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Sensitive to Movement

Hi Ed
I'm hoping you can shed some light on a situation I have with a 4 year old gelding.  I have waited, not so patiently, for him to be the right age to start under saddle. We have done what seems to be thousands of hours of groundwork and now I'm ready to get in the saddle. He is very light, almost too reactive to slight cues. I first started to realize that I may have a problem when I was teaching him to lunge. I used the end of the lead rope to motivate his back end when he was lazy about moving. Although I only popped him one time with that end, he became fearful of the lead rope. As a result, I desensitized him to the lead rope and started then to use a longe whip as an extension of my arm. I have never popped him with it or been aggressive with it, but he knows it replaced the lead rope as my "motivator" and he became fearful of the longe whip. Every time I came near him with it, he moved off.  I started seeing a pattern, so I desensitized him to the whip and just started using my arm and waving it to get him to move off. You can guess what comes next- now every time I flap my arm around him or move it vertically, even accidentally, he moves off. I'm a little frustrated with this over-zealous behavior and don't know how to overcome.

Hi Carmen,
Sounds like you have a very sensitive horse which can be a good thing for being responsive to your cues but you don't want him to be frightened and panic from everything that moves on or around him.  You've desensitized him to the lead rope and lunge whip but your desensitizing work has just begun.  To build your horse's courage, confidence and calmness, you need to do many more sessions of desensitizing using every scary thing you can find.  You don't want to be like the fellow who said, "Every time I wave at my neighbor my horse bucks me off."  The answer for him was - "he needs more neighbors."

Before starting desensitizing or de-spooking sessions make sure you have taught him several control exercises on the ground. You should be able to back him up, move his hindquarters and shoulders independently left and right. For a full description of our ground exercise program see our DVD, Six Keys to Harmony, at http://www.eddabney.com/video.htm  When he is responding lightly to your requests for all these movements then you are ready to progress to de-spooking with a hope of being able to control him during the process.

  When working on de-spooking you should be in a round pen or small paddock with good, safe fences.  Have him on a halter and a 12 foot lead rope and allow him to move his feet in a circle around you.  Keep tipping his nose back toward you so he stays bent around you.  If he moves his nose away from you he can run away or drag you around the corral.  Start your de-spooking with just a towel.  It moves but doesn't make noise.  Keep it small in your hand and use it to rub him like a brush.  Bring it first to his withers then branch out to his neck, shoulder and top line.  This is the place that a horse can most easily accept a new item touching them.  This is the area where horses touch each other for mutual grooming.  Don't go to the nose first.  Horses are often frightened there by a new smell or something touching their sensitive muzzle. 

Stand near his shoulder.  If you are on his left side keep the lead rope fairly short and coming across your left palm and crook of your thumb with your hand open and rubbing him on the upper neck.  This keeps your left elbow high to block him from biting you plus your open hand rubbing his neck is a reassuring touch for him and you will be able to feel when he tenses up.  Your lead rope is in your left hand with very little slack between your hand and the halter so if he gets scared and starts to leave you can turn his nose back toward you and have him circle around you instead of bolting away.  With your right hand you will be rubbing the scary item on him with slow easy rhythm and lots of retreat, taking it away when he is standing calmly accepting it.  Use lots of approach and retreat with the scary items.  When he is calm with it then slowly let the towel, bag, etc. become larger and move faster.  Do all this on both sides of the horse.  Do not flop it over to his other side unless you have already introduced it over there otherwise he may be frightened seeing it from his other eye and jump toward you. 

Your goal in all de-spooking is that you never frighten him to the point that his feet move.  Your job is to build his courage and to increase his trust in you, not to make him afraid.  This means you must go extremely slow and small with lots of retreat when he is calmly accepting.  If he becomes frightened and begins to move then you made a mistake by letting the item move too fast, be too loud or too big.  If he does move away then you must keep the item in generally the same position it was in when he moved so he learns that moving away does not make the scary item disappear.  Only standing calmly makes the scary item disappear.  In all horse training the learning is in the release so if you take the scary item away when he moves then you have taught him to bolt.

Progress through numerous sessions of de-spooking gradually working up to scarier items - a small plastic bag, a larger plastic bag or feed bag, a slicker, a bag of cans, a tarp, a flag, aluminum foil, plastic jug with rocks, an umbrella, etc.  With every item start over slowly with it bunched up small in your hand rubbing him with it first at the withers then gradually rub him all over with every item.  The last areas you would approach would be the face, legs and belly.  Gradually become faster and more casual with the item but use lots of retreat.  Don't focus on the item.  Stay focused on him, talking calmly to him and rubbing him on the neck with your lead rope hand.  Use your imagination and try to introduce as many scary items to him as possible.  You can't show him everything he might ever encounter but you can teach him how to trust you and how to handle his fears.  For a full description of our de-spooking program see our DVD, Foundation Training, at http://www.eddabney.com/video.htm  Please note - Never tie anything to the horse or saddle that you want to use for de-spooking because then if he gets away from you the scary thing is attached and chasing him. 

This is a vital part of foundation training for your horse.  It's tedious but if you devote the time to properly de-spooking your horse your efforts will pay great dividends later in a calm horse and safe rides.

Enjoy the Journey,

Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe.  In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza.  Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.

His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines.  Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.

Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.