Posts Tagged ‘desensitization’

We’ve tried and tried to use clippers on our horses ears but to no avail. She freaks out every time! What can you suggest that we can use to clean the hairs in her ears for shows. We’ve tried every form of desensitizing that can be thought of and nothing works. She simply can’t stand the buzzing noise. I want her to look groomed for shows but am at a loss as what to do now. Any suggestions. Mary

Hi Mary,

I understand, having been a horse show judge for over 25 years, that during show season you want to clip the hair from around and inside a horse’s ears.

Personally, I would never do that to a horse, but then we live on a ranch and our horses live in pastures, so clipping the hair out of their ears would mean they’d have to fight off bugs in the summer and have cold ears in the winter.

But getting a horse used to clippers around his ears is the same as any other desensitization.

You haven’t told me what you tried and how it worked or didn’t work, so I have very little to go on here.

Be sure to read the articles about:


Head Handling

because they contain the principles you need. You don’t say what your horse does when you try to clip her ears, just that “she simply can’t stand the buzzing noise”  – does this mean she doesn’t stand still, raises her head, shakes her head, lowers her head between her front legs, walks over the top of you, bites you, strikes at the clippers, lays down, pulls free and runs off? What?

If you care to write more details, perhaps I can be of more help, but in the meantime, like any other desensitization, it takes time and patience and time and repetition and time and progressive goals and time. Did I say it takes time?

Whether you want to clip your horse’s ears or not, you should be able to run clippers in the ear and bridle path area. Take the time it takes to get the job done. Start with being able to just hold the clippers turned off anywhere on her body, then running anywhere on her body. You won’t be clipping, you are just holding the running clippers on her hot spots. Find an area where her behavior starts to say NO and work there, even if it is under her chin or on her flank…..use that place to establish your system.

You repeat the stimulation there until she accepts it, then you remove the stimulation and reward her with a rub.

You never remove the stimulation until she relaxes and accepts it. If you remove the running clippers from a hot spot when she is “freaking” as you say, you have taught her to freak. Freaking gets her what she wants – the removal of the clippers.

Plan to take days, not hours or minutes to work on this. Once you have your system established, use it to desensitize her ears (without clipping). Your goal is not to clip, but to have the running clippers closer and closer to her ears.

Once you can run the clippers near her ears, it will be no big deal to clip.

Best of luck,


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I rescued a 7 year old gelding Tennessee Walker . He belonged (trained and
shown) to an 89 year old man that bought him when his wife passed then 6
years later he passed away. He was run through a livestock auction due to
estate after left in a field for 8 months, severely under weight, sickly,
etc. and  was afraid of everything.  In six months I have him eating out of
my hand, stands at liberty for grooming, but unable to touch his face &
forehead to get a halter on him.  He only responds to me and not my husband.
Any ideas how to get away from the resistance so he doesn’t pull away from
touch? I need to get a bit firmer with him now that he’s in excellent
health, noting he still needs emotional mending.  THANK YOU – I love your
articles!  Marty

Hello Marty,

Are you familiar with the principles of desensitization or sacking out?
You can click on those words and go to articles on my website that will help you with the concepts behind the procedures.

Based on what you told me, I’d tie an old sock or cloth on the end of a
medium length whip (approximately 4 feet long) so you have a somewhat puffy
dauber at the end of the whip. Then using the whip as an extension of your
arm, rub the sock all over the places on your horse’s body that you can now
groom him. You can do this with the horse loose, held by an assistant, tied,
or even held by you – that will depend on his level of handling and

Once the horse is accustomed to the sock on a stick, gradually start moving
the sock up his neck. At the first sign of resistance (tensing, raising of
head, moving away etc.) keep the sock at that spot and rub and rub and
rub……..until you see a sign of relaxation (an exhale, a lowering of the
head, licking and chewing, or an overall calming). When the horse relaxes,
take the sock away and tell him “Good boy” and rub him somewhere he likes
rubbing such as on his withers or neck.

Then start again. Repeat the procedure, each time getting the horse used to
being touched in a new area of his “hot zone”. Eventually you will be able
to use the sock on his forehead, across his ears and so on.

But, it does take time, perseverance and patience.  Be sure you are very
consistent in your techniques.
Rub until you find a touchy spot, work there until there is relaxation,
remove the stimulus, reward. Repeat.

It could take days, weeks or even a month to over-ride the avoidance reflex.

Eventually you should tie a long sock or cloth on the whip so you can do
this with a floppy item, then a plastic grocery sack. Then your hands.

The reason it is easier to use a long stick (or whip) is that your arms
would get very tired reaching up to the horse’s head and ears and keeping
them there for the time it takes for the horse to learn that he is not going
to be harmed.

It is important you take the time for this very important lesson because
without it, you wont’ be able to handle, care for or bridle your horse.

Best of luck, have fun and let me know how your horse progresses.

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Horse Training – Handling, Gentling, Desensitization, Sacking Out, Flooding

I’m asking this question for my two little PMU girls to get them started on the right tract. They are both 17 months now. They seem to learn quickly and I would prefer them to learn the correct way to behave and accept things being done to them. Thanking you in advance, Mary

Hi Mary,

How  to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillHere is an excerpt from my book How to Think Like a Horse which should get you started.

©  2010 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information

Habituation One of the very first training principles you use when you work with a horse is habituation. Related terms (listed in order from mild to extreme) are gentling, sacking out/ desensitization and flooding.

Flooding – an intense, overwhelming form of habituation

Habituation introduces a horse to a particular person, procedure or object in order to gain the horse’s acceptance without fear.

Gentling is touching a horse on every part of his body and getting him used to being groomed all over. Although a horse naturally loves to be rubbed on his forehead and neck, he must learn to accept and appreciate grooming elsewhere, especially in his ticklish and sensitive areas.

Sacking out a horse with blankets and slickers is a way of gradually decreasing his apprehensions concerning the sight or sound of an object or of the object touching him. By repeated careful exposure to a certain stimulus, a horse’s response can be diminished. Sacking out is a form systematic desensitization where a mild stimulus is introduced at a low level, rest periods are given, and the stimulus is gradually increased. With sacking out, if your end goal is to shake a noisy sheet of plastic over a horse’s back and hit him with it, you would start with rubbing him with a soft cotton blanket and gradually work up to the plastic over a period of days or weeks.

Flooding is exposure to full intensity stimulus while restraining the animal until the animal stops reacting. With the above example, you would fully restrain the horse and then come at him from all side with sheets of plastic, waving them wildly. Not only does this hold risk of injury to all parties but it is an inhumane and unnecessary means to an end.

I prefer my horses to be sacked out for safety but not totally desensitized, brain dead or robotic. When I am riding in the mountains, I want them to bring their instincts along. If I had removed all reflexes with aggressive flooding, it would be like riding a stuffed horse. I take care of my horses and when we are riding I expect my horses to take care of me, but it would be difficult for them to react to danger if they had been sacked to oblivion.

A beneficial use of desensitization (repeated stimulation to diminish the response) is evident when your veterinarian gives your horse an injection. Often the vet will tap the injection site a few times with the back of his hand to stimulate the initial nerve firing before he inserts the needle. Thus prepared, a horse often doesn’t react to the needle because his skin has been desensitized. A similar deadening occurs when you pick up a fold of skin and hold it for a few seconds before you insert a needle. The area around the site of injection has become dull to pain and the horse barely feels the needle go in.

Best of luck,

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