NIGHTMARE ON SHOW DAY: As if the dressage test weren’t enough, your horse also has to deal with any number of horrors at the competition venue. Illustration by ED TURNER/ARTBYED.COM

Is your horse fearful of flags? Undone by umbrellas? Behavior-modification techniques may help him learn to cope.

Reprinted from the April 2016 Issue of USDF Connection

By Sarah Evers Conrad

Has your well-trained dressage horse ever had a meltdown at a show over an unfamiliar sight or sound? Does he have problems dealing with loud noises or going past certain types of objects, like judges’ booths or banners? Have you ever felt as if, no matter how much you train, you can’t feel confident at a show or clinic because his behavior is so unpredictable?

If you answered yes, perhaps it’s time to consider giving behavior-modification techniques a try. These techniques include methods known as desensitization training, habituation, acclimation, and others. Each one is different, but the goals are similar: a calm, quiet, confident horse that can handle any type of environment, including the chaos of a busy show grounds.

In Good Company

You aren’t alone if you wish you could reduce your horse’s fears of certain stimuli. Top international competitors have used these types of training techniques to help their horses become steadier and more reliable in the show arena. A well-known recent case in point: San Diego-based Olympian Steffen Peters, who used desensitization training to help prepare his mount Legolas for the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas.

DESENSITIZING PAYS OFF: Steffen Peters beams after the noise-averse Legolas remained focused at the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

 In Florida for the 2015 winter competition season prior to the World Cup Final, the Westfalen gelding had occasionally been too reactive to crowd noise, which affected his performance, explains the horse’s owner, Akiko Yamazaki.

“Knowing how challenging the Thomas and Mack Center [the 2015 World Cup Final venue] would be for Legolas, Steffen came up with a desensitization program, which really worked,” Yamazaki says. Back in Yamazaki and Peters’ home state of California before heading to Las Vegas, a crowd of 100-plus gathered at Epona Farms in Thousand Oaks to watch Peters and Legolas ride their Grand Prix Freestyle at night under the lights. The audience was asked to cheer loudly so that Team Peters could make a recording for future use.

 “Steffen played this noise for Legolas at home,” Yamazaki says. “He told me that there was a fine balance between desensitization and not overwhelming. Clearly this program worked, because Legolas was able to perform very well in the World Cup without getting too affected by the crowds.”

Not only did Legolas maintain his composure in Las Vegas; he also went on to perform well under the lights in Wellington, FL, at last November’s Dutta Corp./USEF Grand Prix National Championship, where he earned the reserve title. Legolas and Peters are currently among the top contenders for a slot on the US dressage team for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“While this desensitizing program was done specifically for Legolas, I think what is true of Steffen’s program with every horse is that his warm-up routine doesn’t change from home to the show,” Yamazaki adds. “This gives the horses much confidence. He also knows what is best for every horse when they enter the arena. With Legolas, he always walks in and gives him a chance to look at his environment in a relaxed manner before his test.”

Techniques Defined

Let’s go over the terminology used in discussing behavior modification techniques. For starters, desensitization is often used in the wrong context, and it’s called different things by different trainers and clinicians.

 Animal-behavior experts favor using behavioral-science- based definitions. We asked Sue McDonnell, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, to walk us through the terminology.

Acclimation refers to systematically introducing a horse or other animal to novel, potentially threatening, or otherwise worrisome stimuli or situations.

 “Everything that people do with horses from the time they are born is basically acclimating them to all things domestic,” McDonnell says. “Once they start acclimating to a number of different things, most horses go through a phase called the ‘learning to learn phase,’ which some people describe as starting to trust that new things in general aren’t that bad. It’s not just the particular things that they’ve been acclimated to, but also they start to turn the corner [and realize] that new things, new places, noisy situations, whatever, are not all that bad.”

LIGHTS, CAMERA, SCARY: Th e dressage-show environment gives horses plenty of unusual sights and sounds to cope with. Photo by ARND.NL

If you acclimate your horse to what he may experience at a show—golf carts, umbrellas, loud noises, lights, pedestrians, and the like—he should eventually become accustomed to those sights and sounds and stop spooking or tensing up at those stimuli, the theory goes. The goal of any training, says McDonnell, is to get the horse into a state of mind wherein new stimuli no longer cause him to panic. But if the horse reacts negatively to a stimulus during acclimation training, he may actually become more sensitive or reactive. He then needs desensitization training to reverse this trend, she says.

Desensitization involves gradually exposing a horse to a previously experienced stimulus or situation that is known to cause fear or any other form of unwanted reaction. The key to desensitization training is always to keep the exposure below the horse’s panic threshold. He is taught to tolerate the stimulus in a series of small steps, which should be planned out in advance, McDonnell says.

In successful desensitization training, the horse gradually transfers his acceptance of the frightening stimulus to other, new stimuli. However, a horse that becomes sensitized (more reactive, rather than less reactive) may do the opposite and then conclude that a multitude of stimuli are negative, which results in a more fearful horse.

