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I need ideas for desensitizing a baby event horse.

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  • I need ideas for desensitizing a baby event horse.

    Long story short: I have a just-turned three-year-old OTTB who will hopefully be my future event horse if all goes according to plan. He'll have been home for a month on Monday and I'm planning to get on him the first time this week. It took him a few weeks to really settle in and relax, so during that time we've just been hand-walking around the farm to get him used to being out in open spaces (since the barn/indoor/pastures/space for our future outdoor are all in one big, flat ~15 acre field) and getting him used to wearing his tack. Part of that hand-walking has included showing him jumps and things so that they won't be a big surprise later on.

    He's taken everything pretty well so far. His default response to everything he's not sure about has been to plant his feet and stare at it, and then we usually inch closer to it until he's decided he's gone as far as he wants, at which point we do a lap to let him think about it. After the lap around the indoor/field/wherever we are, he usually walks right up to/over whatever the thing is. Last week we did this with the tires set up as a jump out in the field that we ride in, while last night it was the tarp that my barn owner had spread out on the ground in the indoor to desensitize her horse.

    He's obviously still got his baby curiosity, so I want to expose him to as much as I can while it's still there (and hopefully get him in the habit of continuing to respond to new things with curiosity instead of fear) and so here's my question: what are the most out-there things you can think of to use as desensitization tools (or really, any things you can think of at all, since I'm sure I'll miss plenty)?

    Like I said, we've conquered tarps and the goal is to haul out to a couple XC courses/trails later in the summer to just hack around the jumps and work on going through water. My current ideas for other things to show him consist of umbrellas and a bike, but I'm sure there are other things that it would be worth exposing him to, so I'll take any and all suggestions!

  • #2
    Things I have or plant to work my new guy (5 yo OTTB) in hand and under saddle around:
    • Trail bridges that make lots of banging noises. I have access to 2 that can be left in the arena
    • Fake plants
    • Silly fillers for jumps
    • Poles on the ground in versus configurations. I am going to do a random pile he has to pick through this week
    • Deer
    • Other farm animals
    • Dirt bikes, gulf carts, ATVs and anything else you can think of
    • Puddles, streams and if you can the ocean
    • Kites
    • Horse and carts
    • Ponies

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    • #3
      Umbrellas, pool noodles and sparkley mylar pom-poms.

      https://smile.amazon.com/ACI-PARTY-S...s%2C382&sr=8-5

      I think the list could be endless.

      Someday I think I'll take a picture of EVERY HORSE IN THE BARN EARS UP AND ALERT at me and my umbrella...
      “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

      Comment


      • #4
        I would find ways to do all of the above away from home (after established from home, of course). Nothing makes the wheels come off the equine bus quite like doing it all in a new place, and of course that is the core element of every competition!
        Your crazy is showing. You might want to tuck that back in.

        Comment


        • #5
          Was this horse at the track? If so, keep in mind this horse has probably seen A LOT already, so it’s most likely not really spooking. The behaviour you mention is more a training issue than a behaviour issue. Do some ground work, natural horsemanship style, and when you start under saddle just asserting who is doing the training. When gawking like that, I would do a small circle, to remind that you are up there and in charge. Keep doing it until the horse moves forward.
          Last edited by Jealoushe; May. 22, 2019, 11:42 AM.
          Boss Mare Eventing Blog

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          • Original Poster

            #6
            Originally posted by DMK View Post
            I would find ways to do all of the above away from home (after established from home, of course). Nothing makes the wheels come off the equine bus quite like doing it all in a new place, and of course that is the core element of every competition!
            I'm hoping to take him off-property a bunch this summer - I've been riding my BO's five-year-old Quarter pony for the last ~seven months and we fully intend to haul him and my BO's TB out for some mini-trials/jumper shows, so I'm hoping to put my guy in the third spot on the trailer for a lot of those just so he can experience the show atmosphere (and hopefully ride out on those XC courses during the schoolings that usually happen the day before, if only to see the fences and get used to being relaxed when other horses are riding past him outdoors).

