This is a topic which frustrates me immensely and I hope that this discussion will shed some light on the confusion currently created by the modern NH movement. 90% of the work on “desensitisation” you find on youtube and in NH media is not desensitisation at all, but flooding. People do not generally like the term “flooding”, because flooding takes the choice away from the horse in training and has a negative connotation. I will receive arguments for this, so I hope to be extremely clear. Flooding is what you see done by Monty Roberts with his trucking demonstrations. Flooding is what is advocated by Pat Parelli and mostly every wannabe cowboy out there. Flooding has its place, but flooding and desensitisation are under no circumstances synonymous.
The trainer in this video shows flooding very nicely. He explains how the stimulus is only removed once the horse stops reacting to it. Once a certain level of “acceptance” is achieved, he increases the intensity of the stimulation in order to test the horse’s ability to not react. He further explains that he clears up confusion in the horse about when the whip means “move” and when it means “stand still” by where his body is facing. We have discussed this before, about where your energy comes from, however, merely facing your body away from the horse is still confusing to them. There should be a clear difference in intention, breathing, heart rate, projected energy and visualisation, as well as movement in order to help the horse understand.
I digress (see, the topic frustrates me. I am explicitly aware of my humanity at this very moment). Flooding is the practice whereby a horse is presented directly with an object or stimulus they fear and no reaction is accepted by the handler except for total submission or apparent total relaxation. Example; Charlie Brown used to never want to be caught. In frustration, his owner at the time decided to punish Charlie and “get him over his fear” by securing him to a tree and “sacking him out”. Example; my newest young horse is a skittish fellow. During one of his numerous rebackings, one of the trainers decided to desensitise him by tying plastic packets to his saddle and setting him free in the lunge ring to “get used to scary things”. Flooding does not provide the horse with comfort or choice. Flooding results in frozen horses. Frozen horses have fear. The depth of this fear and the likelihood of its reappearance depends largely on the horse.
Desensitisation, however, is an art which not many are able to effectively employ without resorting to flooding. Desensitisation involves a process of trust and relationship, of communication and understanding. It cultivates curiosity and reads the horse and adapts, rather than expecting the horse to conform. Again I will receive argument for this. But desensitisation involves getting a horse used to something they’re afraid of, they’ll argue. Correct. The difference between desensitisation and flooding is not what they aim to achieve, but rather HOW they do so. So how do we really desensitise horses?
Start with yourself. Can you move your horse’s feet in any direction, without emotion, without defensiveness and without force? Is your horse interested in you? Do you know what motivates your horse? Does your horse know a signal for a job well done? Can you call your horse to you without the use of ropes or leads? Does your horse want to stay with you, and for how long? Is the thing that is scaring your horse actually scary for you as well or are you able to show your horse that it is something interesting rather than scary? Once you feel confident about these questions, you can think about bringing your horse into calm curiosity rather than forcing them to deal. Horses are led by example. If our example makes no sense to them, they cannot follow it. If however we project clarity, will and relaxation, and we have an established relationship of trust with them, they often feel like they can do as we do.
Here is what will totally blow the minds of every NH follower and extremist out there…the scary thing can (and should) be taken away at any time, not only when a horse “yields”. The horse doesn’t have to do anything to “get a reward”. When we are dealing with paralysing fear in an animal, the last thing they are thinking of is how to please us. So why stress them out? Show them that the scary object will go away and come back and it’s no big deal – you don’t HAVE to do anything, but you are also free to react and free to return.
Desensitisation involves not forcing the stimulus to touch the horse’s body until said horse has first chosen to investigate and touch the object themselves. Desensitisation is a slow path because it demands much of the handler. It requires you to read and truly know the horse, to have empathy and to be able to ignite a sense of adventure and exploration in a horse. Desensitisation is not popular because it does not have steps laid out to be followed by millions of users at home (maybe it does. Maybe one day it will). It requires tact and feel and it is not the best way to demonstrate your capabilities as a trainer in a “backing a horse from scratch in 30mins” type situation. However, curious, confident horses have so much more to offer than horses that have been shut down in order to fit the system.
Charlie Brown, in the ten years I knew him, never did get over that incident of sacking out. People who knew him thought it was a miracle that I could blanket him in the paddock with no constraints while he stood still, but I could feel his fear every time. He stood because he knew I understood. He knew I would not let him experience something like that again. Thoughtless mistakes by clients in his past meant that he had many hair-raising experiences in his lifetime, but in his old age he did try to show some curiosity and he offered more and more of himself as he grew in confidence.
As for my new boy, all he saw was how a human stood helpless and stared at him while he ran around the lunge ring in blind fear for an hour. In his eyes, his life was in danger and the human did nothing to help. In his eyes, he was all alone and had to run blindly in order to survive. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but I do know I have a lot of work ahead convincing him that I will be there if he needs me, that he can be brave and that freezing, fighting and fleeing is not the answer, even if it is understandable. For horses like this, the “system” does not work. It just doesn’t. Repetition of the same work, gradually increasing in intensity, will not get through to them. They need to truly believe that they are safe. Safe to explore and safe to connect. They need someone who doesn’t “talk” to them, but rather, for once, someone who listens.
This is what curiosity looks like and this is what desensitisation should be (apart from the obvious coltish behaviour 🙂 ):