The Myth of Desensitizing

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

Is it really effective? Is it really necessary?

Blaine the Amazing Belgian. From spooky to calm in two days.

This is Blaine. When I met him he was in trouble. For shying, for pulling back, for “tearing down the barn” to get at another horse.

He was locked up in the barn by himself, for kicking that horse while both were in the paddock. He had pulled back and tore out a whole section of fence.

The woman who called me, lets say her name is Peggy, told me that her husband and son wanted to sell Blaine. They thought he wasn't worth much. Too much trouble. They were mad at him for the above mentioned “bad” behavior.

But she knew that Blaine had potential, and she didn't want to sell him, so she called me.

At our first meeting, Blaine was tied to a trailer and had just pulled back, tying the ropes so tight that his owner couldn't get them undone. In working with the two of them in our first hour, I could see that Blaine was high headed and easily distracted. He like to “go inside” to wait out what ever was going on, then something would catch his attention, and he would spook. However, his spooks were not very big, nor did they last very long.

In our phone interview, Peggy mentioned that he would pull back, and have strong reactions when she was leading or riding him. She wanted to feel safe around him and feel that she could ride him without having him freak out at something and shy or bolt. One of her goals with him was to train him to drive so he can pull a wedding carriage.

She also mentioned that he is a “big baby” and wants to get in your lap. Her husband and son are horse people of the old “force em to do what you want” school. They think she should get rid of the horse. She thinks he has the potential to be good horse and she does not want to interact with Blaine in that way.

She wanted a kinder gentler heart centered approach. She sensed that she would be in danger if she “got in a fight “ with him. She wanted to desensitize him so that he wouldn't react to the things that he does.

Large horses like this often are given up on because they can physically shy or bolt and humans cannot physically restrain them, so changing a horse like this requires both horse and human to learn to stay calm and think.

After we untied him and took him into the aisleway, I made some observations. He is a high headed guy, and high headed equals high strung. He his eyelids hang over his eyes like roofs and indicate that one of his go to states of being is to “go inside” - a state of being which is just as “not present” as high headedness. His lips are very mobile, and when he is anxious or uncertain he purses his lips and sticks them out like a duck. All indicators of an unfocused horse with lots of fears and little self confidence.

Two students lead a horse through a new challenge using the "magic wand"

I really wanted to give his owner some effective and quick tools to change Blaine's way of being and give both of them more balance, confidence and harmony. I taught her how to stay in her own space and keep Blain in his own space using a “magic wand” to define their respective space, and give him visual cues. And I taught her how to stroke him with the wand to calm him and create new neural pathways.

Desensitizing is conducted by confining the horse in some way and then confronting him with something scary – say a plastic bag – letting him respond, then waiting till he calms, then repeating, until his first response is to stay calm.

This cycle is repeated with various things until the horse has gone through a number of scary things and has learned that they are not necessarily that scary. This certainly can work, however, it puts the horse and handler through repetitive perceived and real danger unnecessarily. It also requires lots of repetitions with various objects.

If you are out on the trail with your horse and he perceives something as a danger, you may not be able to convince him that it is safe without going through that whole panic/calm down thing. This can be manageable if you are an experienced, confident and calm rider. If you are a novice, not so much.

What if, instead of desensitizing, we teach the horse to think and assess with out going through all that panic/recovery? What if we literally help the horse to override the flight response by giving him new neural pathways that keep him grounded and present? What if we teach him to stay in his own space so that he can be present and process whatever is happening without anxiety?

Here's what happens, in a very short amount time the horse's self confidence and balance improve dramatically. Practically, this means he stops trying to break away, he stops walking or jumping on top of you, he is less and less reactive to fewer and fewer things. The owners confidence and balance improve dramatically as THEY learn to stay calm, keep their own space, and be more present with the horse's emotional signals.

The result is greater safety and harmony between horse and owner. This carries through into riding, as the horse is more willing to be present and listen to your signals, and as the rider is more present and emotionally balanced. Once again, the greater result is harmony.

By Blaine's second session, two days later, he was able to stay present most of the time. He never shied at anything, and his owner was able to keep him in his own space most of the time. Without panic, anxiety, shouting, slapping or violence. Even though his owner is a novice and had never experienced Whole Horsemanship before. I think that is very effective and efficient horsemanship.

To me the myth of desensitizing is that doing so will make a calmer horse. My perception and experience says that it will make him less likely to react mindlessly to things he has been desensitized to, but not necessarily to things he hasn't been desensitized to. That it takes a lot of repetition and exposure to danger, but doesn't necessarily build balance, confidence and harmony throughout the the horse and owners relationship.

You can choose a methodology that builds more self confidence, balance and harmony throughout the entire horse and owner experience. You can choose a methodology that increases the trust and connection without going through unnecessary fear. And in choosing this, you get to have less anxiety, more safety, and more fun!

Learn these methods first hand! Attend a workshop or retreat, or better yet, host one! Subscribe to our blog or contact Penny at, or call 512-917-1866.

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