Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Problem With Desensitization

As you know, I put in a lot of time trying to get my high-strung Arabian horses used to different objects and sensations. I can get them to a point where they ignore them, but if I don't keep up the training or they experience the same object or sensation in a different environment, all deals are off.

I can throw a rope over my horses' backs and snake it around their legs, and they couldn't care less. I've hung jackets from the fence and rode them past. I've even thrown my jacket over their backs and dragged it up their necks over their heads. When I'm done, it's like the jacket isn't even there.

So, it surprised me today when my farrier came to trim hooves, took off his sweatshirt, hung it on the fence, and Gabbrielle's head shot up followed by some warning snorts to the herd. For Pete's sake! Does this horse have no memory? My farrier moved his jacket further away and hung it lower on the fence and she settled down.

All was good until my farrier backed underneath her belly to place her hind hoof on his lap for filing. She was wearing her winter blanket. Something spooked her and she jumped in the air while my farrier bailed out from under her belly, and she went on a rampage kicking over his toolbox and running over his equipment. How she could jump with only one hind foot on the ground, I don't know.

Anyway, I thought perhaps she associated the sensation of him being under her belly with the strange object behind her hanging on the fence. I knew it wasn't my nosy neighbors spooking her this time, because they weren't around. It was only after he finished with her that I noticed she had stepped out of both hind leg straps on her blanket, so instead of hanging at a criss-cross between her legs, they were criss-crossed, but were hanging behind her hocks. I'll bet when my farrier got under her belly, he pushed the blanket up just enough to cause those leg straps to pull on her back legs.

When I throw a rope around her back legs, she's aware that I'm in control of that rope. It think it suddenly hit her that something was wrapping itself around her hocks and it wasn't me, because I was standing in front of her holding her lead rope still, and the farrier was under her belly. So, she felt trapped between the two of us while something foreign was tugging on her hocks. She jumped in the air to get away from it.

All you have is that one second when the eyes get big, the head goes up, and something registers in the horse's fear center of its brain, to react. You have to move out of the way to protect yourself and the people around you, get control of the horse and calm it down A.S.A.P. It seems kind of contradictory that you have to hurry to calm the horse down, but we as horse handlers do have to perfect that technique. No one was hurt, but next time I'll be checking the straps on the blankets before my farrier arrives.


Sydney_bitless said...

That is the reason I remove blankets before I handle a horse other than for leading. They create so many strange sensations for a horse and I have seen a scenario just like yours only something got caught on the strap causing it to tighten. A blanket is something on them that constricts, shakes and follows them no matter where they go. Even the quietest of horses can have a bit of a fit when it comes to a blanket tightening or getting caught on something.

Katharine Swan said...

I think they definitely know the difference between sessions we plan to desensitize them, and things that happen independently of us. And their trust in us definitely plays into their response if we're the one with the rope, or plastic bag, or whatever, versus the rope or plastic bag "attacking" them on its own. Desensitizing therefore doesn't get them completely over their fears, but can you imagine if you hadn't ever done those exercises with Gabbrielle? I imagine her response would have been much, much worse!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

I agree with Sydney and prefer to not use a blanket when my horse is being handled by a vet or farrier. Just the strange swishing sounds that happen while a horse is wearing a blanket can spook them.
I would have guessed that the straps came loose when she leapt into the air.


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I actually asked the farrier if he wanted me to remove their blankets and he said no. Next time I'll just do it before he gets here. He's been trimming their hooves for years with their blankets on.

achieve1dream said...

How strange that she reacted that way. You just never know with horses. They are prey animals. I'm glad no one was hurt. I agree with you about taking the blankets off next time even if your farrier says its fine with them on. Too much chance of getting tangled or something.

Tammy said...

I agree that you can't desensitize them to everything. I think about how many times my kids have hid behind the corner by the frig & scared me & if they would do it today, I would still jump out of my skin. Extreme example, but you get the gist of it.

Once I went to the barn in a bright red coat - one I usually just wore to work - and you would have thought I was the devil the way one gelding reacted.

And then, my accident a few weeks ago when Windy tripped up on some e-fence wire. This is a horse that is regularly hobbled - you would think nothing would bother her around her feet. I guess you just never know...

Silly horses.

Sarah said...

I think taking the blankets off would be a good idea too. I'm glad that no one was hurt!