Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning Horses

By Terry Golson

All horses can potentially cause injury to us humans. Their vision, hearing and smell keeps them hyper-aware of danger, and their response to that is to put distance between themselves and the perceived threat. If prevented from fleeing, they will rear, kick and strike-out. Horses are especially wary of new things. A flower in a pot that was empty. A jacket on a fence post. A cow in a field where before there was only sheep. This sensitivity to the new has kept horses alive for millennia, however it makes riding them a challenge!

A horse would rather not bolt. Bolting not only expends a lot of energy, but it is also risky – a horse could fall, run headlong into worse trouble, or become separated from the herd. A horse is aware of these dangers inherent in flight. Give them the confidence to stay put, and they will. Horses have the capacity to make sense of whatever worries them, mentally putting it into the no problem columnIt’s our job as their protectors to give them courage for a world that they weren’t designed to navigate. (Tractors! Dark stables! Cross walks!) Trainers spend a lot of time working with horses so that scary! becomes no problem.

One way to get a horse to stay put in the face of fear is to restrain them. If the horse resists, force is applied. Often, to get the horse to stand still, the handler does something that the horse perceives as worse than the scary thing – chains on the nose, whips, being made to move in a tight circle until exhausted. With these tactics, the horse learns that nothing that they do matters, and they give up. Behavior scientists call this technique flooding. It’s been studied in organisms from lab rats to humans. This strategy can look like magic, and the horses it’s done to will behave in extraordinary ways. They’ll go through hoops of fire. Although the animal will do your bidding, they also become listless, disconnected from relationships, and are prone to explosions of aggression. (I’ve written about flooding here.)

Here’s a non-horse example of flooding: Let’s say I don’t like snakes and you think that’s ridiculous. So, to teach me that snakes are harmless, you close me up in a small room with a snake. At some point I’ll stop showing outward signs of fear, after all, one can’t yell forever. I will stand still. But that doesn’t mean that I feel any differently about that snake. It’s likely that rather than liking snakes, I will have developed a fear of small rooms, and of you. And I’ll be very, very angry at you for putting me through that.

There is another technique to use, this one is called desensitizing. Done right, it is a gentle, incremental way to expose your horse to scary things, until they are no longer concerned by them.

Desensitizing should always start from a place of calm. The horse is given all the time it needs to observe the scary thing, mentally process it, and choose to get closer. Horses are innately curious beings and will investigate new things when not fearful. For a horse afraid of balloons, I once tied one several yards outside of his field. By the end of the day, he ignored it, so then I brought the balloon closer and tied it to his fence post. He chose to investigate. From then on, you could ride him past balloons.

With desensitizing, it’s essential that the horse isn’t restricted and can move away if they feel stressed. Unfortunately, people rarely do desensitizing correctly. They make a little progress, and then get impatient and force the encounter. Do that and you are on the slippery slope to flooding. But, real life rarely matches the ideal training scenario. Few of us can work our horses in total freedom. Often, we need to keep them safe on lead lines. For example, if I’m getting a horse desensitized to traffic I can’t allow him to be loose on the road. A compromise is to prevent the horse from taking off, but to not force the forward. The horse learns that there’s no option other than to stay with you. This is not a bad goal and is a workable plan IF you begin below threshold, and IF you release pressure when the horse is calm. However, if you have to resort to yanking the halter, jerking a chain on the nose, hitting with a whip, etc, to keep the horse in place, then you become as scary as the object to your horse. Obedience that stems from fear has so many damaging repercussions.

Of course, there’s ideal training theory, and then there’s real life, and real life is messy. There’s not always time or opportunity to desensitize your horse. There are situations when utilizing mild pressure and quick release makes sense. Let’s say you’re on a trail ride and the horse sees a boulder and raises it’s head and snorts. You let your horse look, but – and here’s the compromise – you do not let him turn towards home. You use the reins, your seat, and your legs to keep him in place. You wait. Take a deep breath. The horse relaxes. You squeeze a little with your legs. You get a forward step. You breathe again. The horse is given time to process that the rock is not a bear. You ask again with your legs to go forward, and your horse does. The next time you pass that boulder, it’s in the no problem column.

Desensitizing works, as does the above type of pressure and release, but it is even more effective if you employ another technique called counter-conditioning. Desensitizing gradually exposes an animal to a scary thing until they are no longer afraid. Counter-conditioning gives the animal a reason to like that scary thing. You do this by pairing it with something that the animal enjoys. Counter-conditioning can change your horse’s mind about all sorts of things.

Like desensitizing, counter-conditioning doesn’t work if you start from a place of fear. When I first got Lily Dog from the rescue she needed a bath. I put her in the tub, and thinking to counter-condition the experience, I fed her pieces of cheese. Instead of loving bath time, she stopped eating cheese because in her mind it was a predictor of bad things!

I’ve learned from Lily, and since then I’ve used counter-conditioning successfully in many situations. I’ve taught Tonka that when I say “deer” that there’s one nearby, and that for looking at it calmly, he gets a peppermint. For Tonka, deer = treat, and are something to look forward to seeing, not to flee from.

