66 Issue 3 · 2013
In everything that you do with your horse, you're either sensitizing him
to pressure or desensitizing him to pressure. You are either asking him to
yield to pressure or to stand still and ignore pressure.
Sensitizing to Pressure
Sensitizing a horse teaches him to
yield and move away from pressure. Some
examples include: using active body language
to yield the horse's hindquarters, holding your
hands up to drive him out of your space, or
applying leg pressure when riding to signal the
horse to move forward.
To sensitize a horse, you apply pressure
and don't release the pressure until he moves
his feet. As soon as he moves his feet in the
way that you're asking him to, you'll immediately
release the pressure. Remember, horses learn
from the release of pressure, not pressure itself.
The faster you can release the pressure, the
quicker the horse will understand that he did the
Desensitizing to Pressure
Desensitizing a horse teaches him to ignore pressure, relax and keep
his feet still. Desensitizing is important if you want your horse to stand still
while being saddled, remain calm as you wave your arms or swing a rope,
accept flapping flags or plastic bags, etc.
To desensitize a horse, you apply pressure and continue to apply
pressure until he stands still and relaxes. When a horse relaxes, he'll do one
of five things. He'll lick his lips, lower his head and neck, cock a hind leg,
blink his eyes or take a big breath. When he shows one of these signs of
relaxing, you'll retreat and take the object away.
Balance the Two
I learned the importance of balancing sensitizing and desensitizing
exercises the hard way as a young boy. When I was thirteen, I went to my
first horsemanship clinic which was taught by Gordon McKinlay. At the clinic,
Gordon taught me ten groundwork exercises and ten riding exercises to gain
my horse's respect. He also showed me a few simple exercises I could use
to desensitize my horse. He made a point of saying that when I got home, I
should practice both the sensitizing and desensitizing exercises.
Well, when I got home, I only wanted to work on the things that I
thought were cool like the spins, the sliding stops, the sidepassing, etc. I
thought all the desensitizing exercises swinging the lead rope and stick
and string were boring and just for beginners. That was for people who
had nothing to do and all day to do it in. I was a thirteen year old boy who
loved action. I was playing polocrosse at the time and couldn't see how the
desensitizing exercises would benefit me and my horse. On the other hand,
having a horse that was fast and agile on his feet and could stop, rollback
and spin that, I could see helping me.
After the clinic, I was paranoid about not forgetting everything Gordon
taught me because back then, there were no videos or printed materials
with lesson information. I wanted to write everything down so that I wouldn't
forget the exercises. All I could find was an old envelope in the backseat
of the car, but I diligently wrote down each of the groundwork and riding
exercises so that when I went out to the barn to work with my horses, I could
take the envelope with me and remember what exercises to do.
After two weeks of working with my family's horses, I was absolutely
amazed at the results. They were becoming much more responsive. I could
get them to slide to a stop, spin really fast, collect and tuck their nose in,
sidepass, etc. My horses were actually starting to do all of the cool things I
had watched other people do with their horses for years.
The downside was that the horses were starting to get
jumpy and spooky. It didn't happen overnight, but it progressively
got worse. After two weeks, they were
a l m o s t
downright dangerous. I can
remember having them tied to
a tree, and I'd go to throw the
saddle pad on their back, and
they'd pull back and break the
halter and lead rope. Or, I'd lift
my foot to put it in the stirrup
and the horse would scoot
sideways and then take off
running. Or, I'd be sitting in
the saddle and somebody
would go to hand me my jacket, and
the horse would spook and bolt.
It was baffling to me because two weeks earlier, theses horses were
my family's backyard pets. They may not have been very responsive,
but there were absolutely bombproof. So I called Gordon and explained
the situation. The first thing he asked me was if I had been practicing the
desensitizing exercises. I admitted him that I hadn't and he advised me to
start incorporating the desensitizing exercises into my everyday routine.
Gordon didn't tell me how much desensitizing to do, he just said to do
more of it. I'm a "meat and potatoes" kind of person, and I like to be very
structured in the way I do things. So in between every exercise that I had
written on my envelope, I wrote "Desensitize."
When I went back to the barn to work with the horses, I made certain that
in between each sensitizing exercise, I practiced a desensitizing exercise.
After three days, I was amazed at the results. My horses continued to do all
of the cool things they were doing before, but now, all the spookiness was
completely gone. I had the best of both worlds. I had a horse that would
move and say, "Yes, sir!" whenever I asked. And I had a horse that would fall
asleep and relax anytime I wanted.
I learned very early in my career that if you only sensitize a horse to
pressure, he'll be respectful and move his feet anytime you ask him to. The
bad news is he'll be overly reactive. If you only desensitize a horse, he'll be
quiet and safe to be around, but when you ask him to move his feet, he'll
become resentful and act disrespectful. To get a well-trained horse that is
both responsive and safe, you have to balance between sensitizing and
A native Australian, Clinton
Anderson began his quest to become the best
horseman he could be by apprenticing under
nationally acclaimed Australian trainers Gordon McKinlay and Ian Francis. In
1996 Clinton moved to America to continue training horses and apprenticed
under Al Dunning, winner of multiple AQHA World Championships, before
beginning to train under his own name. Clinton loves training reiners and
cow horses and has been successful in both competitive arenas. Clinton is
the host of Downunder Horsemanship TV, the number one rated RFD TV
program that airs at 10 and 12 pm Eastern Standard Time on Tuesdays and
pm on Sundays.
To find out more about Clinton and how you can transform your horse into
the partner you've always wanted, log onto
by Clinton Anderson