The barn where Robbye is boarded is a small, private farm about ten miles outside of the city. I am so lucky to have an incredible facility: indoor and outdoor with great footing , impeccable care, no drama, and a clean and safe environment. But we only have 11 horses total, and my club of three compromises a full half of the boarders.
What I’m trying to get at is that we don’t get the kind of bustle that a big barn does. We had, until last week, only one trainer, who usually comes once a week. We don’t all haul to shows together. Usually there are only one or two of us riding at a time, or even in the barn at a time. And we have never hosted any events.
That made last weekend even more special: my club-mate, Kathy, and our barn owner, Carolyn, organized a clinic at our farm!
We ended up having 11 horses and half dozen or so auditors for a three hour clinic on desensitization. The clinician was a local trainer named Helge (pronounced like “Helga”), who is a trainer popular with the trail riders because of his natural horsemanship-inspired trail rides. He emphasizes confidence above all else while riding, which many re-riders obviously appreciate.
Other than the bad rap it gets on CotH, this clinic was actually my first experience with natural horsemanship. I have to say: I was very pleased with Helge. Generally his techniques lined up with what I have learned from dog training (I have much more experience training dogs than I do horses), which I found particularly interesting. The parallels between training predator and prey aren’t usually that obvious, in my experience.
At one point, he was teaching the clinic how to back their horses. The ask happens in four steps, Helge says:
- Hold the lead rope slack in one hand the the training stick in the other. Face the horse’s chest and ask for the back by waving the stick between your hip and chest.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the slack portion of the lead rope with the training stick.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the metal snap of the lead rope with the training stick.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the horse in the nose with the training stick.
If at any point in the process the horse backs, there is an immediate release. And, Helge emphasized, the transitions between the steps have to be abrupt and obvious – he believes that faking out the horse, or failing to commit to an ask, is not fair to the horse.
He also understands that of course no one wants to hit their horse – or even tap him on the nose. His rebuttal is that he’d rather hit the horse once and teach the lesson, never having to do it again, than ask half-assed every single time. One, assertive, dominant ask.
Helge used many different “toys” to demonstrate desensitization: a giant ball, a bull whip, balloons and flags, a firing gun, a pipe with empty rattling cans, and more. The approach to familiarization was the same for each toy, however. First of all, the handler must always be calm and confident. Second, if at all possible have the horse follow the scary toy. This makes the toy less intimidating, since it’s not chasing the horse, and also encourages the horse’s curiosity. Finally, a release is always granted immediately after the horse moves toward or accepts the scary situation.
I think my main takeaway lesson from this clinic is that horses are a lot less flighty than we expect; in a comfortable environment with a calm, confident handler, even something that we, as humans, expect to be scary to a horse is really…not a big deal. There were zero equine freak outs at this clinic. Several miniscule spooks, a couple of hairy eyeballs, but no drama. Even at the gunshots.
The clinic was an excellent example of a horse taking his behavioral cues from his handler. If these handlers could replicate their demeanors in a saddle and in a strange place, they’d have virtually bomb proof horses. This is a lesson I’ve been trying to learn for three years now, especially since I’m an anxious person with a mare who is particularly sensitive to me. This clinic was incredible proof that the lesson is valid.
(And it was a great party, too – I can’t wait to have another one at “home”!)