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When Winter Weather Keeps You Out of the Saddle, by Clinton Anderson

For a lot of horsemen, winter weather means being left with no place to ride, which means a lot of us end up not working with our horses at all. But even in the dead of winter, you don’t have to completely abandon your horsemanship. Here’s an idea to continue building on your horse’s education that doesn’t require you have an indoor arena and will ensure your horse is calmer and safer when you are able to get back to riding: desensitize your horse to shavings bags or feed bags.

When winter weather keeps you off your horse’s back, take the time to desensitize him to common objects lying around the barn. What is an object? An object is anything that doesn’t live in your horse’s stall or pasture. If it lives in your horse’s stall or pasture, it’s not an object because he spends so much time around it, he becomes desensitized to it. Horses are especially scared of objects that move and make a noise, and I guarantee that you have plenty of them lying around your barn. It’s important to desensitize your horse to as many objects as you can because it’ll make him calmer, more respectful, and get him to use the thinking side of his brain. Two of the most common objects in the barn that horses are scared of are shavings bags and feed bags. Not only are they objects, but they also make a noise that frightens most horses.

The best way to get a spooky horse to accept objects and gain confidence in himself is to use the Approach and Retreat Method. You’ll approach the horse with what is scaring him and keep that object there until he stands still and relaxes. You’ll know the horse is relaxed when he shows you one of six signs:

  1. he’ll take a deep breath
  2. cock a hind leg
  3. lower his head and neck
  4. lick his lips
  5. blink his eyes
  6. or stand still for 15 seconds

Once the horse stands still and relaxes, you’ll take the object away and retreat.

If a horse is really worried about what you’re trying to desensitize him to, the last thing you want to do is go toward him with the object. Instead, retreat and go away from him. Remember, the opposite of fear is confidence. You’re always a lot more confident when you’re following something or chasing something, as opposed to having something chase you.

The first step is to walk away from the horse with the bag either attached to the end of the Handy Stick or held in your hand. You’ll slap the ground with the bag from side to side about 10 feet in front of your horse and walk away. In the beginning, the horse will probably be reluctant to want to follow you ““ he’ll drag on the lead rope and be a little bit worried about the bag. It’s no big deal, just keep walking forward, slapping the ground with medium energy from side to side. Basically, you’re trying to tell the horse, “Look, see this bag? It’s going away from you. You don’t need to be
worried about it because it’s running away from you.”   The longer you do this, the more confident the horse will get. Encourage him to follow you and investigate the bag. You might let the bag drag behind you on the ground. A lot of horses will actually try to touch the bag with their nose.

Once you’ve built your horse’s confidence by letting him “chase” the bag, continue on with the desensitizing lesson by approaching and retreating the bag near his body. Stand at a 45-degree angle facing your horse’s shoulder, an arm’s length away. This will keep you in a safe position because you’ll be too far to the side to get struck with a front leg and too far forward to get kicked by a hind leg.

When desensitizing a horse to an object, start by desensitizing the airspace around him. If the horse can’t handle the object being next to his body, he won’t be able to handle it on his body. Wave the bag next to the horse’s body. How close you can bring the bag to the horse depends on the individual. With one horse you may have to start with the bag 10 feet away from him, and with another horse you may be able to bring the bag within 6 feet of his body. Wave the bag with rhythm, and when the horse stands still and relaxes, take the bag away. Then wave it again, bringing it a little closer. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you establish a starting point and gradually bring the bag closer to the horse’s body. Once the horse can tolerate the bag 4 feet away from him, then bring it 3 feet away from him until eventually, you can move the bag up and down right beside his body.

It’s common in the beginning for the horse to want to run away and get defensive because he’s using the reactive side of his brain. If your horse does, remember to keep his two eyes on you by bumping on the halter and following him wherever he goes. He might make you think he can back up forever, but he really can’t. Keep following him while moving the bag in a rhythmic motion towards him.

When the horse is good with the bag being waved next to his body, you can start to rub it on his body. When you bring an object to the horse’s body, always start with his topline first ““ his withers, back, hindquarters and neck. From there you’ll move onto his flank, under his belly and finally his head. Save the horse’s head until last because that’s where he’s the most sensitive.

When you begin to slap the horse’s body with the bag, remember to stand at a 45-degree angle to his shoulder and use rhythm. If he goes to move, keep the same motion in your hands and follow him until he stands still and relaxes. Once he’s standing still and relaxed, retreat and rub him. Then approach him again. After you have one side of the horse’s body desensitized to the bag, move onto his other side. Remember, when you switch sides you switch brains so you’ll have to start from square one.

Finally, you can desensitize the horse’s head to the bag. Stand at a 45-degree angle to his shoulder, an arm’s length away, and desensitize the airspace around his head first. Wave the bag back and forth around his face until he stands still and relaxes. Remember, how close you can initially bring the bag to his head depends on how frightened your horse is. Once he is confident with the bag being in the airspace around him, begin to lightly rub the bag on his face. If he looks away, bump two eyes back on you, and continue to approach him until he continuously stands still and relaxed. Don’t stand directly out in front to desensitize him until he accepts it really well on both sides of his body.

You can use the same principles I described to desensitize your horse to any object you want””clippers, spray bottles, etc. and by the time spring rolls around, you’ll have a quiet, calm and confident partner.

[Written by Clinton Anderson & published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 5, Issue 1.]

Have you ever tried the Approach & Retreat Method?

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