I covered desensitization very lightly back when I answered this question, but of course there is a lot more to say on the subject. Desensitization is an important element of groundwork, but it is also something important not to overdo. While ideally your horse should not be afraid of any of your equipment, I’ve encountered horses that were desensitized to the point where you could run at them aggressively swinging a rope at them and they wouldn’t budge, which can be a very dangerous situation. You want to be able to use your rope or whip as an extension of your arm- nothing more or less, just an extension for your arm so that you can reach places that would be challenging or even dangerous to go to with your own arm. Using that logic, contrary to a common thought, a whip, rope, or flag is never anything to be actually truly feared by a horse on its own. You want the horse to treat your equipment as a part of you, so if he crosses you, you can use it to correct him. Just as there are times when you might slap a horse for dangerous misbehavior or aggression, you should be able to slap him with a whip or rope because, as stated, it is just an extension of your arm.
Desensitization has several different meanings, purposes, and methods, but they are all closely related. When you desensitize a horse to something, you are getting him used to allowing that object to be in his space and in most cases, to touch him all over his body without becoming fearful, upset, or uncomfortable and simply holding still and staying relaxed but ready to move if you should ask him to do so. The most common type of desensitizing I see done is simply with the same rope or whip used for more active training work (like directing and driving, short lunging, and disengaging) and its purpose is to get the horse comfortable with the equipment as well as getting him used to being touched all over his body in general. It is also common to desensitize a horse to something like a plastic bag (sacking out) because it is something most horses find very scary yet it’s something they will encounter a lot in life. Getting a horse used to being around a large scary object (like a tractor, a river, or a spooky hole in the ground) is also a form of desensitization. You will find that all of these different categories require patience, pressure and release, and a relaxed state of mind. It is extremely important not to become frustrated with your horse during any desensitizing process because that nervous energy only makes the horse feel more anxious and insecure. I would recommend trying to avoid entering into a situation requiring desensitizing work when you’re in a bad mood or feeling short-tempered.
When entering into the process of desensitizing (or any groundwork training, really) I always recommend being in an enclosed space of a reasonably small but functionally large space with a training halter and lead i.e. a rope halter with roughly a 12’ lead. There are times, of course, when that equipment won’t be available at the moment, but just do your best with what you have handy in those cases.
Begin standing away from any walls in the safest ground position (illustrated again here) facing your horse. Hold the lead in your left hand with enough slack that you won’t pull him at all as you move around but tightly enough to control him if need be. This hand should be slightly raised in a defensive position, because if he should come towards you with his front end you will raise this hand and pop him with your palm, aiming for the side of the front of his neck, near his jaw, avoiding hitting the throat or eyes, ears, or delicate nasal passages on the face. If you must strike him in the face, aim only for the cheek. Be prepared to use this, because if he becomes very afraid he may attempt to come over the top of you and you must make it very clear immediately that that answer is wrong and dangerous. Be as aggressive as necessary with this correction without going crazy on him. Remain calm, apply the correction, and then resume casually. As you go through any desensitizing process, you want to have a confident but extremely calm and casual demeanor. You want to send out energy equaling the reaction you want from your horse, which is calm, collected, not the least bit upset or worked up over what’s going on. I’ll often stand with one leg cocked and slouch slightly in order to really thoroughly portray and get into the required feeling of being relaxed, nothing out of the ordinary going on here.
The first example I would like to cover would be desensitizing your horse to your rope (or whip) for the purpose of familiarizing him with it and getting him used to being touched all over his body. For the example I am going to use a rope for simplicity and because it’s my personal preference, but it can only really be properly done with a training lead around 12’ long with a leather popper on the end, so if you don’t have something like that, substitute in a whip for safety and efficiency purposes. While standing in the safe zone with the lead held as described, take the tail of the lead in your right hand and position it so that there is enough slack between each hand to move your hands freely. You want to have a long tail remaining that you can manipulate and throw freely all over the horse. Be careful not to actually hurt the horse at all with the rope, and if you do on accident, stop for a moment, give him a pet and apologize, then causally move on. You do not want to desensitize the horse to being hit, so don’t give any negative reaction for him moving off of that pressure, take a moment to clarify that that’s not what’s being worked on, and move on as though it never happened. In order to help properly manipulate the rope as you intend to, you might want to try practicing on something other than your horse first to get a feel for how to throw it and swing it in a way that won’t cause a hard hit and will travel the distances needed. To get the rope to travel straight and far in a particular direction, begin with it as straight and far BEHIND, in the exact opposite direction, as it can go, then swing or toss the rope to where you want it to go. I often hold the rope lightly in my open hand with it resting on the top of my thumb and ring fingers (the rope would pass underneath the first and middle fingers, not above.) That’s what’s worked for me, but other methods may be more comfortable for different people. Try to get the hang of the proper motion before working on your horse. With practice you can easily toss the whip exactly where you want it then with just a flick of the wrist, pull it back into the optimum position to be thrown again. You will need to work on both your throwing technique and how long you need the tail to be to reach different distances. You want to try swinging the rope around something (I often just used fence posts) so that it lands lightly on top and slowly and gently wraps around the object, then swings back.
For simplicity I’m going to describe this all taking place on just one side of the horse, but it is very important to do this on both sides so that the horse reacts exactly the same way on both sides. I usually advise switching between the sides with each section of the body.
