Flag Desensitization Introduction!
If you haven’t been following along, catch up on Odin’s story on the Colorado Horse Rescue website (here) and on our blog posts from March 27 (here) and April 1 (here).
Today, we got to watch some flag desensitization. Many of you may have seen this before, and may not have been impressed. Unless you are dealing with an unusually reactive horse, it should not be an overwhelming process! Many times, people begin by flapping the flag at the horse with no preamble and continue doing so until the horse appears to give in. This is actually demonstrating a phenomenon known as “flooding.” When you flood a horse with scary stimuli and force it not to react, they will eventually stop reacting. This is NOT the reaction you are looking for if you want a true partnership with your horse! You are teaching them to give up, that struggling is futile, and that they can’t trust you to help them when something scary happens. Oftentimes, horses trained in this way will regain a bit of confidence in hours, days, or weeks, and then react to the scary stimulus next time it is presented.
Ok smartypants, so how do I do it then?
In the video below, you will see the correct way to desensitize a horse using a flag. This method creates a thinking horse that learns to show curiosity or go to their owner when things are uncertain instead of shutting down. Here, Sarah uses exactly the same principles outlined in the earlier videos. When Odin stands or moves towards the flag, the flag (pressure) goes away. When he loses his focus and backs or moves sideways away, the pressure stays the same (flag position/movement). Sarah keeps this up until he stops, or moves forward, then the flag immediately goes away.
Of course, getting the timing right is easier said than done – but it is amazing how quickly the little guy picked up on how to banish the scary flag all by himself. He had never seen a flag or done this kind of work before. By starting with the flag farther away and static, Sarah was able to build him up to flapping the flag around his head and rubbing his face with it by the end of the session. The trick here is to watch his body language and operate in the zone where he is uncomfortable but able to master his fear. Is he alert, looking at the flag, with nostrils flared? This is what you are looking for. He clearly is ready to react but is holding himself in check and mastering his impulses… by doing this, you are teaching your horse to be brave!
Remember, Odin is still available for adoption, and CHR can always use donations. Want Odin AND a horse property to keep him on? We would love to help you with that!