Allowing our horses to see and interact with different and weird stuff is an important part of their education. This is not about desensitising them (which infers they are dulled to their environment), but rather to give them the opportunity to learn more about the world and as a team-building exercise.
At parades or festivals it is not uncommon to see people in all sorts of cool costumes or decorated floats, as well as people pushing prams, twirling umbrellas, kids with balloons, and all sorts of flags. We have an assortment of flags, umbrellas and other stuff that we regularly incorporate into our training. T-rex has been a part of our education program for a couple of years now, but Horse is a brand new addition, many thanks to Chase Day. Horse was definitely more snort-worthy when we inflated him yesterday for the first time. A more familiar shape than T-rex for our equines, but still very weird and different, especially when he moved.
Everyone encouraged their horses to explore T-rex and Horse at their own pace, and at a distance they were comfortable with. Of course, some of the horses were more curious, and some more cautious at the start. And that’s perfectly normal. These sessions are a good opportunity for the more nervous horses to get some courage from the more inquisitive ones.
At displays and parades, it is paramount that we can keep our horses’ attention focused on us and the job at hand rather than being concerned about someone in the audience in costume or waving a weird thing. If we tried to achieve this through “desensitisation”, we would end up with horses dulled to the things we have shown them, but have no tools for when they see something completely new. That’s why we do things in a more playful, relaxed way, where they can investigate, snort at, and play with weird, and confronting things. We keep the sessions fun because that means all the humans are relaxed, and the horses in a more conducive learning environment. We incrementally make it more challenging, pushing boundaries but not overfacing anyone, and praising every attempt to approach the weird things. Firstly on the ground and if all is ok, then under saddle. What we are building is a solid foundation where they learn that it is OK to be a little worried, but to trust us (as handler or rider) to help them through that worry. In this way, we can help them no matter what the new situation is, while being fully aware of their environment.
Time well spent, firstly as a fun session in itself and more importantly, as an investment in the future of our horses.