            We also want to plan a few weekends to haul out for extra long trail rides and some hilltoppers at local hunter paces once he's relaxed riding outside/on trails at home, which will probably involve getting my best friend to tag along to ride the Quarter pony since (funnily enough) he's the grownup between the 3yo OTTB, the 13yo OTTB, and him, and we need someone who will be a good influence on the other two by staying calm and not overreacting to every little thing.

            I don't want to overload his little baby horse brain but I do want to give him plenty to think about while he's still curious about everything, so we'll see how it goes.

            Comment


            • #7
              If he is an OTTB, he has seen it all.. The best way to desensitize a horse, IMHO, is to take them out of their environment. Trail rides, hunter paces, etc... You can play in a ring with pool noodles all day but that does nothing IMHO for teaching them to be worldly undersaddle.
              AETERNUM VALE, INVICTUS - 7/10/2012

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              • Original Poster

                #8
                Originally posted by Jealoushe View Post
                Was this horse at the track? If so, keep in kindness this horse has probably seen A LOT already, so it’s most likely not really spooking. The behaviour you mention is more a training issue than a behaviour issue. Do some ground work, natural horsemanship style, and when you start under saddle just asserting who is doing the training. When gawking like that, I would do a small circle, to remind that you are up there and in charge. Keep doing it until the horse moves forward.
                Oh, he's definitely not spooking and he's not being bad either. He just has to take a second to look at new things and parse them and then he's totally fine with whatever it is, hence me wanting to get him exposed to as much as possible while he's not actively acting up about anything. We've only had one spook since he came home and it was because something banged down on the road and it startled him. He was at the track but he was too much of a slowpoke during his workouts for them to ever actually race him, so he spent most of his time on his trainer's farm ~10 minutes away from the track.

                Comment


                • #9
                  The circle exercise works well. Basically just get their attention back to you as soon as possible and focus on what you are asking.
                  Boss Mare Eventing Blog

                  Comment

                  • Original Poster

                    #10
                    Originally posted by beowulf View Post
                    If he is an OTTB, he has seen it all.. The best way to desensitize a horse, IMHO, is to take them out of their environment. Trail rides, hunter paces, etc... You can play in a ring with pool noodles all day but that does nothing IMHO for teaching them to be worldly undersaddle.
                    We'll be hauling him out a lot once he chills out at home under saddle. I just want to expose him to as many weird things as I can while we're at home so not everything is completely brand new every time we go to a new place. I'm obviously expecting baby antics everywhere we go for a while (hence the goal of getting him out as much as we can this summer to just ~experience things~ without any real expectations), but my hope is that if we can make the first time he sees an umbrella (or a pool noodle ) at home where he isn't being overloaded by all the other new stimulation, he won't be so freaked out by those things on top of the new surroundings.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Probably not an easy option for most at home, but other livestock. My mare (8 yo OTTB who's been around the block a bit) has the same lovely, curious reaction to things. Pigs were FREAKY on the first day at the barn I board at, but she wanted to slowly approach and meet the weird-smelling/looking/sounding neighbors. Chickens, cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, llamas can all be terrifying to many horses.

                      We're lucky that we board at a farm with all of these creatures on the premesis. Winnie's not sure about one flock of uppity ducks at the neighbor's place, and the llama still gets her attention (I approve; watch him, Win! Llamas can be dicks!), but we won't be shocked at a county fair, for sure.

                      Good luck and hope you enjoy the journey with your baby!

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by trakehners View Post

                        which will probably involve getting my best friend to tag along to ride the Quarter pony since (funnily enough) he's the grownup between the 3yo OTTB, the 13yo OTTB, and him, and we need someone who will be a good influence on the other two by staying calm and not overreacting to every little thing.
                        Hah, when my 4 year old fjord was just started, had about 60 days under saddle and went on his first trail ride, he was officially dubbed the "go to" horse for starting all the other newbs on trail rides. In fact about 4 weeks later he was called into service to start one. Some of them are just born "old souls"!

                        Also, you might want to check and see if there are any "horse playgrounds" you can ship into and work with stuff. Our local trail head has built a lot of stuff that is great for desensitizing young (and old) horses before, after or even during a trail ride.

