What is de-spooking training?
Horsemanship training that includes a variety of training exercises for horse and rider to develop a trusting relationship and create a safe riding experience.
De-spooking, otherwise known as desensitization, is a method of horsemanship training that makes your horse more reliable while under saddle. Many trainers today use the “sacking out” method of desensitization to achieve this. With this approach, the rider/handler exposes the horse to various “spooky” things, such as a bag on a stick or tarp, repeatedly so that they become familiar with the items and are less likely to be afraid. Unfortunately, in my experience, this acceptance occurs generally as a result of exhaustion from being chased by the spooky thing until the horse stands and zones out.
De-Spooking Training with a Twist
My philosophy varies from this approach to sacking out because I believe in building a relationship with the horse that is based on trust and respect. My police horse needed to trust that I would always take care of him and never put him in harm’s way. Horsemanship is about understanding the horse’s natural response to things and helping them to overcome these by trusting that their rider/handler is not going to place them in a situation where they will be hurt. Equally important is that the rider trusts her horse. Together, this partnership creates a much safer and more enjoyable experience for horse and rider.
So, how does one go about this type of horsemanship training. It’s really quite simple. Like people learning something new, it is often beneficial for the horse to be exposed to things in an environment where they feel most secure. Exposing the horse to ‘spooky’ things in the confines of their home generally yields a better result. In addition, the rider/handler will encourage the horse to be curious about the new thing rather than chasing the horse with it. Generally, the ‘spooky’ item will be placed in a non-threatening manner for the horse to explore until he is secure in knowing that it will not harm him.
Real Life De-Spooking Training Exercise
For instance, let’s say I want to de-spook my horse to a yellow rain slicker. When it rains, I want to be able to whip out my rain slicker from my saddle bag, put it on so I don't get wet without my horse being frightened by it. It’s brightly colored. It moves erratically. It’s behind him, and it makes a noise. All scary stuff to a horse.
So, how do I get there? Through a simple trust building process that encourages horse and rider to rely on one another. The steps I would take are outlined below:
I will take the slicker and place it on a barrel or on the ground of the arena to let him look at it when it is not moving. Using a halter and lead rope, I will lead him around the arena keeping my body between him and the slicker. He can be braver that way. He knows the yellow rain slicker will eat me before him because I am closer to it. I'll make the circle smaller and smaller to get closer to the slicker. If he freezes up and blows and gives me signals it’s too much, I stop and relax him. I’ll wait, give him a rub and use words of relaxation until he is not frightened. Once he has relaxed I move on. When I get within reach of the slicker, I encourage him to sniff and touch it. If he won't, that's ok. After he has learned to accept this part, I will pick up the slicker and hold it on the side away from him. Then, I rub his shoulder with my free hand. When he is relaxed with that, I hold the slicker in front of me just to check if he wants to sniff it. Then, I will slowly take the slicker and touch his shoulder with it. Always present new things at this shoulder and use lots of praise. When he is relaxed with this, I'll rhythmically start to massage and rub him in the shoulder and withers area with it - all the while reading my horse. If he starts to get nervous, I'll go back to the previous step. If he stays relaxed, I'll get busier with the slicker until he is relaxed with it flapping all over his body. Then, I go to the other side and start over. I present it in the same steps on the other side starting by holding it and rubbing with my free hand. The goal is he stands for this whole process again teaching him to spook in place/stand.
While this method of horsemanship training takes longer than sacking out, the results are unparalleled. You are building trust and trust takes time. As the rider, you must learn to read the non-verbal cues that the horse gives. You must understand the difference between real fear and ‘I don’t want to.’ The horse learns to stop and evaluate the ‘spooky’ things in his life without running away. He will learn that you are not going to force him over a frightening object, but rather you are going to let him adapt to it. The ultimate in horsemanship training is the spook in place, which you are teaching your horse with these techniques.
Some of the most memorable horse and rider combos I have seen at my de-spooking horsemanship training clinics are those where the horse totally trusts the rider. I can recall one woman on a Saddlebred that was so terrified that its whole body shook. This horse was truly frightened and yet when the woman asked that horse to go over a tarp it walked across, albeit with his whole body shaking and on tippy hooves. It was scared to death but did not spook. That type of relationship will go a long way and as a result you will have many enjoyable rides. Work towards building that kind of relationship with your horsemanship training and you’ll find despooking your horse is easy.