Sue Gardner is a Horse Behaviourist who lives and works in Sussex. Over the past 13 years Sue has worked with many hundreds of horses throughout the U.K. and overseas and helped both horse and human become confident.
Sue is writing a series of articles for Pegasus Magazine based around ‘How to gain your horse’s confidence and says that it is her belief that once we have a better understanding of the innate behaviour of horses we can apply it to training and almost all the unwanted behaviours will disappear.
Sue starts the series off with how to use some of your horse’s innate behaviours to de-sensitise him to things that can be perceived as scary.
Step 1. Initial Preparation
Does your horse visibly shrink shake or shy away from the sound of the clippers; his annual vaccinations; being wormed; dental care; foot care; his ears being handled; the horse transporter etc.
Does the idea of applying wound creams and eye ointment leave you concerned.
Is your horse starting to resist going into the trailer after several visits to the vet.
Whatever it is that worries your horse, it tends to worry the human as well, and before the vet has even arrived both of you could be feeling fidgety at best! Downright worried or scared at worst.
However, before we launch into the ‘how to’ section of this article, let’s take a few minutes to consider the innate behaviour of the horse in relation to the innate behaviour of the human.
We all know the obvious, that prey animals when worried by anything, will leave the area as soon as possible! Run now, think later!
Worry can mean many things to a horse. Here are some examples:
Pain ~ confusion ~ having to guess ~ feeling insecure ~ feeling scared or threatened
As a human we tend to use more predatory tactics and when our horse gets worried and needs to move his feet we tend to make them stay by taking a firm hold and insisting with our voice that they stand.
Vocal language comes easy to us and we use it a lot when we are worried. We were also born with a fabulous ability to grip, to hang on, to pull) all the things that can really worry a horse who innately responds from subtle body cues.
We tend to hold up the scary thing and approach with it, now he is doubly worried; he cannot get away and the scary object is approaching, he needs to get away and if he cannot he will go into fight mode. And we all know how pear shaped that can go, when a horse is scared he cannot think.
What we tend to do is try and convince the horse by holding it up in front of him that it is not scary, but there is a subtle process here that needs to be considered.
Horse’s use all of their senses all of the time. With regard to his sense of smell there is a wonderful saying: Can it eat me… Can I eat it….Can I play with it.
By working with this innate behaviour of the horse and allowing him to smell the object first makes a huge, and I mean huge difference to the outcome. However there is a technique involved here:
Hold it at least a metre away from your horse and slightly to one side so it is outside of their blind spot, relax and keep breathing and blinking and do not make direct eye contact and simply wait for your horse to approach the object and smell it.
Several things might happen here:
He might approach (stretch his neck and or take a step) and smell it for just a few seconds
He might approach and smell it for up to a couple of minutes
He might not approach at all
He might try and go into the second or third phase – eat it or play with it
If he does not approach it at all then you move yourself and the object backwards, retreating it from him, this will usually raise their curiosity and take away any concern and it works with their own innate behaviour of using approach and retreat.
It is these two strategies that I use constantly and with huge success, to get horses used to things that scare them.
Whether it is a syringe, ointment, clippers, the farrier, the vet, the trailer, whatever it is, by letting them thoroughly smell it and utilising approach and retreat, we can gain our horses curiosity and confidence.
Firstly though, your horse must be comfortable with being touched all over his body, yes, ALL over his body as any part of it can be injured and therefore will need to be handled.
Easier said than done? Does your horse have one or two no go areas? Lets assume he does not like having his ears touched, and if this is a problem when they are not sore, then there is no way he is going to allow a vet to examine them let alone treat them.
The session begins with you letting the horse see & smell whatever it is that you are going to use on his body, in this case it is your hand. Might sound a bit draft, but put your hand out between 2 and 3 feet in front of his nose and simply wait for him to acknowledge you and smell your hand, do not remove your hand until he has assured himself that you are no threat. If you have an object in your hand it can take them much longer to finish smelling (convincing themselves that it will not eat them).
Move to his neck and stand calmly, simply rub him until he is relaxed. Find a rub that works for him, sometimes too soft can be annoying for them. Make sure you are breathing calmly and do not stare at him, keep your eyes relaxed and your body relaxed. Starting from mid way down his neck start to rub up towards his ears.
As predators we are direct line thinkers, we go straight in for the kill. We need to behave more like a prey animal and use approach and retreat, instead of trying to touch the ears we simply rub a few inches towards them and then retreat rubbing back down the neck to where we started, keeping up the steady motion of the rub we approach again, this time a few more inches before retreating just half the distance back.
Timing is important, if you are rubbing up the neck and feel the tiniest tension in him then retreat before he feels the need to react, everytime it is your idea to retreat he gets braver, it is as simple as that! The technique is that you will approach again. The hand stays on and with every approach there is a retreat and visa versa.
Using this technique usually takes me about 10 minutes to be able to rub the ears of a horse who before then would not allow them to be touched. However it is my full time profession and so do not assume 10 minutes for your own horse. It is often a good idea to give yourself a week to ten days of 5 minutes a day, be happy to quit if you have made a slight progress, often trying to do too much too soon is the nature of us humans! Little and often is by far the better approach.
So…. Whatever part of the body it is, approach and retreat is the tool to get your horse braver and calmer.
Once you have your horse comfortable with being touched all over his body then we are ready to look at specific areas that need help and preparation for the vet and this is discussed next month.