“An organized, systematic desensitization usually incorporates positive reinforcement whenever the horse relaxes or as a momentary distractor at a point where they look like they are just about to panic,” says McDonnell. “You can distract them and reward them simultaneously. A well thought- out plan usually includes all of those things, not just the presentation of the potentially aversive experience.

“Desensitization is the main tool in our toolbox for rehabbing behavior problems,” McDonnell continues. “We do it all the time. Here at the vet school we work a lot with specific treatment aversions, such as horses having difficulties with eye treatments, or injections, or lifting their limbs for the farrier.” (At the New Bolton Center, McDonnell also teaches short courses on equine behavior modification.)

Sergeant Rick Pelicano, of Frederick, MD, author of the books Bombproof Your Horse and Better Than Bombproof, has been a mounted-police officer for most of his career and has trained many police horses, starting with a foundation in dressage. His methods involve desensitization.

 “I think of desensitization as a way to minimize the horse’s flight response to improve performance and rider communication,” Pelicano explains. “If the horse is focused and reacting about the imaginary prey, it is difficult for the rider to have his attention. I also believe there are two aspects to this. First, we want to make the horse braver, bolder, and less fearful. Second, we must improve the rider/horse communication so that the horse becomes more manageable when under stress or in the event the flight response kicks in. Once the flight response starts, the horse may behave in any number of ways. Some of those ways present danger to the horse, rider, and innocent bystanders as well. So managing the horse in those circumstances is extremely important and is up to the rider.”

New Jersey-based international dressage competitor Catherine Haddad Staller is another top rider who has used behavior-modification techniques that are similar to desensitization. Her teachers in this area are the dressage trainers Morten Thomsen of Denmark and Tristan Tucker of the Netherlands.

“I learned this basic technique from Morten Thomsen: to teach a horse to look at and go to something he is afraid of in order to make it go away,” says Staller. “He gains control of the situation and relaxes when you teach him this. It’s the f rst step in teaching a calm response.”

Tucker developed his own technique, which he calls response training, after working with Thomsen and others. Staller describes the purpose of response training as being “to alter a horse’s natural fright-and-flight response to environmental stimuli. We teach him to respond to various stimuli by relaxing the body rather than tensing it.”

Although both response training and desensitization involve a step-by-step training progression, there are important differences, according to Staller, who blogged about her work for Th e Chronicle of the Horse’s website, “We don’t want to create a horse that is dead or insensitive to the aids,” she wrote. “In fact, we want him to respond instantly to what we ask of him. We want him focused on his rider with high attention, not distracted by his environment. So we have to teach him to respond with quiet relaxation to the environment while keenly listening to his rider.”

Staller posted a video on her YouTube channel that showcases her training with Tucker. She describes how she introduced stimuli, such as a plastic bag or a brightly colored umbrella, which she would take away as soon as her mount, the Grand Prix-level gelding Mane Stream Hotmail, relaxed and lowered his head. “Thus he learned that he could control an uncomfortable situation by looking at and approaching the object of his fear,” she wrote.

After training with Tucker in 2014, Hotmail’s performance at top European shows improved. In 2014 and 2015, he was the eighth-highest-ranked US horse on the FEI dressage world ranking list. Hotmail performed successfully amidst the chaos of New York City at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show for the past two years, finishing third in the 2015 $75,000 US Dressage Open Championship.

 Two additional behavior-modification techniques are habituation and flooding. Many confuse desensitization and habituation. The Merck Manual for Pets explains: “Habituation is an elementary form of learning that involves no rewards. It is merely the ending of or decrease in response to a stimulus that results from repeated or prolonged exposure to that stimulus. A horse that habituates to one type of sound does not, as a consequence of this habituation, become habituated to other sounds.” One example of habituation is when a horse becomes accustomed to the noises of traffic passing near his turnout paddock.

BOMBPROOFING IN ACTION: Mounted-police officer Rick Pelicano demonstrates ground work to accustom a horse to a large umbrella, a tarp on the ground, and a “car wash” of dangling plastic streamers. Photos Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Flooding, by contrast, involves prolonged exposure to a stimulus that induces a fear response beyond the horse’s panic threshold until he ceases to react. The horse is restrained or put in a confined space so that he cannot escape. As you might imagine, flooding is very stressful to the horse, and he has the potential to injure himself, his handler, and others nearby if he escapes restraint during the flooding process.

Flooding, says McDonnell, is not a recommended method of training horses because it can induce such a high level of panic that the horse becomes super-sensitized and loses trust in the handler. The eventual cessation of reaction is not true acceptance of the stimulus, either, she points out, but rather is a demonstration of learned helplessness, which occurs when the animal realizes that he is unable to control the situation. The frightening stimulus is still frightening, and a fear reaction could happen at any point in the future.