                        For what it is worth, after starting quite a few young ones on trails in the last few years, I give about a 1/4 cc of ace IM before I put them on the trailer for the first ride (ends up being about 60-90 minutes before we ride). I've found it is just the perfect amount. If they are going to lose their shit, they will still lose it, it doesn't stop them from being reactive and I can attest they are mighty fine on their feet if they need to be. You want just enough to let them pause long enough to take a deep breath and consider their options (enjoy or freak out) but not so much as they really aren't "present" for the experience. I can't think of a horse I've done it twice for, I just want to have maybe 5% less reactivity the first time so I can plan accordingly. And I think for most of them it lets them relax a bit more, take it all in and figure out it is a fun experience, not a fearful one and you build from there.


                        Your crazy is showing. You might want to tuck that back in.

                        Comment

                        • Original Poster

                          #13
                          Originally posted by MegBackInSaddle View Post
                          Probably not an easy option for most at home, but other livestock. My mare (8 yo OTTB who's been around the block a bit) has the same lovely, curious reaction to things. Pigs were FREAKY on the first day at the barn I board at, but she wanted to slowly approach and meet the weird-smelling/looking/sounding neighbors. Chickens, cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, llamas can all be terrifying to many horses.

                          We're lucky that we board at a farm with all of these creatures on the premesis. Winnie's not sure about one flock of uppity ducks at the neighbor's place, and the llama still gets her attention (I approve; watch him, Win! Llamas can be dicks!), but we won't be shocked at a county fair, for sure.

                          Good luck and hope you enjoy the journey with your baby!
                          Thank you!! I've already really enjoyed this first month with him and I'm really excited to start riding him (I was going to sooner but then he threw a shoe last week doing silly baby things out in the field with the Quarter pony and I didn't want to get on until our farrier took a look at him this week - he's now barefoot on the hind and we're reevaluating in July to see if he can stay that way, so fingers crossed).

                          I actually hadn't thought at all about livestock, but that's a really good idea. My barn owner's daughter has an 11hh pony and it took a few days for her to stop being something scary, so letting him get exposure to other animals would probably be smart. The neighbors next to the barn have cows, and while we can't see them from the barn itself (we're up on top of a hill with trees around the whole property), we do have permission to ride through their property to get to the trails behind it, so that'll be an experience in and of itself once we head out there.

                          My aunt and uncle have two mini donkeys out at their farm ~an hour and a half away from the barn and lease out some of their pasture to local farmers, plus there are all the neighboring farms, so maybe I'll see about hauling him there to ride around their property/down the farm road past all the other pastures. I know some of the neighbors have sheep and cattle, so even if all we do is ride the edge of the property, we'd still be across the street from a lot of pastures with livestock in them. My aunt and uncle don't have horses anymore, but they still have everything set up from when they ran the local pony club, so I don't think it would hurt to haul him out there either way.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I know it's not really an answer per se, but Elisa Wallace's YouTube channel is an incredible resource, showing how she progresses with desensitizing and confidence-building for a range of horses and issues (she works with OTTBs and mustangs). She really enjoys the process and puzzle of bringing along each individual horse-- it's honestly an amazing (and free) education watching her work with them. https://www.youtube.com/user/WallaceEventing
                            ***
                            The hardest to learn was the least complicated.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              I like desensitization, though not really so much to "desensitize" a horse as to teach them what to do when something makes them nervous, i.e. keep your attention on me, go forward no matter what, always look to me to see how to react, be okay with going over/through anything. I will let them play a little with whatever it is that worried them the first few times, but at a point they have to learn how to handle themselves without checking it out. So setting up anything that they can go over/through is good. I like making little "chutes", sent four jump standards close together with poles across, set like an oxer basically, to create a little chute they can walk through and hang up random stuff on the poles (ribbons, plastic bags, caution tape, flags, use your imagination), then lead them (eventually ride them) through it, getting narrower as they get more confident. Another fun thing is tying ribbon or caution tape to a fan, turning that on and having them walk past the fan through the ribbon. Small crazy jump fillers they can step over while you lead them at a walk. Banks, ditches (the steep kind you walk down into then up back out of), water crossings. Things that are shiny or reflective, like those big reflectors photographers use (horses can FREAK at those). If you have any people that do mounted shooting near you, going to one of their practices to expose them to loud sudden noises can be good, that and all the smoke. Get him around cattle if you can. If there are rodeos in your area, some will let you haul in even if you aren't competing. Your options are limited only by your imagination!

