Last year I wrote 3 articles about the process of de-spooking. Here are all the articles re-posted in their entirety.
Preparing to De-Spook
Several elements need to come together in order to be successful at this. For this reason, this will be split into two parts. Part one will focus on preparing to despook. So lets get started!
It is very important to remember, despooking can be quite dangerous for both you and your horse. Great care has to be taken to ensure you and your horse are properly prepared for this task.
When I take a horse in for handling or breaking, despooking usually falls on or around day 6 (or day 1, week 2). They will generally have 5 days of prep work before I get into the scary stuff.
Safety is always paramount for me when working with any horse. The first 5 days are spent creating a safe working relationship between me and the horse. What naturally occurs through this process is respect, trust, obedience, friendship and calmness.
Until these 5 elements are cultivated, the horse will not be prepared to have his boundaries of “fear” expanded. Now obviously every horse is different. Some horses are naturally fearless, but I will assume, if you are reading this, your horse is not one of these!
So, unless you have achieved respect, trust, obedience, friendship and calmness with your horse, you are not ready to attempt a despooking session.
Since this is part one, I will attempt, in an interesting and not over winded manner, to help you achieve those 5 elements. So lets start from the beginning. I think the best way to explain this, is to go through an average week of work on an average horse that lands in my yard for training.
The average horse is 2-4 yrs old with little to no training or handling. Some have had more, such as head collaring and leading, some have had less, such as completely untouched. The average owner wants the horse broken to ride (horrible word, I know), or made show or sale ready (Cavan sales particularly). The first week is the same regardless of the end goal.
We will assume the horse in this example has been head collared and can be led.
Day one. Lets make friends, and move our feet.
Day one starts and we head to the arena. I am aware of how the horse behaves with me. Is he pushy, walking on top of me, reluctant to lead, pulling back, nervous, not paying attention, swinging the head around looking for the other horses, etc.
The first thing I do is create my personal space for safety. Backwards and forwards, until the horse gets the idea to move back off me. In parelli this is the yo-yo game. Its important, and there is no need for me to recreate the wheel, so I will call it what it is. If you are unfamiliar with the yo-yo game, google it, I’m sure there are a million videos.
Once I have established that I can move the horse off me, I move on.
I always use a stick on day one. I start by seeing if the horse doesn’t want to be touched anywhere, using the stick. Ears, front and hind legs, under the belly, the tail. Anywhere that gets a “no” I work with.
Approach and retreat, keeping my stick on the horse, rubbing gently, until he stands for it. Remove the stick as a reward for standing. Repeat as necessary.
If this all goes well, I give the horse a good grooming, establishing a bit of friendship after being a bit dominant with the forwards and backwards.
Day two, more moving of the feet.
I become less tolerant of poor behaviour while leading.
More forward backward, now being aware of straightness. I also now start expecting more attention.
More working on any spots the horse didn’t want touched.
I introduce the idea of moving away from pressure, so I can achieve circling. Pressure on the face to get the horse turned, pressure at the girth to get the horse to move forward. This will be important later when the horse will be ridden. I always click when I ask for forward movement. Makes backing a lot easier.
I will hope for some rudimental circles.
Day 3, no work, soak time.
Day 4, more of the same.
Forwards, backwards, better circles, better turns on the haunches. More attention on me. I now introduce the idea of moving the hind end away from pressure. So now I can start drawing the front end (while pushing the hind) around instead of pulling it. Pushing and pulling creates respect, but draw creates willingness.
Day 5, leading in hand
Now the horse understands to move the face away from pressure, and pressure on the girth means move forward, the circle becomes straight lines. Initially I will have to face the horse, this is the position he understands, and ask for forward, but then go with him. He won’t like it, but patient persistence is key.
When I can get this, I then turn to the leading position and flick my rope behind me like a tail. It will not be anywhere perfect, but the important thing is that he gets the idea.
Day 6, more of everything.
Trying to make it all “prettier”, moving up and down through the gaits. Lots of turns on my circles, looking for lightness. Try to do less to get more. By this point, after a session, the horse will willingly follow me around with no ropes. We have draw, respect, willingness, trust and friendship. The horse ends his sessions calm and relaxed.
He now gets another day off to soak in his lessons.
A lot more would happen in these 5 days, such as some loose jumping, introducing a roller, perhaps a bit and bridle, but none of that pertains to despooking so I have left it out.
We are now ready to start to think about despooking. If the horse on day 6 does not sound like your horse, you are not ready to despook.
