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Counter conditioning alongside systematic desensitisation is very powerful. If we do slow desensitisation we can get horses accepting of aversive stimuli, but if we pair that with an appetitive – food or scratches or anything the horse values and wants more of – then we can change how they feel about the aversive. It can even become something they want, rather than something they just tolerate.
Too often we halter horses and spray them, clip them etc, without thinking about how the horse feels, horses sometimes provide a lot of feedback in the form of pulling away, fidgeting or even being openly petrified, but often they just shut down as they feel they can’t say “no”. So what do some people do in those scenarios were they acknowledge the horse has a problem? They may hold them tighter, tell them off and even sedated them to be clipped.
How much better is it to take time to desensitise and counter condition? Well Mojo was petrified of fly spray, the first time I sprayed him was in his stable and he nearly squashed me against the wall he spooked so much.
What did I do about it? Well I started systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. Starting at a distnace with the spray so he noticed but did not react, all at liberty – then they can flee if necessary. I used my verbal bridge signal “good” and rewarded him – sometimes with a scratch, sometimes with a treat.
Gradually over the last few weeks he will stand next to me and not flinch when the water is sprayed, (I used water to conserve the fly spray – but need to counter condition the smell of the fly spray once he is OK being sprayed.)
Today I did this in the field and he stayed and stood still whilst I sprayed water high in the air so the droplets actually fell on him, a few weeks ago he would have startled big time and run off.
I can now spray his legs from about a metre away but if I get too close he looks aways – so there is still some conflict present.
We must be very mindful of avoiding conflict – he wants the treats or scratches but is still unsure about the spray – this is why slow progress is better than force.
Clipping will be next but as he was sedated last time it may take much longer to overcome that fear.
He is still a little touch sensitive on his head, but getting better, he was targeting my hand today with his cheek – that is a new behaviour and not solid yet.
His feathers are still a sensitive area, but I can brush them and put cream on the sore bits if I run my hand down his legs, he gets a big butt scratch for that.
I have had Mojo for just over 2 months now so he has come a long way. He is very quick to learn new things and very eager to participate in the shaping programs.
As I am doing a course with Jo Hughes of The Academy of Positive Horsemanship I am reading Dr. Jenifer Ziligs book How to Train Animals 101. The more I learn the more there is to be considered when training horses. Everything we do with them is teaching them something.
Although the course hasn’t got to desensitisation yet I have been seeing more and more videos of people flood desensitising horses.
Some ways to desensitise:
Habituation – exposure over time, also called passive desensitisation. A horse over time habituates to his environment and the weaker the stimulus the more rapid and persistent is the habituation.
This process can be very slow and if we wish horses to habituate to aversive stumuli e.g for possible medical intervention then counter-conditioning with systematic desensitisation is useful.
Counter-conditioning – this is classical conditioning using a reward to change the horses perception of a stimulus. “associating stimuli of opposite value, the combination of which acts to nullify the value towards neutral” (Dr. J. Zeligs – Animal Training 101)
Also 2 ways to approach stimulus exposure:
Systematic desensitisation – using small approximations of the stimulus, can be used with counter conditioning.
Flooding – unrelenting exposure to the stimulus – this is not a recommended technique.
More on flooding by Helen Spence – Flooding and Learned Helplessness
Also from Dr.Sue McDonnell about “sacking out” often used as a euphemism for flooding.
Recently I read this statement:
“Sometimes a horse will put up the greatest resistance just before he comes through. I call it ‘the darkest hour before the dawn’. When the horse has tried all the avenues of his natural instinct of self-preservation and puts up its greatest resistance; is when people will usually give-up or get mad. If they would just be patient, the horse is about to come around.'” – Tom Dorrance.
I would like to deconstruct this statement and ask why the horse feels he needs to take flight or to fight.
The horse has 4 reactions to a fearful situation: first they may freeze – look at the threat, then they may try to flee, if flight isn’t successful – as in a confined space – they may try to fight the threat.
If the threatening predator is still present after all these attempts the horse may give in and freeze or try appeasement behaviours to look less of a threat to the predator.
Then they appear submissive but can actually be in a state of learned helplessness.
In the above scenario the human is the predator – so what happened to the natural horsemanship principle that we should not act like a predator?
The above is a classic way to flood desensitise a horse – don’t give up until the horse gives in – as we all know flooding done incompletely may make the horse put up an even bigger fight next time. The problem is that flooding may never work even if done to the point of the horse giving in.
Why put a sensitive animal like a horse through such a process? If this was done to a deer or other prey animal it would be called cruelty.
So next time you go to a clinic or watch a video of horses being trained try to analyse what is actually happening not what the trainer says is happening.