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Ask the Trainer: Desensitizing My Horse TO A Plastic Bag

My question is regarding my daughter's Quarter horse gelding and plastic. We can dress him in it, rub him down, throw it over him etc... without a care. We have been doing this for over a year. But each new day is like the movie Ground Hogs Day. He will go over after a couple minutes, but the next day he acts as if he has never seen it before. This does not work in the show ring.

I have tried taking him to different arenas and areas all over the farm. It always starts out the same way absolute shock and fear. Can you suggest something else? I know he could do very well in trail classes. He will do all object now except this one and if it's at the beginning of the class the class is blown. I would love to hear your advice. Thank you,  Very Frustrated Trail Horse Mom.
Samantha Harvey & TEC Answer:
Thank you for writing. The behavior you describe in your horse is quite common and I will attempt to offer you some thoughts on why your horse is doing what he is. Because I am unable to see you work with him I will try to explain the "whole" picture and not just addressing his particular issue.

Horses are incredibly adaptable creatures. Take a horse that has never seen a cow, leave him in a pen next to the cows overnight, and the next morning he and the cows will be standing side by side. But if you take that same horse, after that same night, and ask him to move the cows around, the horse might become rather insecure, worried or panicked. So as long as you allow the horse on his terms to address the cows he did, but when you asked something specific, his brain was unavailable to "hear" what you were offering, and so his reaction was worry.

Most people are satisfied if their horse tolerates what the person is offering, but many never "ask" or "hear" how the horse feels about it.

We recognize when our horses are having problems, but rarely do we do anything to influence changing how our horse "feels" about what is being asked of them.

Take the infamous tarp- leave it in one spot, take the worried horse and walk him past the tarp numerous times until he "tolerates" the tarp.

But what happens if you then move that same tarp 20 feet down the path?

You feel like you are starting all over. Why? Because you only asked your horse initially to "deal with" the tarp in one particular spot, and as long as he "survived" getting past it, you left him alone. Instead, why not ask him to change how he feels about the tarp. If he feels better or more secure or confident about the tarp, then it will not matter where you place it nor when, where or how you ask him to address it. So, how would I do to help my horse accomplish this?

First when we come near the tarp and he starts or as SOON as he shows signs of distress, I would ask him to stop and address the tarp.

Horses' natural defense mechanism and instinct is to flee when they are worried. So let's have him actually stop and look at the tarp. (You will be amazed at how many horses are worried about something but never look [literally] at what is bothering them.) Then depending on your background with ground work, you would ask your horse to address the tarp without being "led" you could either do this loose working him at liberty in a round pen (which I prefer) or with a lead rope (but not using it in a "dragging" manner.)

What you would like to assess is if you can you direct his brain, (as oppose to his movement,) to focus on the tarp. When he "tunes in" to the tarp, his curiosity will get the best of him and he will probably display the "suddenly" over confident (and lean in towards it) and then the "suddenly" insecure (wanting to turn and bolt away) behavior. Your goal is to build his confidence the more he addresses his fear. The more reasonable and "try" that he offers, the more you want to make him feel like he had done a great job. The best reward for horses that I have found is to give them a moment to just stand, relax and take it all in. Then they usually take a deep breath and let all of their feelings of stress out in a calm and quiet manner. They can learn that this is a better way to "diffuse" any worry, panic or fear, rather than resorting to their natural "brainless" reaction of running.

As you work with your horse and the tarp you will imagine that you can slow down time, so that nothing "suddenly" occurs. You will be watching for signs from his body that will tell you how he is feeling and what he is thinking.

Where are his ears? (They are indicators as to his thoughts towards the right and left.)

Where are his eyes? (Keep in mind each eye sees independently of one another and we want both eyes focused.)

How is his stance and weight distributed? (Is he standing square or with all four feet heading in four different directions in case he needed to "bolt"?)

How is the tension in his topline? (Is his neck and back shortened like an accordion?)

How are his lips? (Are they pinched and tight, moving like he is mumbling, or relaxed?)

How are his eyes? (Are there worry lines that look like "peaks" on the lid of they eye?)

How is his tail? (Tight, held at an angle, clamped to his hindquarters, or relaxed?)

How is his breathing? (Does he sound consistent, heavy, and tight in his stomach?)

Even if you think it may only be a "slight" concern, I would stop and continue to present my horse focusing on the tarp. You will feel like when you start he is going to consider EVERYTHING but the tarp.

Eventually you will help him narrow down his options until the only thing he focuses in on is the tarp. (This is where you will hear a huge sigh of relief from the horse. Many times they need us to "help" them find the right answer, not challenge them to it.)

Horse can be incredible at the lengths they will go to try and make something "work." The problem is people get greedy, the more a horse offers, the more the people want from the horse. This starts to create anticipation where the horse associates that if he "gives" or "tries" what the person wants, instead of feeling better about his effort, only more will be demanded of him.

But if he recognizes that the person's level of awareness and sensitivity towards his feelings is raised and that there is now a two way communication occurring, his respect, trust and level of try will increase. The more a horse's brain thinks about something and commits to it, the more relaxed his body will be when he actually physically accomplishes or addresses the task at hand.

This manner of working WITH the horse can be applied to any situation once it is clearly established that he needs to mentally try before he physically moves. Everything else will start to "fall into place".

This is when more complex or difficult tasks can be asked of the horse.

There should be no difference in our goal or asking a horse to step into a tire, trailer, water, over a bridge, stand on a bag, chase a cow, jump a fence, or ground tie. If his brain is available to consider and try what you are asking, he will accomplish the task at hand.
My goal in working with a horse is for the long term, rather than instant gratification, so that no matter what, at any time, anywhere, my horse's attitude towards me is "What would you like?" This will make both of us feel confident in our relationship AND avoid the all too common "surviving the ride" syndrome.

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