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Trainer Q&A - Behavior Problems & Quirks - What can I do to desensitize my horse from movement when I'm on his back?

What can I do to desensitize my horse from movement when I'm on his back?

Julieann0530 Asks:

We have an 8 year old percheron/quarter horse. He's a great horse except for one quirk. He hasn't had a lot of saddle time with previous owners and my husband and I ride a lot so he is getting much better. The thing is, when my husband is on his back, if he moves his arm up or takes his hat off, his horse, Duggan, goes nuts! We've shaken all kinds of things around him when we're standing with him and he could care less. But if someone's on his back, it's a whole different ball game. What can we do to get him over this? Thanks, Julie

Our Trainer Answers:

When your horse spooks from actions of his rider it is most definitely a dangerous situation! Fortunately there are exercises we can teach him, both on the ground and in the saddle, that will prepare him for a riders everyday actions. It's great that you understand the key to fixing this problem is desensitization. You are already on the path to success! When you are the ground, take a plastic bag and tie it to the end of a 4 or 5 foot long stick. Begin at Duggan's feet, using approach and retreat, and rub him with the bag. Rub both inside his legs and out, rub his shoulders, neck, back, hips and down his back legs. If he gets upset, retreat to an area he's comfortable with and gradually build his confidence until you can rub him all over and do this on both sides of his body.

When he's totally desensitized to the bag, move yourself to his withers and move the stick over his body. Begin with the stick in the 9 o'clock position, move it straight up over his withers and to his right side and stroke him with it. BE CAREFUL! Make sure that if this upsets him to position yourself so as not to get ran over. We need to desensitize the area that he is uncomfortable with, this would be the rider's area of movement. Continue to move the stick, with the bag attached to it, back and forth in his area of vision, until he is no longer afraid of movement. Move it rhythmically from one side of him to the other, from the ground until he is comfortable with it. Then do the same thing with other items such as a hat, bandanna or jacket, anything you may have with you when a top your horse.

Now, climb up on a sturdy fence and park your horse next to you, with both of you facing the same direction. This will be much safer to begin with than going straight to the saddle. Do the same exercises from the fence. Reach over his back, in his field of vision, as if you were in the saddle and move objects over him. Start with the bag and stick, then move onto the hat, bandanna, etc. Only when he is totally comfortable with this should you move onto the saddle.

All of this desensitizing will take time and several lessons to build your horses confidence. Be patient and take the time its going to take to overcome this issue for everyone's safety. It sounds like Duggan is a wonderful horse and will be worth keeping, all horses have some issues from time to time.

Thank You and Happy Trails!

Christy Mellington