Horse Problems and Fears Take Savvy and Patience


Use Savvy When Dealing with Horse “Phobias” – a Horse Training article
by Cynthia McFarland and Parelli Natural Horsemanship

Back when the west was a bit wilder than it is today, cowboys routinely “sacked out” the young horses they were “breaking.” Countless horses endured the fear and trauma of being tied tightly to prevent escape while being rubbed all over with a feed sack or blanket. Horses were often thrown and tied to keep them on the ground for this phase, and sometimes their heads were even covered.

Hardly a pleasant learning experience for a flight animal.

Though they probably wouldn’t have called it by this term, old-time bronc busters considered this a form of “desensitization.” The idea was that the horse would learn he had to accept and quit fighting.

“In the old days, and still today, ‘sacking out’ is a common practice where they basically desensitize the horse to any manner of stimuli. But often it’s very frightening for the horse because there is no let up, and they do it until the horse appears to accepts it,” notes Pat Parelli. “For some horses this is very traumatic; some even go ‘internal’ and freeze with fear. Many people cannot read this state in a horse and get lulled into thinking that the horse is calm and has accepted it, when in fact he is more terrified than ever.”

The awareness of natural horsemanship has made many horse owners realize that handling horses in such ways can not only be dangerous to horse and human, but also ineffective.

Yes, there is such a thing as desensitizing a horse, but the old sacking out method is not the correct way, especially from the horse’s point of view.

“There are different ways to desensitize a horse and knowing how far to go and when to stop are the keys,” explains Linda Parelli, Pat’s wife and partner in the Parelli Program. “Progressive desensitization is very effective and when done in an ‘approach and retreat’ manner, it teaches the horse to accept that it’s not dangerous and they become more confident. Reading the horse at every moment, not making him too afraid, using plenty of retreat and re-approach, and then stopping when the horse shows relaxation and acceptance is vital.”

Since many horse owners have trouble when using spray bottles and clippers around their horses, we asked the Parellis the savvy way to desensitize a horse to these situations.

Clipping Phobias

Fear and anxiety about clipping is common among many horses, but the Parellis have a favorite saying: “It’s not about the clippers!”

“It’s all about the horse’s trust in you and his level of self confidence. The more flighty, highly strung or defensive the horse is, the harder it is for him to trust the human,” says Pat. “We build the relationship first via the Seven Games, and then we start to tackle more challenging tasks, such as clipping. Then it’s all about approach and retreat.”

If the horse doesn’t trust you, it’s senseless to try and force him to be clipped. So, start by playing the Seven Games until the horse is calm, trusting and understands the common language by which you can maneuver him and calm him down.

Don’t break out the clippers as soon as the horse is quiet and trusting. Instead, use a simulator, such as a battery-operated massager to mimic the sound and feel of clippers. Here’s where the approach and retreat technique will come into play. You may have to do a lot of walking away until the horse’s natural curiosity wins out and he wants to follow you and see what you’re up to with this new device.

Spend as much time, in as many sessions as necessary, until your horse accepts being massaged. Start by massaging him on the neck and shoulders. Eventually, you will be able to use the massager all over his body.

“The lower legs and head area are the two most challenging areas. You want your horse really calm and trusting before you go there,” notes Linda. “Take your time. Do a little every day that you groom your horse and finally the consistency will pay off.”

After you can massage him in the areas that you want to clip, start tickling the hair, simulating the feel of the clipper’s teeth.

“Once you can’t bother him, clipping will be a breeze,” says Linda. “Just remember, it’s not about the clippers. You have to get your horse to totally trust you through all this process and then it will actually serve to improve his behavior and trust in many other areas. That’s why it’s ‘not about the clippers.’ It’s about the relationship. Think of it this way… if your child was afraid of having his hair cut, how would you gain his confidence? Forcing him to accept it would just damage the relationship and ruin the trust.”

At no time should you cross tie, twitch, tranquilize, force or trap the horse so you can clip him. These methods completely disregard gaining your horse’s permission and trust. If your horse has trouble with clippers, you need to solve this problem, not trick him just so you can get the job done.

“You have to first establish a certain level of trust and that can take some people a long time. It depends on the skill and savvy of the human and then how distrusting or damaged the horse already is,” says Linda. “Pat Parelli can do it in one session with even the most difficult horse; but it could take less experienced people weeks or months to get there. It’s important to take the time it takes”

The Parellis emphasize the importance of putting the relationship first, not the task.

“Many people think they can just tranquilize the horse and clip him, but it does nothing to improve him for next time, nor does it improve the trust between him and his owner,” Linda notes. “We can clip our horses at liberty because we invest our time in getting them to be confident.”

Spray Bottles

Fly repellent, coat conditioners and wound preparations are just some of the things that typically come in spray bottles. If your horse goes ballistic when sprayed, life is going to be much more complicated.

Again, you first want to make sure to have good communication going with the horse via playing the Seven Games. Do this for as many sessions as necessary to establish trust and calmness with the horse.

Then introduce a spray bottle filled with water. To start with, walk away from the horse and start pumping the spray, being sure not to spray water in the horse’s direction but out in front of you as you walk away. Walking away is non-threatening to the horse, as opposed to your standing still, or worse, walking towards him.

“After a little bit, you often find the horse starts to approach you with some curiosity,” says Linda. “Next, turn towards the horse but still walk backwards and spray to the sides and away from the horse, not towards him. Once he’s settled with this part of the process, then you can start allowing the spray to touch him now and then. Spray to the side, spray the horse, more to the side until he’s calm, then on the horse again… all the while walking backwards and away.”

Don’t actually stop and spray the horse directly until he’s totally confident. Usually by this point, it’s the horse’s idea to stop walking. Use a consistent rhythm when spraying. This helps the horse figure out more quickly that nothing’s changing and he’ll be less afraid.

“It’s all about the Friendly Game,” notes Pat, “and its three components are relaxation, rhythm and retreat.”

Start Young

If you are fortunate enough to have a young horse that doesn’t have any “phobias,” do your best to keep it that way.

“We actually start clipping simulation with our foals at birth, in the imprinting period. This is the best time because their level of acceptance is profound,” Pat notes. “But even if you miss this time (the first two hours after birth), the earlier you start the better.”

“Our youngsters compete to be massaged!” Linda adds. “The hardest horses to build confidence in are the ones who’ve already been forced to submit. Not only are they terrified, they are determined not to be put in that position again. It can be very dangerous and you might need the help of a professional, one who understands this approach rather than one who will force it on your horse.”

When working with the young horse to progressively desensitize him, don’t tie, cross tie corner, or trap him. The secret is to build his confidence, not force him to tolerate something.

It’s all about how savvy you are, how good you are with horses, your feel, timing and, balance,” Linda observes. “There are no short cuts that have good long term results too.”

“It helps to understand how fearful a horse really is,” says Pat. “Remember that he is a prey animal and when he resists or has trouble, he’s not being naughty, or afraid that you’re going to hurt him, he’s afraid that you’re going to kill him. Patience is everything.”

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