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Why Desensitizing is WRONG! Work through fear Naturally with Holistic Horsemanship

Holistic Horsemanship will teach you how to read your horse‘s emotions so you can understand the behavior

Too often we see videos of people desensitizing horses, without realizing how damaging the practice is to our horse’s emotional and mental health - not to mention our physical safety.

The reality is that desensitization teaches us how to dumb down, and numb our horses. It is a means of controlling our horse through force, pain, dominance, submission or coercion (treats).

While some people call desensitizing "habituation", it is not. That’s because anytime we consistently and excessively force a horse to “face their fear” and push them through it, we flood their nervous system. When we flood them, they naturally produce huge amounts of adrenaline which naturally puts them in self-preservation mode. This prolonged state of stress level creates long term issues, both physical and mental issues (like ulcers, and anxiety).

Desensitizing horses is against Holistic Horsemanship
Clinton Anderson (above) actually admits "When I’m desensitizing a horse, if he wants to get scared, that’s fine by me. Heart attacks are free. As long as I’m in a safe position, I don’t care if he has a heart attack."

Desensitizing is one way of "flooding the horse" - repeatedly stimulating the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which in turn releases excessive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol throughout the horse’s nervous system. These hormones are responsible for self-preservation, freeze, fight and flight.

Too much of anything is not good and that's because it creates imbalances. If a horse has been flooded and you don't fix the excessive adrenaline that floods their nervous system, you will create a horse that is easily triggered everytime they see or interact with the thing you flooded them with.

Too often people mistake a horse that gets still and quiet after being desensitized as fixed or cured. When in reality they are completely checked out and in learned helplessness. Unfortunately this is more the norm for most of my students.

Learning to read the signs of when a horse is feeling flooded is key to not flooding them in the first place.

Another example of flooding, frequently used in natural horsemanship training (and often incorrectly labeled as habituation or desensitization) is a horse that’s exposed to a scary stimulus while on line, enclosed in a round pen or being ridden.

The exposure to the stimulus naturally triggers the fight and flight response, but the horse is unable to run far enough away to settle and relax. In addition, the horse experiences additional stimuli from either aids, and constant pressure, thus experiences multiple stimulus in a short period of time. This is called trigger stacking.

Trigger stacking occurs when the horse hits too many thresholds at once and can’t escape (run away) or rest and digest (process). Again, they are overloaded, overwhelmed and have no way of finding relief or ways of returning to their parasympathetic nervous system.

These horses end up stuck in their sympathetic nervous system. These are the horses that end up in the freeze mode, standing still and appearing to accept the scary stimulus (eg tarp, cracking whip, flag, stick and string or even a chainsaw) being moved around them and even touching them. More importantly, they are the horses that appear calm on a trail ride, or while being ridden and suddenly explode, for no apprant reason.

A trigger-stacked horse can explode at any moment, unless you can read the signs...

Just because the horse is standing still does NOT always mean they are relaxed. Careful examination of the body language reveals the horse is ‘tucked up’ (holding their breath) and carrying a lot of tension through the muscles, particularly around the muzzle and eyes.

Horses are sentient beings who are master prey, meaning their sensory awareness is very much heightened to keep them safe - while their level of sensitivity is one of the most sophisticated of all species.

Desensitizing not only robs horses of their nature and natural instincts, it breaks their spirit in the process.

This is where the term “dead broke” or “breaking horses” originated. It began with the cowboys who roamed thousands of acres tending to their ranches and needed fresh, healthy horses to ride every day. The only fresh horses were wild horses.

Cowboys "breaking" horses

The process of breaking wild horses involved force, domination, and control – indeed the word 'breaking' was not coined for any other reason than to represent the fact that the horse's spirit must essentially be broken to ensure a complaint and willing beast of burden.

Desensitizing is no different.

So what do I mean by “naturally helping a horse work through their fear?” Let’s look at what the word desensitize means and how we can do this in a more natural, less stressful way.

According to the dictionary, desensitizing means: make less sensitive; make (someone) less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty, violence, or suffering by overexposure to such images. Example: "the media had desensitized him to the horror of violence”; free (someone) from a phobia or neurosis by gradually exposing the person to the thing that is feared.

Ahhh, this last sentence is key! To “free (person or horse) from a phobia or neurosis by gradually exposing the person to the thing that is feared.” In other words, desensitize through a slow and gradual process.

This is what we refer to as “natural habituation.” And this is a healthy way to help your horse.

Natural habituation occurs when the horse is exposed to the stimulus they fear and in a way that does not force the them to accept it. An example would be leaving plastic bags and tarps around a horse's environment, so he can become familiar and get use to them on his own terms.

We can also guide the process of habituation for our horse through feel and timing. This is where we can work with them online or under saddle, paying close attention to their thresholds and allowing them to set the pace, as long as they are trying. This is key to helping a horse work through their fear. You can't help them if they aren't trying (avoiding the item/area they are afraid of) AND you can't make them accept it, get over it and move on. You have to learn HOW to read your horse and understand what they need at that moment while helping them figure it out.

This is how holistic horsemanship can help you. It teaches you everything you need to know to help your horse have positive learning experiences so they become trusting, confident and happy partners.

The number one area to helping a horse work through their fear is keeping them in their parasympathetic nervous system of calm, rest and digest.

If we rush the process – push them too fast or too hard – they will go back into their sympathetic nervous system of freeze, fight and flight. Helping a horse work through fear has to be a natural process for the horse and one where they remain in state of calm and relaxation, thinking and responding. This is how we create an empowering experience for the horse, one where they develop confidence and bravery.

Observational Learning in Holistic Horsemanship, Tao of Horsemanship, Natural Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson, Downunder Horsemanship
An example of holistically working through fear using observational learning

In most cases, habituation works by itself, without our help, and the fearful horse learns to not fear the object and either through observational learning (learning from other horses), or through time (they get use to it) and choice. But, if in time they can't overcome their fear (replacing it with curiosity), we will need to help them work through it.

Remember, helping a horse work through fear has nothing to do with pushing or forcing a horse through fear. It's understanding where to be, when to be and why you're there for your horse – giving them the skills and support needed to figure things out on their own. And, most importantly, while remaining in their parasympathetic nervous system of calm, rest and digest. In the end, this is how we develop a happy, healthy (no gut issues!), relaxed and responsive horse.

Emotions should always matter more than behavior.

Anyone can teach, or force, a horse to do something, but it takes skill and thoughtfulness to produce a horse that is genuinely relaxed and ‘happy’ with the process.

I promise I can teach you how to achieve it all with your horse and in a way that feels great for you both. Join my free miniseries below to begin, or see the full program here.


You are personally invited to join my free 7-Day Holistic Horsemanship Mastery Miniseries where you can experience my groundbreaking and transformational training method for yourself!

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If you’ve been searching for a deeper way to be with horses, a better way to train horses and in a connected and safe riding partnership, the Tao of Horsemanship Academy is for you!

With a comprehensive website of holistic horsemanship information, as well as free resources, support and a complete online learning program, you can immerse yourself in the world of consensual partnership with your horse and love the journey as you learn together.

May you always be one with your horse,

Caroline Beste

Founder, Tao of Horsemanship


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