In Part One, I discussed a method of desensitization intended to help a horse overcome fear. This process is problematic as it often causes dulling and dissociation in the horse, rather than helping him overcome his fear. I’d like to show you some other ways to help the horse become less fearful and more confident. These techniques work with the horse to encourage his inherent curiosity and help him stay calm and present, thinking through a challenge rather than rushing through fearfully. The best part is once a horse has had a few positive experiences of working through a new situation with your assistance, he will be more likely to trust you as he is presented with the next one.
Helping a horse overcome fear with Tellington TTouch Training
The Tellington TTouch Method incorporates a broad variety of techniques and tools that can be applied individually or layered together. There are no fixed recipes and you are encouraged to use your creativity to figure out a way to work with an individual horse on any given day. There are many great resources to learn the Method, but I’d like to show you one way we might work with a specific fear – that of walking on a new surface.
It is common for horses to be nervous to step onto an unfamiliar surface. He may refuse to load in a trailer because of the feel of the floor, or stop at a water crossing, or simply shy at a shadow on the ground. We can help a horse overcome these types of fears by using plastic tarps.
You will need 2 plastic tarps and a still day (wind is not your friend in this process!). Take your tarps and fold them lengthwise into strips. Depending on the type of tarp you might end up with a 10’ length and a 12-18” width. Lay the tarps on the ground in a very wide “V” shape. Depending on your horse, you may need to start out with the narrowest part 6’ apart (no part of the two strips are touching each other). This shape allows the horse to enter at the wide part of the “V”, walk through without touching or coming close to the plastic itself. Your goal is to let the horse take a good look before approaching the opening, then walk through calmly.
Monitor your horse closely for any sign of nervousness or concern, and make sure he has really seen the tarps before you enter the space between. Allow him to turn his head and raise or lower it so he can really see and process the tarps on both sides. You don’t want him to paw or grab the tarp with his teeth at this point as he could frighten himself and set the process back. You always want to give him the choice to say “I can’t” as you invite him to walk through. You can always make the obstacle easier by widening and taking it slower. When he feels heard, and can trust you to listen to his concerns he will develop more confidence in you and be more willing to try.
As he shows you he is comfortable walking through the opening between the tarps, you can gradually narrow the space between them. Be aware of where your footsteps land, as you don’t want to frighten him by the noise of your boots suddenly scrunching on the tarp. I recommend letting him watch you as you move the tarps around so you can notice if the sound is concerning to him. If so, go slowly, and avoid startling him with a big noise. You may find that a head wrap and a body wrap will help a nervous and sound-sensitive horse. The wanding technique I discuss in Part One will be very useful to you as you help him overcome fear of the noise.
As you work through the process of narrowing, then eliminating the gap between the tarps, you can also widen out the folded tarps as well, creating a larger surface to walk between. Eventually, your horse will be completely comfortable stepping over the tarp. This may happen in one session, but don’t push your horse. Watch for little steps of improvement, and make sure it is easy for him to be successful. These positive experiences will build and he will develop greater and greater trust in you as you progress.
This experience of safely and bravely stepping on tarps will help your horse with many new footing and surface challenges. You can also give your horse different experiences by doing this exercise with pieces of cardboard, plywood, carpet, or rubber matting. Be creative with whatever you have around the barn and keep your horse interested to see what you have up your sleeve for the next work session.
Calm your horses fears with Acupressure
One of my favorite points to teach my clients is Governing Vessel 24. This is an excellent choice to calm a horse and help him focus. It eases anxiety and busy minds (and busy mouths).
This is an easy point to find, and safe to use for any horse where you can touch the head.
The point is located on the central midline of the forehead, directly under the forelock. Hold the halter while standing off to one side of the head, and apply a fingertip to the area directly under the forelock. Your horse many respond well to a gentle steady contact, or prefer a light circular rubbing motion. Whichever technique you use, allow a few minutes to let the horse experience the acupressure and relax. When introducing acupressure to your horse, he may more easily accept a few seconds at a time, building to a few minutes as he becomes accustomed to the sensation. Regular acupressure on this point before or after training sessions will help him be calmer and able to think more clearly.
Flower Essence for confidence
Sometimes a horse may be needing a boost in confidence, rather than being particularly fearful. He is just a bit timid, and doesn’t dive into new things like his herdmates. In this case, try Larch flower essence. This is one of the Bach flower essences, and is useful in any circumstance where a horse (or dog, or person…) is nervous about trying something new, and is afraid to fail or be embarrassed. It shifts the perspective into a sense of excitement and possibility and an eagerness to learn and try new things.
Offer a few drops on a cookie before sessions and see if your horse finds a new sense of courage. You may find it useful to take a few drops yourself before a lesson or a class.