Equusite.com > Training Principles > Desensitizing and Sensitizing

Desensitizing and Sensitizing
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [October 1997]

What is a "signal" or "cue"?
This is anything that puts pressure on the horse. A signal is a stimulus. Surprisingly, a signal does not have to be physical. You can have your horse respond to a stimulus without ever touching him. A signal can be applied to your horse by eye contact, the form of your body/stance, or physical pressure (ex. with your hand or lead rope).

What is Desensitizing?
This is when you continually apply a stimulus until all response is eliminated. You are desensitizing your horse every time you repeatedly apply a stimulus. This stimulus can be your hand patting his neck, a brush on his belly, a halter on his face, a tail wrap on his tail, a saddle on his back, even your voice and body language. You have taught him that when you touch him with any of these things, he should give you NO response. You have desensitized him to those things.

How do you properly Desensitize a horse?
1. Create a stimulus.
2. Wait for NO response.
3. Release the stimulus and praise horse.
4. Wait 2-3 seconds and start at #1 again.

Important points when Desensitizing:
When creating a stimulus such as stroking or rubbing using your hand, you MUST continue with that stimulus consistently until the horse gives you NO response. If you remove the stimulus before the horse stops responding, you will be sensitizing him (this is how bad habits form). He will believe that whatever action he was taking (whether it was a swish of his tail or a stomp of his foot...or anything) is was the correct action. But, what you wanted was NO action, NO response.

Here's an example: You want to teach a foal to accept various types of brushes and to allow you to groom him. So, you start with a soft, easily accepted brush such as a horse-hair brush. You begin stroking him with the soft brush even if he walks around or twitches his skin. Once he stands still and gives NO response, you remove the stimulus (the brushing).

What is Sensitizing?
This is when you continually apply a stimulus until you get a response. If you sensitize a horse correctly, he will respond immediately and 100% of the time - he will never not listen to the cue. Many people sensitize their horse "on accident"...this is how horses learn bad habits. Read below to learn how to desensitize and sensitize your horse properly so that you won't ever "accidently" teach him a bad habit.

How do you properly Sensitize a horse to a specific cue?
1. Create a stimulus.
2. Wait for the correct response.
3. Immediately release the stimulus.
4. Wait 2-3 seconds and start at #1 again.

Important points when Sensitizing:
When creating a stimulus such as pressure from your hand, you MUST continue with that stimulus consistently until the horse gives you the correct response. If you remove the stimulus before the horse responds correctly, you will be desensitizing him (this is how bad habits form). He will believe that he doesn't have to respond to that stimulus since he got rewarded (release of pressure) when he did nothing.

Here's an example: You put pressure on his ribs with your finger. He feels this and notices that after a few seconds or few minutes it becomes annoying or irritating. He then tries everything he can to get you to take your finger away from his ribs. He may shake his head or swish his tail or move towards you (as if to push you out of the way), and finally he'll move away. Once he moves away, you release the stimulus immediately. He soon realizes that you will stop pushing on his ribs when he steps away from you.

Why do these methods work well on every horse?
This works extremely well because horses use these methods on eachother. A mare will teach her foal to stay close by calling him vocally. Once he moves closer to her, she'll immediately stop calling him.

How are most "bad habits" formed?
Bad habits are formed by the rider/owner confusing desensitizing with sensitizing.

Example of a rider confusing Sensitizing with Desensitizing:
The rider puts pressure on the horse's mouth, asking him to slow down. When the horse slows down slightly, the rider does not release the pressure on the horse's mouth and decides to turn instead. What's the problem? Well, the horse never gets his release, therefore, he becomes confused as to whether or not slowing down is the correct action to take when pressure is put on his mouth. Not to mention, she went from one signal to the next without a release...when the rider doesn't reward the horse in the form of a release, the horse becomes confused and/or begins to ignore the signal (resulting in a "hard mouth"). Now, honestly, how many times have you done this? I used to do this all the time (and wondered why the horses would stop listening to me) before I learned the simple methods I have outlined here!

By using proper desensitizing and sensitizing methods consistently while working around or riding your horse, he will become unbelievably responsive to every cue you give him. When you apply a stimulus, all the horse wants out of life at that very moment is for you to release the stimulus. This is why treats are not necessary when training a horse.

You will see the patterns that are listed above in every lesson that is taught on this site, and also in all horse-to-horse interactions. It is the way herds behave, whether domesticated or wild. This sensitizing method works 100% of the time and on 100% of horses.

All content on this website is Copyrighted © 1997-2002, Cheryl McNamee-Sutor,
unless otherwise noted on individual pages or images on this site. All Rights Reserved.
This article was published on: October 1997. Last updated on: October 1997.