What prompted this long post (thanks for staying with me!) was Tonka’s behavior on the road. I labeled it “barn sour” but it is more than that. With a little observation, I have been able to identify several distinct issues contained within this behavior label. The first is that my horse, who was previously stoic in the face of traffic, has become fearful. At my new barn (since June) I’ve been riding on a road where the vehicles go faster than he’s used to, and this winter their tires make loud and scary noises as they kick up salty sand (spread to keep the road de-iced.) Tonka was brave on pavement, but not in this traffic. Now that he’s fearful, once we get out of sight of our home barn, Tonka wants to get back. That’s the barn sour bit.


I’m not going to work with him on these issues right now. It’s very cold, there are dangerous patches of ice, and I can’t find a safe, calm place to start. Come springtime, we can stand in a grassy patch and watch cars go by. That’s the desensitizing bit. I will let him graze and feed him carrot pieces as a car approaches. That’s the counter-conditioning. When Tonka once again shows no fear of standing while cars whizz by, we will go a little further down the road. I will ask him to stand and look towards home. I will utilize my clicker training, mark the moment of calm with my bridge sound (I say Dee!) and give him a carrot. (The bridge gives me the precision to let him know it is the relaxed stance that is rewarded.) I will be very aware of his threshold and try not to cross it. It will take time.

So, I have a plan. But I might not do it. I think that Tonka is right not to want to walk down this road. I wear a vest that says pass wide and slow, but few cars do.

I have other options. We can trailer to conservation land where the only scary things are mountain bikers, and those we’ve already counter-conditioned! When Tonka sees a bicycle, he thinks peppermint! Counter-conditioning does work.

12 thoughts on “Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning Horses

  • Chicken Carol

    I have learned so much about horses from you. I love how you two communicate and how you listen. I also liked your snake example and I know that you don’t like snakes! It makes so much sense. I know that I have said it before but Tonker is so lucky to have you. I know you will say that you are lucky to have Tonker too. You have such a special relationship.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Relationships are about paying attention, and I like to think that Tonka and I do that. It doesn’t hurt that he’s so darn adorable to look at 🙂

  • Jan

    What a fascinating blog a must to read. I agree you would be better to stay away from roads, drivers and cyclists just do not care how close they get. Jess is extremely lucky at present in that where she works part time they have thousands of acres of fields, hills and woodland walks without going near a road. They have lots of ponies to exercise and jump including Shetlands which are such characters. They show them at all the major shows including Hickstead and the Horse of the Year show at Wembly, Jess goes along to help out and is really enjoying it. Chickens can also be spooked by something different as I have found out. 🙂

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Jess is very lucky! The first lesson pony that I rode was a shetland named Stuart Little. He knew how to toss me into the manure pile. I do believe he laughed.

  • Lyndsey Lewis

    LOVE!!!!! Sharing!

    Especially love “I’m not going to work with him on these issues right now. It’s very cold, there are dangerous patches of ice, and I can’t find a safe, calm place to start.”

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’m glad you liked that sentence, but I oh so wish I didn’t have to say it! Today was sunny and above 20 degrees. We carefully walked around the frozen field.

  • Tracy

    When I think of what we ask our animals to do, I’m amazed that they all just don’t revolt and head for the hills. Jump fences they cannot actually see due to eye placement once they’re close. Stand in square boxes for hours when they’re built to walk slowly all day. Tolerate metal pieces in their mouths for hours. Leave the safety of the herd to clamber into confined trailers. Perform tendon stressing exaggerated sliding halts for our entertainment. Leap five foot fences, over and over, their fragile legs were never meant to handle. Adapting to our demands every moment, it seems. The least we can do is introduce these new and often unnatural requests slowly and with kindness, allowing them to adjust in their own time whenever possible.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Getting them mentally fit for these challenges is important – not to mention physically fit. The time that we take to introduce them to these tasks can also be spent getting them strong enough to do them.

  • Trina

    Great blog. I learn so much from your writing. This weekend my horse spooked going into our indoor twice because someone was working 20ft away scraping a wood door. Cider has walked into the indoor 100 times but this weekend that noise behind him was different. It’s so important to think about what your horse is hearing and experiencing.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Often, the biggest spook happens in a familiar place where something has suddenly changed. Cider is such a steady boy, it’s always a surprise when he’s surprised!

  • Jen Williams

    In a perfect world, people approaching horses in cars, would be more thoughtful and less impatient. I have encountered both types but the impatient ones seem to be getting worse. There are also a handful that appear to deliberately up the anti for sick entertainment. I really want my young, brave quarter horse to be able to handle everything. Unfortunately, we live in a different era.
    Years ago I used to confidently ride my arabx, in just his halter and bareback, up the road.
    I wouldn’t attempt that these days because I can’t trust people.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I no longer ride on the road. Cars don’t know to slow down. And don’t get me started on the joggers, with earbuds, who run past as if we don’t exist!

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