Desensitizing Your Horse For Trail riding

Desensitizing your horse for trail riding

Trail riding with your horse is one of the most exhilarating and adventurous activities for both yourself and your horse. But if your horse has anxiety, it can give you anxiety in return. You’re riding peacefully along the trail when suddenly, you feel your horse’s body convulse and buck back in fright. You look all around expecting to see the giant rattler with teeth bared, uncoiling from under the bushes. But you don’t see anything. You see what have always been there – trees, rocks and grass. Wait, what’s that hanging from a branch? It’s an old tattered jacket hanging in the breeze. Suddenly, your horse wheels around and bolts back to the barn.

Realizing from time to time that horses will always find something spooky on the trail, is one of the things all riders must accept. After all, prey animals are by nature, always “on the lookout”. No need to worry though, equine anxiety is surmountable once you understand the potential causes of the anxiety and work toward desensitizing your horse to them.

There are several types of fear your horse may experience when trail riding. The following are the most common types:

Objects: The most common objects, horses usually fear are big rocks, big bushes, and objects that suddenly cross the path, cars, farm equipment and anything unusual.

Sounds: Strange and unexpected sounds really spook horses. Sounds like a car backfiring, loud thuds or shrieks, hissing and rustling. 

Other animals: Since horses are a prey animal, they are afraid of other wildlife like birds, cows, deer and sheep.

While it’s impossible to avoid all of these fears during trail riding, a rider must be willing to be a little creative when coming up with a remedy. A great way to address these fears is through repetition. Repetition has a way of relieving your horse’s anxiety over time by just dealing with the experience of these over and over again.

Sacking Out Method
One of the best approaches to desensitizing your horse to possible frightening objects or situations is a method called sacking out. This method is used by horse trainers to teach a horse not to be fearful of certain objects, sounds and wildlife. While it’s impossible to desensitize a horse to all sources of fear, this technique employs an approach that teaches the horse to first trust the handler by stopping and listening to the handler during a frightening situation. This changes the horse’s reaction from fright or flight to stopping and listening to the handler.
Sacking out develops trust in the handler that fearful objects, sounds and situations will not cause harm. The approach employs a step by step process designed to quash the horse’s fear of, let’s say an object by introducing the object to the horse. Gradually, the handler introduces different objects and sounds to the horse with the idea that over time, the horse will become accustomed to them.

The first thing you should do is try to find the causes of your horse’s fear. You can do this by taking note of your horse’s reaction to certain things while trail riding. For example, if it’s an object he’s fearful of, show it to him and have him touch or rub it. Do this with different objects he is potentially fearful of. This will reinforce the trust that they will not harm him.

If it’s certain sounds he is fearful of, first make sure you put him in a familiar place and with his pasture mates, a place where he feels safe and secure. Present the sounds at a volume that will not frighten. Feed treats to the horse while the sound is active and stop as soon as the sound ends.

If you use these methods consistently, over time your horse will become desensitized through repetitive practices. Patience, dedication and consistency are the words of the day with horse training and before you know it, spooky trail riding will become a thing of the past.

Effective horse training techniques


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