The part of the horse you must always, always start with is the back, near the withers. Horses are generally least sensitive about things being tossed around that area (and if they’re not, they need to be), so it’s the best starting place. Start by gently swinging the rope over the horse’s back, keeping a hold of it still with your right hand. If he gets started or moves away, follow him casually and keep on swinging it over until he makes some kind of improvement, whether it be stopping his feet or lowering his head a bit. The very moment he improves, stop swinging and release all pressure. I would heavily advise a lot of relaxed praise and a lot of stopping, turning away from him, and walking away a few steps without pulling him after you (the ultimate release because there is no pressure on him whatsoever), keeping a hold on the lead but letting it slip through your hands so that you’re not asking him to follow (even though many horses will.) Stand facing away from him for a moment and then calmly turn back to him to start again, with a quick scratch of the withers or whatever else your horse likes or recognizes as praise. That is what I’m referring to when I talk about “walking away” hereafter, and I recommend it after every bit of progress, but it is not necessary to keep on doing if the horse is not making a big improvement, like if you toss the rope over his back for the first time and he stays calm. If that is the case, just move on to the next step immediately.
Continue with the same swinging over the back until he is relaxed (not tense, not flinching, not moving away, head at a calm level, eyes soft) and then try tossing the lead completely over his back (keeping the same hold with the left hand but throwing it as far as you can completely out of the right hand). Once he accepts that, move on to the same steps with his hindquarters. After the hindquarters, try the neck, maybe even allowing the rope to slowly and gently wrap itself once around the neck before swinging back. After that, do the front legs, swinging it around both legs and each individual leg if you can. Swing the rope pretty much anywhere you can think of after that point, be creative, make sure you can calmly toss it anywhere and he will be okay.
When it comes to things like a whip, stick, flag, rake, or even a plastic bag (to be attached to the end of a stick without a tail, I usually use a whip with a very short tail I can use to tie to the handles of the bag, dressage whips or Parelli-style sticks without strings attached also work well), the method is very similar but different in a few ways. First, especially when working with something the horse is very afraid of, offer the item held up underneath the horse’s nose in a non-threatening way for him to sniff at. If he sniffs it, consider that a huge step in the right direction and offer a huge release. Once the item is allowed nearby, begin in the same area, the top of the back, but just rub or pet the horse with it rather than swinging or tapping. Follow the same procedure, giving a lot of release and moving around the horse’s body. With this format it is a lot easier to touch the horse all over his whole body with the stick. Continue just rubbing, do not tap at all, because that is considered pressure that you actually want the horse to respond to. If you are working on a plastic bag I would recommend going through the process with the bag both intact and then again with a hole torn out of the bottom of it because it behaves so differently.
It is a little bit trickier to desensitize a horse a large object like a tractor, water tank, or windmill. The method of approaching this type of desensitization is a lot different because you can not just take the item away as a release, you must move the horse away, and on top of that of course you can’t rub the horse with it. Begin by just confidently yet casually leading the horse up to the object. If he stops, urge him to take a step forward, and if he does, praise him highly and release. Try to encourage him to sniff the object, then lead him away. Try to get him to stand calmly near the object without prancing around or trying to run off, then lead him away. Try to walk around the object, then lead him away. Keep encouraging him to sniff as much as he pleases. Don’t drill it into him, as these things do take time. Walk away on a good note.
If it is at all possible, try to make the object a regular part of his life. The best way to do this is to put it near to where he lives or someplace you can turn him out, if that’s at all possible. Try to lead him up to it and/or past it on a very regular basis. If he’s not totally panicked and torn apart inside over it, try feeding him near it, or try grooming him near it. Being near it on a regular basis alone should be enough to get him used to it after awhile.
Teaching a horse to be comfortable crossing water can be challenging as well. Again, calmly but confidently lead him up to the river, as though you assume he will just stroll through it. If he stops to drop his head, let him, as this is how he is investigating and gauging whether he’s about to step into a bottomless pit. Try to keep him faced up to the water, facing him back up to it if he tries to turn away or gets distracted. When you see progress, lead him away. Try to get him to take a step into the water. Pull and urge him on until you at least see him slightly lift a leg, as this is a solid try. Praise heavily and lead him away. After he is regularly lifting a leg, get him to step in. The exact moment that his hoof touches the water, praise him and lead him away. Build up very slowly in this manner, requiring him to get at least as far as he did the time before each time. Sometimes horses will get scared and hugely regress, flat out refusing to touch on the level they had previously reached. If this happens, just try to get at least part of the way to where you were before, before releasing. Eventually he should walk through.
It also helps a lot to have other horses with you that are familiar with water crossing or are at least braver than your horse. Because of their herd mentality, horses are usually quicker to pick up on these things if they see another horse doing it. In some cases it helps to try to be that other horse for him yourself, but not all horses will see it the same way. Still, do not expect him to charge right through just because another horse did.
Hopefully this does well as a summary of some of the basic principles of the desensitization process and I would definitely encourage anyone to ask any questions at all or request any further elaboration on anything, as well as recommending anything that I didn’t cover. If anyone does so, I will both post it in a new post and add it to this guide.
As usual, thank y’all a ton for reading and bearing with me! Or perhaps horseing with me?
Buckets and bales.