Many horses struggle with spooking. This is a natural reaction for horses that comes from their wild ancestors, living out among predators and human influence. Horses are often shamed for being “too spooky” or “too flighty”, although that isn’t really a fair accusation. If horses weren’t overly aware of their surroundings, there probably wouldn’t be as many wild horses around as there are today. However, that’s a topic for another day. For now, we are going to discuss ways to desensitize your horse, through DIY obstacles that can be easily made at your home or barn. Desensitizing helps not only to boost confidence in horses, but also to make them feel more comfortable in several situations. Both of these things are very important to ensure that a horse is entirely safe to be ridden by any person and under any circumstance. Of course, each horse will react differently to desensitization and will learn at different speeds, but it never hurts to expose your horse to new things!
#1 Plastic Grocery Bag
If you can’t find at least one of these for free, you’re either living in an extremely remote location or under a rock (LOL). So ask your neighbor or raid your pantry, but either way, grab a few plastic bags and tie them to the end of a broomstick. Start into this exercise slowly, by just leaving the bag and broomstick on the ground. Allow your horse to investigate! They should be able to sniff around it, touch it, or even walk over it if they choose to. Depending on your horse’s reaction, move on to moving the bag so it makes a little more noise. Eventually the goal is to be able to wave it around, hitting it against things (including your horse, gently of course), all while making quite the ruckus. Honestly, a rogue plastic bag could be the difference between a lovely trail ride and a very unpleasant one.
#2 Crepe Paper Party Streamers
These babies are most definitely sold at your local dollar store and possibly even partially used at the goodwill for a quarter or two. These are used similarly to the plastic bag, however you can get really creative with them. Start by hanging them from the ceiling in your arena or from an arched gate entryway. Make sure that wherever you hang them if a safe space in the event that your horse does initially shy away. Much like other desensitizing exercises, start slow and work your way up to more intense maneuvers. First try walking near the streamers, allowing your horse to check them out. Work towards getting your horse to walk under them and eventually through them. If you can get to the point of riding your horse through them as they wave in the wind, grazing every bit of your horse’s head, ears and back, then you’ve conquered the crepe paper.
#3 Blow-Up Pool Toys
Once again, these are easily accessible and will not break the bank. If you time it right and purchase near the end of summer, you might have a huge selection of pool toys that are all on clearance! Choose a few different types, in various shapes and sizes. Once again, allow your horse to investigate the scene before pushing them too far. Large blow-up pool toys are great for setting up obstacle courses. You can lie them near each other to make chutes and “hallways” for your horse to walk through. You can even set them up on top of barrels, so that your horse must approach them, allow you to grab the toy and carry it while you’re sitting on their back. The goal here is basically to make the giant blow-up alligator seem as harmless as a small flag in the flag and barrel race.
Remember to always start these exercises slowly and from the ground. You don’t want to be sitting atop your sixteen-hand steed when they decide that crepe paper streamers are not their favorite decoration. Work up to riding them in and around the props, until the biggest deal turns into the littlest one!