Above: This slideshow sees the foal being introduced to a saddle blanket and girth for the first time. The foal has never been frightened and doesn’t expect to be frightened when new things are introduced. He’s been taught to stand and whatever worries him will soon be removed.
I watched a horse starting competition on video the other day. One of the trainers left his saddle in the round yard with the horse, explaining that this allowed the horse to look at the saddle and get ‘used to’ it. When the horse walked over and sniffed the saddle, the crowd clapped as though some great breakthrough had occurred.
Little did they know. When he was first saddled, the horse bucked violently. He was terrified of the saddle. Leaving it in the yard achieved absolutely nothing. The horse certainly wasn’t ‘used to’ the saddle.
Another video showed a trainer sitting on a fence above the horse that he was ‘breaking in’. This was supposed to get the horse ‘used to’ having a person above him, in preparation for mounting. But guess what? When the rider first mounted, the horse took fright and rushed away. Sitting on the fence didn’t help.
Magazines these days are full of articles about leading your horse around and letting him sniff things. We’re told to lead horses around and encourage them to sniff barrels, balls, tarps, umbrellas and all sorts of items. The horses are supposedly being ‘desensitised’ to these items, so they won’t be scared in the future.
Next, the trainer stands at a distance from the horse and holds a flag, tarp, umbrella or something else for the horse to look at and smell. They let the horse reach out and sniff the item. The horse usually snorts and rushes away. Their theory is that if you repeat this process often enough, the horse will eventually get ‘used to’ the new item and no longer react.
This theory doesn’t work. Moreover, it shows a complete lack of understanding of how horses think and learn. By holding a flag or umbrella out to a horse in this manner, the trainer is in fact, telling the horse to be frightened of the item and to concentrate on it, rather than on the lesson.
Don’t show new items to your horse and allow him to move, snort or do whatever he pleases. You must teach your horse to stand and concentrate on you. No looking, no sniffing. Your lesson must always be more important to your horse than any new item.
Instead of confronting any horse with things you know he’ll be frightened of, you must build his confidence one step at a time. Start with easy items that you know your horse won’t be frightened of and build up to more difficult tasks. The lesson must always be for your horse to stand when he’s asked. Never allow your horse to move because he’s ‘worried’ by a new item. Not even one step. Never allow your horse to smell anything new. It’s a waste of time.
You must teach your horse to stand before you introduce a saddle blanket, saddle or any other item. If he’s confident, he won’t react when new things are introduced.
Never try to find things your horse will react to. Instead, always work with things you know your horse isn’t frightened of and build from there.
Neil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next 15 years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. [read more]
He is the author of Fear-free Horse Training – every step of the way.
Visit Neil’s website at www.fearfreehorsetraining.com.