs and place them far apart from each other. Then walk the horse through the smoke until it begins to relax. Then place the next set of smoke bombs closer to each other and repeat. Keep going until the horse stays relaxed no matter how thick the smoke happens to be.

You might find that some horses may refuse to even try walking through the smoke. This isn’t because the horse is demanding control. When there is an anxiety trigger, some horses prefer to bolt. Others prefer to stop and refuse to move.

If your horse refuses to move, then the best tactic to take is to re-establish the benefits of your relationship with the animal. Use a long and comfortable lead to show the horse that there is nothing to fear. Walk through the smoke with the horse instead of riding through it at first.

And if your horse is a bit unruly, having a rope that won’t tear up your hands or wearing a pair of gloves is a definite necessity. 

#5. Create your own obstacles without the horse knowing.

Ever had one of those curious horses who always seemed to be peering over your shoulder? That kind of behavior can actually be a symptom of fear. The horse wants to know what you’re doing to make sure that they can stay safe.

Once you’ve reached this step, the horse you’ve been working with has come to expect a certain routine. It knows what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go, so it can prepare for the events of the day ahead of time.

That really isn’t true desensitization.

So at this stage, you’ll want to begin building your own obstacles. Use items that you know could be a potential stress trigger for the horse. Create a short course that you can take with the horse that includes loud sounds, flares, smoke, and other items and then ride through it with the horse.

You may find the horse doesn’t want to go through some obstacles. If that is the case, don’t allow the horse to inspect the obstacle this time around. You want the horse to be able to handle the unexpected.

If your horse goes through with flying colors, then you’ve successfully desensitized the horse. If not, rearrange your course so that the route is different. The obstacles will still be familiar, but because the route is different, you can work on reducing the triggers that may be causing anxiety.

#6. Then pair up the horse with a coaching horse.

Horses are social creatures. They feed off of the attitudes and energy of the other horses that are around them. If you have a horse that is relatively calm in almost any situation, then consider using that horse as a coaching animal for the horse you’re attempting to desensitize.

The calming presence of the coaching horse will naturally ease the anxiety the other horse is experiencing. Horses also have a herd mentality, so when it is you, them, and another horse, there are natural defense mechanisms of herd thinking that can come into play. This can allow you to teach the skills to the horse that you want it to have. 

As a final step, you will want to focus on your own attitudes and mannerisms. If you are impatient, then the horse will be impatient. If you become angry, then the horse may experience an anxiety trigger. Keep all of your movements as controlled and relaxed as you possibly can. Be calm, but also be authoritative in a positive way. In doing so, you will be showing the horse that everything will be okay, even if it seems like nothing will be okay in that very moment. 

Horses are amazing creatures with an incredible ability to adapt. If you give a horse the skills it needs to handle a potentially scary situation, then it will take care of you to the very best of its ability. Knowing how to desensitize a horse properly will help to give the animal the skills that it needs. Follow these steps and the two of you will be able to get to work right away.