Try This at Home?

A scared horse can be a dangerous horse. Approach any behavior-modification training with a strong safety-first mentality, and get a knowledgeable trainer to help you, particularly if you yourself have fear issues related to your horse’s behavior.

Most behavior-modification training begins with ground work. For Pelicano’s list of safety do’s and don’ts, see “9 Safety Tips from Rick Pelicano” on the facing page.

 Learn as much as you can about behavior-modification training before you get out the flags, tarps, and pool noodles, Pelicano recommends.

“There are lots of videos and books,” he says. “Look into all of them. Figure out what your goals are. See which ones you feel comfortable understanding and comprehending. If you engage a trainer, ask him or her to show you what they are doing and why.”

If you’re dealing with a fearful horse, enlisting the services of a knowledgeable professional may be the best bet, Pelicano advises. “As Clint Eastwood once said, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.’ I think sometimes well-intentioned owners buy a book or a video and get over their head and into trouble. They end up telling me stories of their massive injuries, and can I help them with fixing the problem. Remember, the goal is to ride your horse and have a pleasant experience, no matter your discipline.”  

Sarah Evers Conrad, of Lexington, KY, is a journalist, editor, and digital marketer. She spent 10 years at The Horse magazine and at the US Equestrian Federation’s Equestrian magazine. When she became USEF’s director of e-communications, she discovered a love of digital marketing, and now she helps to market equine businesses in addition to writing for a variety of publications. 

9 Safety Tips from Rick Pelicano

Safety is always paramount when working with horses, and never more so than when you’re trying to help a horse to overcome his fears. Most equine behavior-modification training starts with ground work. Here, adapted from his book Bombproof Your Horse, is mounted-police officer Sgt. Rick Pelicano’s advice for keeping you and your horse safe as he meets those scary monsters.

1. Keep a safe distance. This means keeping as far away from your horse as possible. When using your reins to lead him, you’ll only be able to stay an arm’s length away. Keep one hand on him if you are at this distance. This way you can feel his intentions and react accordingly. If he creeps closer, simply cock your arm so your elbow pokes into him. This alone will often keep him at a safe distance. A long lead line or lunge line will allow you to create more distance between you and your horse.

2. Don’t get tangled in the lead line. The longer the line, the more skill you need in keeping it organized. If it dangles on the ground, it can become knotted. Your horse can step on it or through it, causing considerable panic on his part. It can also get wrapped around your feet, which is potentially deadly.

3. Don’t wrap any line around any body part. A loop of rope—even if it’s loose—can quickly be pulled tight around your hand. You risk losing fingers or being dragged.

4. Don’t get trampled. Leading a horse over or past something scary often initiates his flight response. He may suddenly rush forward, backward, or even sideways. If you are too close—or just standing in the wrong spot—he may bump into you, trip you, run over you, or step on you.

 5. Watch your horse’s body language. You are habituating your horse to something scary. Look at him! Now is not the time to sightsee or daydream. Watch his eyes, body, and feet. His eyes and ears tell you what he is concerned with and the amount of fear or obstinacy you are facing. If you are in front of him, look at his chest. Watching his “center” is a more reliable way to guess which way he’ll go than watching his legs. These indicators will all help you to predict what his next move will be.

 6. Expect him to shy away from the obstacle. As you lead your horse past a scary object, stay on the same side as the scary thing because otherwise, he will shy into you. It helps to become ambidextrous. Most of us are conditioned to do everything from the horse’s near (left) side. Because of this, we often feel uncomfortable leading our horses from the off side. However, if you spend a few minutes thinking about it and then doing it, this new skill will become easy. Work smart, anticipate the problem, and place yourself on the same side as the object. Then, when he shies, he’ll move safely away from and not into you.

7. Learn to walk backward. As you encourage your horse to follow you over an obstacle, stay facing him at all times. It’s impossible to prepare for your horse’s reaction if your back is to him. This will often mean you need to walk backward. I have seen more than one person get bowled over when her horse suddenly lurches forward over an obstacle. Inevitably, she is facing forward and not watching her horse.

 8. Anticipate him jumping or running toward you. When your horse follows you over something scary—a tarp, a creek, a funny-looking log—he may suddenly leap forward and jump the obstacle. This is when maintaining your distance becomes so vital. Nevertheless, he can quickly close this distance when he jumps or runs toward you. Often, your mount will want to come right to you for security. In fact, he may want to be standing in the exact spot that you occupy—an uncomfortable proposition. In this instance, you can increase your safety and exert control over his response by doing what I call “throwing up a wall.” Lifting your hands up toward his face will usually slow or even stop him. This motion establishes a barrier between you.

 9. Step to the side. This is easier and quicker than trying to run backward.

Adapted from Bombproof Your Horse by Sgt. Rick Pelicano. Reprinted by permission of Trafalgar Square Books (

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