Natural horsemanship is not magic, it is a skill anyone can learn with practice and patience. It is an attitude, and there are many traditional trainers that would easily fit the natural horsemanship ethos, so don’t ever discount a good trainer that produces calm and happy horses!!
De-Spooking with Objects
It is very important that your horse is prepared for this task before you begin. Be sure you can accomplish the tasks in section 1 prior to moving on to objects.
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.
Eventually you can tie items to your saddle or breaking roller. Always remain calm with very relaxed body language.
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.
Advanced De-Spooking, Adding Chaos
In this section we will take de-spooking one step further, and add the element of chaos. In this section I will use Finn as an example. Once you reach this level, you should know your horse fairly well. What I outline here may not necessarily be right for your horse, but it should get you thinking about what you may need to do next with your horse.
As Finn prepares to find a new home, we move into the final phases of his retraining. He can remain calm and collected when scary objects are introduced in a rhythmical fashion (videos here), but when things become unexpected and chaotic, he still takes a fright.
In all fairness, most horses would not tolerate the type of things I expect from one of my own horses, but to complete Finn, he will have to go through some advanced despooking.
If you have been keeping up with Finn’s progress, you will know I have been working him in an open area, with no fencing. This actually worked quite well for rhythmic despooking, but now that we are moving up to much more serious and chaotic work, fencing will be required.
Now we will be advancing to a much higher level of scary with an expectation of remaining calm, and swallowing the urge to run.
Finn likes to run, and he has done well to overcome that urge in a lot of situations, including flags, tarps, and party balloons. But all of these items have been introduced gradually in a rhythmic fashion. My body language has remained calm, and I have shown no sign that I expect anything other then calmness from him, and he has understood, and remained calm.
I have to stress, If you intend to attempt any of my methods, it is very important you build up gradually. Please be sure to read the previous sections on despooking, and be sure your horse can remain calm and focused, prior to attempting anything I am going to describe here.
Most despooking is done in a calm and rhythmical fashion. This is great, and builds trust and confidence between the horse and the rider. However, most actual spooky situations are anything but calm and rhythmical.
A dog running out from a driveway, a bird flying up from a hedgerow, a rider falling off. All of these things are unexpected and somewhat chaotic. So this presents a bit of a problem. Sure I can approach my horse slowly, rhythmically waving a balloon on a stick, but what happens if I come running around a corner with it?
I’m sure we all know what happens! Bye bye horsie!
So really, truly, you can’t totally say your horse is despooked unless they can take the unexpected.
But, and this is a big but, if you are a horse owner, and you spend several hours with your horse, several times a week, there is a trust relationship there.
Rhythmical despooking will build that trust further, and, over time, your horse will look to you in unexpected situations. If you remain calm, they will remain calm.
As a horse trainer, I don’t have the luxury of time. Horses come in and go out, and with a horse like Finn, who I never had any intention of keeping, I must do everything in my power to send him out into the world as prepared as possible.
Things we will be working on will include (but definitely not limited to), unexpectedly running up to him (currently he does not take that very well), working in a very hyper and chaotic manor, loud noises, flying objects, etc.
This is where the need for fencing comes in. He will try to run. He will, and thats fine. He must have the choice to escape. However, I need a way to limit that escape. Eventually he will learn running is harder then sucking it up and being calm.
So I will do something like sending him in a circle and then start acting like a crazy person. Jumping up and down, maybe singing loudly and badly, while running towards and away from him. Acting unexpectedly, and losing all sense if rhythm. As he thinks “omg I’m out of here!!” I go with him, continuing what I’m doing. It’s so important not to give him anything to pull on. I won’t win.
As he goes, and I continue what I’m doing, he begins to realise that nothing bad has actually happened, and that actually running is a lot of work. These are things he learned in all of our previous despooking sessions. When he finally stops, and gives me the “what is Wrong with you?!” look, I stop.
I will use this technique in as many situations as I can come up with.
Running up to him, and then rubbing and petting when he stands. He will try to run, and I will chase, till he stops and gives me the look.
Balls are great for this, very scary and act very unexpectedly. I actually have a space hopper, and whats great about it, is that I can tie a rope to the handle. This way I can toss it out and reel it in.
Once I feel he is dealing with unexpected scariness well, I will start to do unexpected things in the yard. “Accidentally” dropping the metal wheel barrow, jumping and sneezing, popping balloons, smoke (if I can work out how to create it safely!), flying buckets (never at the horse!!), etc.
When he can stand calmly for these things, I can be relatively certain he will remain calm, cool and collected in various situations out in the real world.
Thanks to Finn for being a good horse and taking all my objects in his stride!