It’s Not About Desensitization


I don’t need my horse to be desensitized. I need him to have understanding. I need him to be able to discern when he IS supposed to respond to a thing, and when he is not.
Yes, you read that right. It’s NOT about desensitization, or at least, it is rarely about classic desensitization. This is one of those things, very important things, that we horsepeople, over time, have kind of oversimplified. When we take a concept like this (and another example is “collection”) and we oversimplify it, we can actually cross over into mis-information, where we’ve simplified something kind of complicated to where we lose the truth of the original concept. That’s what’s happened with desensitization, we’ve kind of oversimplified a fairly complex topic and now it’s a bit of a mess in our culture.

The truth is, if we teach our horse, “Ignore everything that happens”, then he’s going to be wrong 50% of the time. If we teach him, “Respond to everything that happens,” he also is going to be wrong 50% of the time. Because the truth of the matter is, ideally, a horse would be able to discern the difference between things meant for him, and things that are just happening and have nothing to do with him. And ideally, we, the human, would have a role in helping him to make that discernment.

Here are two definitions of “desensitization” from the online Mirriam-Webster dictionary:

1: to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent

2 : to make emotionally insensitive or callous specifically : to extinguish an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it

If a horse is truly frightened of something and it induces a true fear response in him (flight), we may need to “desensitize” him to it – by presenting it to him, and releasing or removing it when he is calmer, more accepting or “braver.”

But even then, if we do this incorrectly, if our releases are not well-timed, we can end up with a horse who is “standing scared”, who has been taught basically, “When you’re terrified, don’t move.” That is actually the opposite of what a prey animal would naturally do. When a prey animal is terrified, it is supposed to run away. If we teach a horse to “stand scared” and get stuck when they’re frightened, we’ve actually created another dangerous problem, because if that horse comes unstuck, it can be quite spectacular. Teaching a horse to “stand scared” only addresses the physical part of the horse, because the horse is still scared. Mentally, he’s no better off. The horse still feels bad.

Another way to think of desensitization is that it is a way to make a horse dull. A dull horse is not necessarily a quiet horse, a horse with lots of understanding, or a horse who is gentle. One of the other kind of complicated things about this deal with horses is that what they learn is not always the same as what we intended to teach them. We may have intended to make a quiet, gentle horse, when actually we accidentally tipped over the line and made him dull. Now he just ignores everything. And while that may make him a good “packer” for your in-laws when they come in to town once a year, it doesn’t make him soft, light, balanced or responsive. Basically, making a horse really dull makes it pretty hard for him to do anything with refinement or promptness, because the horse is no longer interactive enough to respond in a timely manner with energy and interest.

This is why it’s just not that simple. Practically speaking, what a horse really needs to know is that we are going to need him to respond to some things that happen around him and to him, and not to others. I don’t know how to make that any simpler. It is complicated.

I choose to think of it this way: “things” that happen, objects, whatever, around our horse are forms of energy. Horses feel energy. They wonder what to do with it, how to respond to it. So I want to teach my horse what to do with that energy. I want him to ask me what to do with that energy. There will be some things, like a dog running up behind us on the trail, where my horse will hopefully “ask”, “Hey, Kathleen, what about that dog back there?” That gives me the chance to say, “Horse, just let that energy go by. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

I practice this in many ways. I’m working on getting my horse “with me” all the time, I’m exposing him to challenges to that regularly, and most importantly, I’m actually TEACHING him the difference between energy that should mean something to him and energy that shouldn’t. I do this by sitting down with him, in many different contexts, and practicing this: energy that comes WITH a directive from me means something. Energy that has no directive from me along with it means nothing. Let it pass on by.

For instance, my flag. If I present the flag to my horse with neutral body language, neutral mental energy from me, and a neutral lead rope or rein, then it is just a flag. Let it go on by. But if I present the flag with active and directed body language, a plan and picture in my active mind, and a directing lead rope or rein, then that flag should mean a whole lot.

Here’s another practical example. Kids have a lot of energy. Say I’ve got a child visiting me and my horses, and they are SO STOKED to be seeing horses. They’re squealing and so excited! My horse checks in with me, I give no directive behind the energy of the child, and they let it wash over them. Maybe the next day, on the trail, I pass a man, with way lower energy than the kid from yesterday, but he moves toward us and tries to grab my horse’s rein. I take that energy from that man and I put LOTS of directive behind it and tell my horse, “Get us out of here, run!!!!!”

