Why I Don't Desensitize
Bring on the NH crazies, but I don’t desensitize horses anymore. I de-fear them. Yes, it sounds like a stupid particular word usage, but to me, the difference is important.
Desensitizing focuses on making a horse not care at all about things a regular horse might deem “scary”. I really desensitized horse wont flinch when a tarp blows towards him, or when a small child runs out from behind a bush. He won’t flick an ear towards a loud siren, just stand with a dull look in his eyes while humans carry on around him.
A de-feared horse is interested. He’s aware of the things going on around him, and wants to explore them. He isn’t afraid to express his apprehension because his human partner has helped him understand how to do that in safe and subtle ways. He has confidence in his partner to lead him through, and confidence in his own problem-solving abilities where he may get stuck. This horse might start when a child runs out, but then approaches the child with curiousity and gentleness. He might stick his head in the air when a tarp flies at him, but after a few loud snorts realize he has nothing to be afraid of.
I am constantly striving to build a truly working and willing partner. Not a robot who obeys my every command and is dead to the outside world while around me.
One of my favorite examples of this is an amazing ranch horse I got to ride a while ago. We were loping across the open space of Eastern CO, when all of a sudden he jumped two feet to the side, did a stride, then jumped back onto our original track. I pulled him up and turned back to look. There was a rattlesnake coiled on the ground that I had completely missed in the blurring ground, but this horse had seen it and unflappably solved the problem without a second thought. A truly desensitized horse may not have noticed or, if he did, not cared and been bitten by the snake.
This is why I don’t desensitize horses. Not only is that horse less fun to ride, it can be simply dangerous to ride a shut-down and dull horse.