In this article, I will continue to teach you how to despook your horse. It is very important that your horse is prepared for this task before you begin. For details on preparing your horse, read part one here.
If you have done your preparation work, your horse should be fairly calm and trusting in a non-stress environment. The key to despooking is to gradually increase the stress element, or fear factor, while maintaining your control and ultimately convincing your horse to trust you and let go of his fear.
The more varied the items you choose to incorporate into your despooking program, the more trusting your horse is going to become. It is very important to keep your own emotions under control. You must portray complete calmness in every situation. Remember, your horse is now looking to you as herd leader, and if you show anything but a calm attitude, your horse will pick up on it.
If you have followed the steps in part one, you should be able to back your horse up in a straight line, and then ask him forward again. You should also be able to send your horse out on a circle in either direction. If you can’t do this, you must go back and work on it until you can.
Its best to start small, generally a plastic grocery bag will do. Ideally, it should be tied to the end of a fairly stiff stick (whips wibble wobble to much, so they are hard to stop the movement when needed). Its important to never be “sneaky” while despooking. Let the horse see whats going on. Don’t suddenly produce some scary object from behind your back.
The first thing you will do, standing very relaxed, is show your horse the object (bag) and hope he will sniff it, or at least not try to run a mile.
One of three things will most likely happen. He will sniff it, he will stand there trying really hard to ignore it, or he will try to run a mile. At this point you are really only gauging your horses fear factor to the object. You will find different objects will get different reactions. The bag may be fine, a ballon may send him into panic. Also start here to see where to go next.
Worse case, he panics and wants to run. That’s fine. Stay calm. Ditch the object and calm your horse. Remember, safety first! Generally a few circles with turns will bring his stress level down.
Take the scary object and place it somewhere that it wont blow (or roll) away. Tied to a fence, a chair, a tree, anywhere you can work on getting your horse close enough to that he can sniff it. Your item should be at your horses eye level.
Now you will ask your horse to go out on the circle, and circle by the object. Be as far away as you need to be for him to be calm. You may have to go to the other end of the arena! Thats fine. Keep circling him, changing directions every third lap or so. Its the changing of directions that will keep his brain engaged. Slowly you will move your circle closer and closer to the object. This may take more then one session if your horse is particularly spooky.
You will carry on doing this until you can circle him, at a walk, in a calm manner, right by the object. When you feel he is ready, try to either stop him on the circle, or walk him up to the object and get him to sniff it, or at least stand quietly right next to the object.
Now that your horse will sniff, or at least tolerate your object, you will lead him around with the object in front of him. He will be hesitant, but be persistent. You will find as he walks around following the object, he will start to become curious about it. If you can’t get him to move forward, use the side to side technique I describe in my round pen article here.
You will notice his attitude begin to change and he will want to see the object. Stop and show him, hope for a sniff. If he will sniff it, try to rub your item on his wither, emulating grooming. If he moves off or panics, go back to having him follow it around some more. Remember sometimes this will take multiple sessions to achieve.
If you ever feel like your progress is going backwards, stop. Do whatever worked, and put your horse away. Also, in my experience, a horses attention span is just over an hour, so be aware of the time.
Once you can get your horse to stand for being rubbed on the wither, you can then go up and down his neck. Remember to do both sides. Once he will tolerate that you can move on to rubbing him all over. Again, I generally like to use a stick, especially for the hind legs.
Get creative, move the item over his head, maybe be a bit more vigorous in your movements, build his trust and tolerance.
You are now ready to despook your horse to anything you can think of! Always go through all the steps, always do both sides, always end on a good note. There is always the danger of asking for just a little more, so know when enough is enough, there is always another day!
My favourite despooking items are, plastic bag, tarp, space hopper, tin cans and bells on a rope, balloons, umbrellas, flags, etc.
Have fun and be safe!