Horses who are not clear on this, who are responding when they’re not supposed to, or not responding when the ARE supposed to, are very confused horses. Confused horses are often stressed or anxious horses. This confusion is one of the most common reasons why horses are sent out to trainers for training. In my experience, sometimes it’s the ONLY reason the horse has been sent to the trainer, and it’s really the only thing that the horse is struggling with in his world. But it’s a basic concept that is going to come up all the time, in everything he does. So it’s a big misunderstanding when it’s misunderstood.

Horses are miraculous creatures. The same horse who can’t bear to let a fly land on him can stand next to a cannon in a Civil War re-enactment, or wade into a crowd of violent soccer hooligans or carefully carry around a client with mental/emotional short-circuits and muscle spasticity. Those horses aren’t unfeeling. They feel it, all of it. They have been trained, in a (hopefully) progressive manner, to understand what they are feeling and discern the difference between things meant for them and things not meant for them.

If we have a “sensitive” (I hate that word because they are ALL BORN SENSITIVE) or “over-reactive” horse, we need to understand that they may be responding too much to the things around them. When they don’t know what to do, they err on the side of caution and respond first and ask questions later. It is our job to moderate that in the horse, so he has a more practical and safe level of responsiveness.

By the same token, if we have a dull horse, we need to realize that he feels everything the over-reactive horse feels. He just errs on the side of caution by NOT responding. He doesn’t need a harsher bit or a sharper spur, or pepping-up supplements. He needs to understand, so he can respond more accurately to what he is feeling. He feels it, he’s just been “taught” not to respond.

I think of the sensitivity level in a horse like a light with a dimmer switch. It’s not on/off, it’s dark to bright and everything in between. In my daily interactions with my horse, I am either dulling him off or encouraging him to be more sensitive. That dimmer switch is always moveable, and I’m moving it even if I don’t know it. Every time I interact with my horse, I must manage the energy in me and my environment, and then I need to make sure that any energy I want the horse to respond to has a clear directive behind it. He needs to be absolutely SURE when something is meant for him. That’s when his response will be smooth, weightless and mentally calm and confident. And at last, that response won’t be despite us, it will be because of us and the understanding we built inside that horse.

10 thoughts on “It’s Not About Desensitization

  1. Sharon Savory June 10, 2019 / 6:55 pm

    Thank you! Great article. Given me a really good insights…


  2. MaryKaye June 11, 2019 / 3:29 am

    I think this is true of dogs as well. Most dog owners don’t want a dog that barks at everything, or one that barks at nothing. They want a dog that ignores the mailman and barks at the burglar; that is friendly to passers-by but growls and snaps at the mugger. But most dog owners have little idea how to get what they want, so we have a lot of dogs that don’t know what is expected of them, and make a lot of mistakes.


    • Maddy October 11, 2019 / 2:24 am

      Yes, this article zapped me right in the behind once I got a little ways into it, because it’s exactly the concept of “Leadership” that my dog trainer preaches, presented in a slightly different way. How I respond to something, for better or worse, tells my dog how to respond to it. I just have to teach my dog to listen to my responses- waitress walking up at the coffee shop is neutral/positive. Large man bolting up to me in a dark alley? NEGATIVE!


  3. Gina K June 12, 2019 / 1:26 pm

    I honestly think this is the best thing I’ve EVER read about horse training. (And I have read a LOT) It really is all we need to know to get along with a horse.


  4. Bolo Hunt June 14, 2019 / 5:11 pm

    The author apparently does not understand the proper concept of desensitizing/sensitizing or how to apply it.


  5. Paula Lawrence June 16, 2019 / 3:38 pm

    Great read!
    Thank you, Kathleen!


  6. Sarah June 19, 2019 / 11:39 am

    Fabulous. So helpful, thankyou.


  7. Erin June 22, 2019 / 3:37 am

    Great piece and timely. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “dull” horse, the “learned helpless” horse, and the horse that is a passive resister and how these three presentations tend to overlap quite a bit. All are created and all three conditions can cause quite the mess when the veneer cracks. Like smoke and mirrors much of what you think is there really is not. The dull horse who fears in place explodes one day, the learned helpless horse falls to physical pieces, or the passive resister tries to kick your head in when he finally can’t ignore you request. Geeking out over it all as usual


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