Thursday 5 December 2019


Just some winter ponderings...

A riding buddy and I were chatting the other day and contemplating some winter and spring events. Our trail challenge courses seem to be a thing quite a few people enjoy, and there are one or two clinicians that enough people like that we can make a go of booking them and combining that with a fun trail challenge day (sadly, my favorite coach is "english" and therefore not one of them ;) )

Although I do have to say, low level eventing kind of equals a trail challenge, no? 

Like all events and clinics, there are goals and things people want to accomplish. And we have a lot of fun. BUT, being kind of an outsider to the western world, some of the extreme/spooky trail and desensitizing stuff raises questions for me. Honestly some of the opinions and personalities make me a bit uncomfortable. I'm not sure I have the words or my thoughts in enough order to make this concise, but here we go:

I don't think it's fair for me (or anyone) to TRY to push until there is a reaction. I'm good with stuff being there that's potentially scary. I'm not a fan of things like people waving tarps and plastic bags around trying to get a reaction...I'm pretty sure my horse is smart enough to tell the difference between me scaring/annoying her on purpose vs a random event or person doing so without a focus on her. Taking it a step further, if I ever did approach a horse with that much intent, energy and noise, I kind of want and expect them to be aware of it, not tuning me out.

Unless it's Bridget. Then do whatever you gotta do to make her put her ears up for a photo :D

I 100% believe our horses can easily read our intention. I want to be reliable and trusted as far as the relationship with my horses go. They don't scare or annoy me on purpose, why would I scare or annoy them on purpose? We don't avoid new or scary things, but they're never the focus of the day, either. If something unexpected happens, we trust each other and figure it out. I think that's a fair deal.

I had an interesting chat on this very subject with a clinician after people asked me why he didn't push Sophie further. (They've seen her react and spook and I get the feeling that they think a lot less of us for it and that clinician should 'fix it' and help me more) The short answer is what you'd expect: always ends on a good note, give the horse confidence and quit while you're ahead.

Master of the pool noodles. They're just like navigating a narrow, bushy trail, right?

Then he added quite a bit more to his answer that I thought was interesting. As always, please take this with a grain of salt as I'm paraphrasing my understanding.

A lot of people fall into a trap of desensitizing and doing ground work to death, because "that's what you do". He mentioned learned helplessness, and was quite vocal about keeping things fun for the horses, while still giving the people confidence.

He also mentioned that there are lots of horses out there that won't be a good fit for a program. In his younger days, he would have worked harder and made it happen. Now, though, he's much more likely to leave it be and suggest a change in job or rider to suit the horse better. His advice now is that if you want or need a brave and bombproof horse, buy one with the mind to be trained to be so. He likes a thinking, reactive horse, and for the riding he does, that's what he needs. He can encourage whatever aspect of their personality he needs, but when it comes down to it, there are always going to be jobs some horses aren't mentally suited for and shouldn't be pushed in to.

Baby Bridget had zero issues with water
or bridges. She just naturally didn't care too much. But the times I picked a fight about doing it 'faster' didn't work out well for me.

In the nicest possible way, he was telling me Sophie is probably not going to be the dead quiet horse walking through the trail challenge. And that's really OK, we don't need her to be! She needs to trust me and do the thing, but she's allowed to look and think and ask me questions about it, too.

For my purposes, his input was that I don't ever want to "dull" my horses down and he'd actually prefer them to be a bit more reactive and quick thinking than I am currently allowing (Sophie wants to be super sensitive to my cues and that's a gift, I need to have the confidence to use it) so my thoughts and questions aren't out in left field for my dressage goals and (average) riding ability. Cool.

So that all seems very common sense. But also very much at odds with other clinicians, when you think about it. There seem to be a whole lot of them that will fix anything and advocate for you as the rider being the boss and the horse doing whatever you say without question.

Anyway, it's a grey, windy, and rainy day out there, and I need to take my horses for an outing.  I think I'll just keep doing what I'm doing and trust my horses are OK. Enjoy the weekend!



  1. I am never going to be able to find it, but this is the subject of a post from maybe a decade ago on Mugwump Chronicles that has stuck with me. She said when she was training a horse for an adult ammy client, she'd do some desensitization. But her own horses (reiners), she never did, because she didn't want to desensitize them to herself. And she was very aware of her own body language and actions around them, so that it wasn't a problem for the horses. I didn't say it nearly as well as she did, but it was the moment I started thinking like you.

    1. Oh neat! I love her blog and probably read that only took me 10 years to process, I guess :D The clinician I talked to said similar - he'll desensitize horses if it's a safety/confidence thing for the client, but he's not a fan. He delved a little deeper into the ethics of it all, but he was pretty blunt and I don't want to inadvertently offend anyone or misquote him :)

  2. I don't think people are trying to get a reaction, just trying to best address whatever the horse's natural reaction happens to be when put in a new/unusual situation. At least that has been my experience. (But I'm sure there are a lot of crazy people out there who do god knows what with their horses!)
    Cupid is one of those horses that can cope with a lot of craziness that would set other horses off, but then overreacts to something small I wouldn't expect him to have a problem with :p

  3. Also kind of interesting, my trainer was playing with a bit of "baby piaffe" training, getting Cupid to lift his feet in response to the whip. I asked if that wasn't confusing, since sometimes we do desensitization with the whip or ropes and she said it should be clear in your intention and body language what you're asking for.

  4. I love this. I don't worry about my horses having reactions, I just try to reward them in ways that encourages certain responses. Stopping and looking reward, trying to bolt the opposite direction we try again. I also don't try to baby them. I intentionally act "spooky" and just carry about my business so they learn humans do weird things and when it becomes necessary to do something a little odd they are ok with it.

  5. I've become much less of a fan of "desensitization," because the point of it seems to be creating learned helplessness (that is, you will never escape this plastic bag I'm waving at you, so you might as well stop trying). Instead I've been using more R+, with rewards that encourage the horse to stop and think when they encounter something new and different, and allow them time to process and proceed. My insanely spooky baby horse now drags me to anything remotely weird, because he knows he will get a reward (cookie, praise, scratches). Sure it's a little awkward at times, but way better than his previous spook/spin/bolt reaction!

  6. I have definitely seen people use groundwork as be all and end all and never actually ride their horses or put them into situations where, hey the groundwork we do might become helpful. It can be mind boggling but I guess we are all different? *shrugs*

  7. Interesting approach from this clinician...nice to hear that some of them are thinking and doing things a bit differently from the traditional approach.

    I think people get stuck in a ground work loop and don't know how to get out of it. I know this couple that Parelli their horses the whole time they are at a show and not riding. The horses don't get a break from constantly fiddling and futzing around. Kinda odd. But like L said - people are all different!