Born and raised in Idaho, I remember my folks chasing wild mustangs across the deserts of the southern part of the state. As I grew up, I began breaking colts the old fashioned way by learning from those around me. From there I entered the rodeo scene, competing in events such as bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling, and calf roping. I had the opportunity to learn under decorated horsemen such as 8-time world champion calf roper Dean Oliver as well as horse trainer Roger Myers. Today, with over 30 years of experience with horses, I have developed a training method that focuses on desensitization and confidence building in not only the horse but the rider as well.
My program is still a work in progress, as I believe there is always more to learn, and I will never be finished. I have a strong belief that the concept of a finished horse or finished rider is not true because we all have the capacity to learn. On an everyday basis we have the opportunity to learn and it just comes down to the matter of if we choose to or not. As I get older I become more aware, and my training methods are continually changing the more I grow and progress in this industry.
As earlier stated, the scope of my training program focuses on desensitization and confidence building of the horse and rider. Building confidence in the horse begins at the very basic level, much like a child being sent to school for the first time. I often think of my daughter in this situation. When she was ready for school, I put her in pre-school and not into the 6th grade because her confidence and ability to operate was not at that level yet. This is what we need to think of with our horses as well. Some of the more simple tasks such as using a flag on the end of a stick to desensitize our horses have a huge impact on the horse’s mentality and confidence and also helps build a relationship between horse and rider.
The picture included in this article demonstrates the end product of my desensitization training. Of course there is much more that can be done with desensitization. This is just the point where I get all horses that undergo training at my facility. No matter what the horse’s background, whether they are un-started or need a tune up, the process begins the same. I start with what is called a flagging stick. This can be something as simple as tying a plastic bag to the end of a medium length dressage whip. Beginning with light contact, I touch the horse with the flag with quick and repetitive movements. This ensures they get use to not only the feeling of the bag but also the sound and sight associated with it. It’s essential to work both sides of the horse and to allow the horse to move away from the object versus trying to restrain them. In this way they will learn that just because their feet stop moving doesn’t mean the flag stops moving. Horses will learn that standing and accepting the flag will use less energy than moving around trying to avoid it.
Next in my desensitization process is the utilization of the tail tarp. Keeping in mind that a horse is a prey animal, their biggest fear is to be chased. The tail tarp is attached to the tail loosely with a small bungee cord which ensures it can slip off in case the horse spooks and tries to bolt away. This process works well when the horse has the opportunity to multitask. I like to set 15-gallon plastic barrels (at least 10 barrels laying on their side in a scattered pattern) on the ground and ask my horse to lunge through them. In this way they have to pay attention to me, where they are putting their feet, and the tarp that is attached to their tail. I cannot express enough the importance of the safety factor during this step, it should be done in a confined area and the horse should never be let go of if they spook. I do not recommend that you do this on your own as a lot can happen if you’re not careful.
Next I will add the overhead flags. These flags help desensitize the areas above the head which are blind spots for the horse. Whatever side I start with I always lunge in the direction; this keeps the object between me and the horse, so if they decide to spook it will be away from me. When I am initially doing this I always start on the horse’s left side as this is their “stronger” side, and it gives them a better advantage in accepting the flag. Once the horse is comfortable I will reverse directions so the flag is on the outside of the horse and I. I do this on both sides until the horse tolerates both flags. The same process is repeated for the side cones. These cones work great for desensitizing the legs.
Another important desensitization tool that contributes to noise is cracking a whip. I use a four foot fiberglass rod with a five foot lunge whip that has a popper on the end. This step can be done after the flagging stick. As with the previous desensitization methods described in this article, it’s important not to restrain the horse if they move away. They need to learn how to deal with it on their own and be able to multitask at the same time.
This process will vary depending on the horse you are working with. For some it may take one session while for others it could take several days. Everyone horse is an individual and will react differently. Once they are acclimated and will tolerate all of the objects at the same time I will ride them with the equipment on. This process creates an enormous amount of confidence in the horse and will create a stronger bond between horse and rider. I believe that whatever we do on the ground with our horses we should be able to do in the saddle as well.
In a nutshell this is the first stage of confidence building. If we don’t train a horse on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the least difficult task and 10 being the most difficult or scary task, the horse will fall apart due to the high amount of stress they will eventually encounter during their life. It is important to teach our horses to deal with an 8, 9, and 10 during the training process so that when the time comes down the road where those situations happen they will have the ability to withstand it. We have to make sure we give the horse an adequate amount of time to go through each level at their own individual pace.