Desensitizing "Bridle Shy" Horses
DON'T get into a fight when it comes time to bridle your horse. In most cases a struggle will merely increase your horse's anxiety when it comes time for bridling which will not only perpetuate the problem, but make it worse. This section offers a simple and painless way to help resolve this difficulty.
The horse presented here is Dahlia, a 14 year old mustang / appaloosa cross who has a history of serious abuse. She is a sweet, bright mare who unfortunately displays numerous physical and emotional scars. Her present owners "rescued" her and are trying to develop her into a trustworthy trail horse.
While ordinarily gentle, Dahlia suffers the most severe "panic attacks" we've ever seen when someone tries to handle her face, especially when approaching her with a bridle. Even the local veterinarian can't examine her face or mouth. Looking at the many scars across her nose, one can only imagine what occurred to make her this way.
Our training objective is to desensitize her and "redirect" her emotions so that she can logically think about what's going on around her mouth instead of reacting in panic. The materials we use include a horseman's (hand tied rope) halter, a 12' kernmantle horse handling rope, a longe whip, a standard leather bridle with snaffle bit (adjusted to fit the horse) and a 40 foot round corral.
Using the right equipment has definite advantages. The rope halter facilitates very sensitive, but non injurious contact with the horse, the kernmantle horse handling rope has a good weight, length and feel and is "twist resistant", the longe whip is used only for "touching up" or reinforcing the other cues, and the round corral is necessary to let the horse work at liberty where she can exercise and improve her decision making skills.
Before we approached her with the bridle we worked her in the round corral, getting her to respond well to longing cues. We wanted her to clearly understand our cues to send her off as well as to "draw" back into the center of the round corral when asked. This was the foundation which would support our other work. We worked her both off and on-line. As she started to get better at the longe, we would let her come in to the center for rest breaks whereupon we would face her and massage her neck, ears, jawbones and eventually her muzzle. It wasn't long before she would stand half-asleep while we gently handled her face.
When we were massaging her face, she was NEVER haltered or restrained. She could choose to leave at any time. When she left, we put her back to work. This was fine, too, since there were a number of things she needed to learn "on the longe" and we always try to make any negative reinforcement a useful activity. Thus the horse can make the choice to either "relax and learn" or to "work and learn". (Unless you have unlimited time with which to work with your horse, you have to make the most of your time which is why we like to set up "learn - learn" choices whenever we can.)
It wasn't long before Dahlia decided that it was much more fun to stand and "enjoy" a face massage than to work at a trot. Once this work vs. acceptance relationship was established, we were ready to bring out the bridle for the next "lesson".
After a brief warmup in the round corral so that Sharon could assess Dahlia's responsiveness and state of mind, she entered the round corral holding the bridle. Dahlia panicked and raced wildly around for several minutes while Sharon stood quietly in the center displaying the bridle to the horse. Once she had grown tired of running, Sharon approached Dahlia with the bridle. She started in the "neutral zone" (at the shoulder) and basically rubbed the horse on the shoulder, back and neck with the bridle. Dahlia was a little wary (her body language displayed reluctant acceptance at first), but she stood still for this contact even though she was not restrained.
Dahlia was still allowed to DECIDE on her own whether to stay or leave. She had to develop her thinking to the point that it would supersede her emotions and this could not be done if she was restrained in any way.
Approaching her head with the bridle was tough on Dahlia. Anxiety welled up, and although it was no longer a panic response, she could not tolerate the presence of the bridle for more than a few seconds and would back away. (In proper perspective, this was a marked improvement over her initial behavior, a change which we had hoped to achieve and we were glad to see.) Since the horse was more deliberate and less reactive in her actions, we could now send her off to longe each time she backed away from the bridle and she could connect the association.
When she would back away, Sharon would immediately respond by cuing Dahlia to trot a couple of circles. After two laps she would invite Dahlia back in to the center to approach the bridle. After about a half dozen repetitions, Dahlia was longing herself. When the situation got to be too much for her, she would trot off and "take two" laps and return on her own to face the bridle. She was starting to regain control of her emotions to the point that she could think this situation through.
Before too long Dahlia was not only following Sharon and the bridle around the round corral, but she was reaching forward and touching it, exploring it with her nose. At one point (I didn't get it on film) Sharon actually extended the bridle leather up the length of Dahlia's face with the bit up against her teeth, and Dahlia stood quietly with her ears pricked forward. Sharon felt that this was enough progress for one day.
Most horses like to learn, so long as the trainer is not abusive and sets up the problems in a way the horse can actually "participate" through logical thinking and satisfying its natural curiosity. I can't remember a horse who didn't enjoy problem solving if things were set up correctly, and as they develop their problem solving skills, they all have become MUCH less reactive and spooky.
Next Installment:Bridling Dahlia, where we teach her to accept it comfortably
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