                              Comment


                              • #16
                                Originally posted by beowulf View Post
                                If he is an OTTB, he has seen it all.. The best way to desensitize a horse, IMHO, is to take them out of their environment. Trail rides, hunter paces, etc... You can play in a ring with pool noodles all day but that does nothing IMHO for teaching them to be worldly undersaddle.
                                Yes. I don't do much specific "desensitizing," I just ride them. They learn a new job by doing the new job. OTTBs have seen tractors, cars, trucks, and probably golf carts and bikes. They've been in new situations before and had to deal with it without much hand-holding. It's smart to have a calm buddy horse along for reassurance, but I'm by myself most of the time and I have to step in to give them confidence.

                                Still, unless a horse has a particular phobia, I don't spend time flapping umbrellas or pool noodles at home. Every day is a chance to gain confidence and trust in the rider: to go forward successfully when asked, regardless of the situation. We might go over a tarp, but that's because I use a tarp to simulate a ditch or liverpool. I'll take them over poles, and flower boxes. I hack out A LOT at home, and if it rained recently I'll take the paths with big puddles to get exposure to water. I take advantage of fallen logs or the 4-wheeler hills. A large part of eventing is going places, so I haul out to new trails with their own set of challenges, and XC obstacles. I've taken young horses to trail-obstacle challenges, to encourage them to think through puzzles and build trust. All of this is part of creating a well-rounded horse, whether it's 2yo, 4yo, OTTB, homebred, or whatever.
                                A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.
                                ? Albert Einstein

                                ~AJ~

                                Comment


                                • #17
                                  If you're looking for an eventer-specific thing, and thinking wayyyyy down the road, it couldn't hurt to start presenting a start box and learning start box manners. I usually just build one out of jump poles and standards.

                                  Comment

                                  • Original Poster

                                    #18
                                    Originally posted by EVneo View Post
                                    If you're looking for an eventer-specific thing, and thinking wayyyyy down the road, it couldn't hurt to start presenting a start box and learning start box manners. I usually just build one out of jump poles and standards.
                                    That's another thing that I hadn't thought of, but definitely a good idea, so thanks!

                                    I should reiterate here, as a general thing (not directed at EVneo), that when I say he just turned three, I mean he just turned three on May 5th. I'm planning to get on him this week, but he still has a lot of growing up to do and we're going to be spending a lot of time just walking under saddle for the next month or two. He's still a pretty lanky baby and as much as I'd love to be able to just throw him into the deep end under saddle, I'd like to give him a bit more time to mature physically and also take more time to build a relationship with him on the ground (this is personal preference, not a dig at anyone else's training style).

                                    I used to lease a horse who was in a bad situation before he came to the barn I was at at the time. He'd been taught that if he was unsure about anything, he'd be beaten, which translated into a rearing problem that took me a long time to work through with him so that he would trust me and stay calm when we did come up to new stuff (and he wound up being an absolute beast XC once he figured out that I wouldn't hurt him like that, go figure). I'd never do anything like what was done to him to any horse, but it has made me cautious about which fights I pick when about new things and caused me to find value in doing all of the stupid little stuff, both for the exposure and having other things to do with my horse than my usual list, even if those little things don't seem all that relevant to under-saddle work.

                                    Comment


                                    • #19
                                      Teach him about children and dogs.

                                      Comment


                                      • #20
                                        Originally posted by trakehners View Post

                                        I actually hadn't thought at all about livestock, but that's a really good idea. My barn owner's daughter has an 11hh pony and it took a few days for her to stop being something scary...
                                        My mom and sis went to a show where a girl had a mini that just DESTROYED the sanity of several horses. Like, had to scratch all classes, ruined them for the day. Weird what they decide is terrifying. Winnie notices *everything* but isn't too spooky. However, there's a pair of tiny stone ponies in a nearby yard that she's keeping a very, very close eye on.

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