The big word “desensitization” is proving challenging for Fergus the Horse! So he decided to seek professional help from Monty Roberts.
Dear Mr. Roberts,
I know most of your questions are from people, but I’d like to ask you something too, if that’s OK, because I’ve heard, and read, that you know some things about horses. You see, there’s a big human word that I’m having a great deal of trouble with: “Desensitize“. My people don’t say it to me, they say it to each other. What they say to me is: “Easy, does, it Fergus, it’s OK.” But it’s not OK! Because when they come to me saying that, they are tense and nervous, and I know they are going to show me something horrifying! It is going to be something that moves, makes suspicious noises, and wants to touch me. I’d rather leave, but I cannot because of the lead-rope that they’ve named “relationship”. Often, “relationship” is strained. I really want to relax and be an “Easy does it, Fergus…” but it is impossible because they themselves are not relaxed, and they want to “desensitize” me every day with something new and dreadful. I dream about it at night. This is really hard. Is there anything you can say to my people about “desensitize”?
Thank you for (somehow) writing to me with your concerns. Most people think I help people with horse problems, but more often I help horses with people problems. I hope to help you get past this confusion about what we humans are asking of you, and why. When they say ‘Desensitize’, they want to help you worry less about spooky items you come across on the trail and in the yard. That’s a good thing, Fergus.
Being spooky is one of the most natural conditions in the world of equine behavior. Just as with so many terms in the horse world, it seems appropriate to define the term spooky. It seems important to me to be clear so that these words can be understood worldwide. We horsemen in America tend to say things like, “He sure is spooky.” We expect everybody to immediately understand that this means, ‘to be frightened.’
There is a big word in psychology for your fear of unfamiliar things, Fergus. The word is ‘neophobic’ which is a persistent and abnormal fear of anything new. Horses are neophobic but people can be, too. Young children like their world to remain constant and elderly people often cope using long established habits and don’t want to learn “new tricks”. You are big and strong, Fergus, and people worry you might hurt yourself, or them, if you “spook”. This is why they introduce you to new things. My goal is to help people learn to do this with adrenaline and heart rates that are low.
After my first book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, was published in 1996, I was asked to conduct demonstrations on a worldwide scale. One of the remedial problems brought to me on a regular basis was “the spooky horse.” While I had dealt with this sort of training for more than fifty years, I had no idea how serious the condition was until I began to travel extensively. Cases representing fear of plastic bags, birds, airplanes, trucks, tractors, umbrellas, cattle, sheep, hogs, and even the fear of bicycles, were brought to me on a regular basis.
The plastic shopping bag has become the definitive object to assist me in desensitizing the horse to objects that cause him to spook. They are extremely light and therefore can’t physically cause the horse any harm. I attach several bags to one end of a discarded rake handle (a small wooden pole approximately 1.5 meters or five feet in length). You can train the bag to go away Fergus. Here’s how.
After you and your human have accomplished a Join-Up, they show you the plastic bag on a stick. It will be scary at first, but when you relax and accept it, they will take the bag away and relax. You can too. When I do this with horses, soon I can swing a massive collection of plastic bags at the horse evoking no flight response. And soon the horse will accept other scary objects if I stay relaxed and he trusts that nothing painful will happen.
Recognizing that we are dealing with the true nature of the horse will soon produce a non-spooky individual. It is important to eliminate blame from the mind of the trainer. I instruct my students that the horse can have no fault in these matters and with that mindset one can expect positive results.
Over the past 20 years the more than 8000 horses I have dealt with in front of public audiences have virtually all come to me with a spooky mindset. I think that it is fair to say that there have been no failures. It’s important that we humans respect your nature, Fergus, and your right to fear unfamiliar objects while you journey to overcoming spookiness.