Background to de-sensitising and how horses learn
Horses are programmed to find new things scary; this is how they stay safe in the wild. They need to learn which things will not harm them and can be safely ignored. This is our job when we desensitise our horses. A horse that reacts is not naughty, sassy, stupid, ‘mare-ish’ or trying to embarrass us in front of the rest of the club. They are just telling us this situation is making them anxious and it is up to us to help them through it.
De-sensitising is about gradually exposing your horse to new and potentially scary things and teaching them that these are ok and not be feared, so it is important that you work at your horse’s pace. Some horses will be super quick, others might need lots of time and reassurance. Your best guide of how this is going it to look at your horse’s reactions – and these can be quite subtle: rapidly moving ears, more white around the eye than normal, tension in the neck and face are all good signs that the horse is getting a little anxious. We don’t want to wait until the horse is in full-on flight mode until we realise we have over done it, so if you think they are getting anxious turn things down a little and take a few steps back. It is much better to take things slowly when the horse was actually fine than to push them beyond where they feel comfortable.
If clicker training and/or targeting are part of your usual training practice then make use of these here. This assumes most readers do not, but of course you can adapt your usual training to fit.
If you are new to horseback archery and desensitising then we recommend that you work with a BHAA accredited coach to help develop and implement a training plan for your horse.
Safety first! Wear a helmet even if you are on the ground – you only have one head, look after it! Boots are good too, being trodden on is never a good option, gloves can be useful if your horse is likely to be bargy and strong when anxious.
Remember horses can be unpredictable, make sure the training area is tidy and anything that you don’t need is out of sight/reach – try to look at the area from the horse’s perspective: If they spook will they land on something, can things flap or fall on them, will they injure themself (or you), what can they see that might be scary or distracting?
All horses react differently, if you know the horse well you may be able to predict how they will react, but all horseback archery equipment is new for a horse, even a calm horse may react to new things. Start from the perspective that the horse WILL react and be pleased if they do not!
Desensitising the targets
Let’s start with something easy, and at a distance! Set up some targets and let the horse walk around the arena, you can do this on the ground or ridden but having someone on the ground or another horse can help. If the horse is fine at a distance let them move a bit closer but they should do this voluntarily, don’t force your horse to approach if they are worried. Lots of scratches and neck rubs will help them to associate targets with something pleasant. Don’t be too quick to move on, let the horse stand and relax and process this new thing for a while.
Next steps/moving on
Once your horse is happy walking around and up to targets think about the other places or situations a horse might encounter targets: on the ground for offside shots, up high for tower shots, maybe outdoors where they can be flappy. Don’t assume because your horse is fine with a target in one position they will generalise to all situations – they won’t! You need to think about repeating your desensitising training again for each new situation.
It doesn’t hurt to also reinforce your training every now and again, especially if your horse has not been involved in archery for a while.
Desensitising the bow
Once your horse is happily walking past targets and not reacting or will willingly walk up to and sniff a target we are ready to move things up a gear. Next up we need to introduce our horse to the bow. As with the target we are going to start with the bow at a distance, once the horse is comfortable with the bow moving about away from them then we can start to move it a little closer. As before pay attention to your horse’s signals, are they alert and interested, or anxious and trying to move away from the bow? This can be subtle, so behaviours like turning the head or leaning away. If they seem worried, take a few steps back and wait until they are more relaxed. Lots of scratches and neck rubs here, and maybe the odd treat if that is part of your usual training methods.
Eventually we want to be able to approach the horse with the bow without them reacting at all. Then we can start to move the bow around them – remember eventually they need to be happy with the bow moving about above the withers and all around them. Let’s start by gently stroking the bow along their shoulders and neck. If this is ok, then we can move on to running it along their sides and eventually passing it over their withers. This is all best done from the ground where we can easily stop and move things back a little if the horse is worried. Remember to stop and let the horse relax and process at intervals, and scratch, rub, treat as needed!
Once the horse is happy to be touched all over with the bow and doesn’t react if we wave if around their head and neck (being careful not to actually hit them with it, that is a good way to need to start all over again!), it’s time to get on board. Starting at walk on a loose rein and carrying the bow, if the horse is ok then we can start to gently move it up and down. It can be useful to have someone on the ground watching the horse’s response, and to let you know if all is going well, or if you should turn things down a bit.
Our next goal is to be able to make long sweeps backwards and forwards along the horse’s side with the bow (not actually touching them), swap it from hand to hand and mime taking a shot whilst the horse stays nice and relaxed and doesn’t react. Once we have that embedded, we can move up the paces to trot and canter, and start to do anything we can think of with the bow that we might actually be doing when shooting. All the time we should be paying attention to what they are doing: are their ears relaxed and floppy or listening to us, do they stay in the same pace and tempo regardless of what we are doing? Our horse should be completely relaxed with the bow and happy to let us do whatever we like with it. Remember to stop and reward the horse (time to relax, neck and wither rubs or scratches etc) at intervals if it is all going well.
Some horses can be calm and relaxed with the bow moving about them but become tense and anxious when we try to draw. Horses can be very sensitive to any changes in weight and tension in the rider’s body and this shift to pulling back on the string can worry some horses. So it is a good idea to also practice this as well, first at a half draw and then full, at walk, trot and canter, before we introduce arrows. As before, work at the horse’s level of comfort and ensure that they are completely comfortable before increasing the pressure
Next steps/moving on
Normalise the bow around your horse – if you have access to private land on which to ride maybe you can take it out with you on a hack sometime (especially if you have ambitions to ride hunt tracks!), if not can you take it in the school (dressage with bows anyone?), let your horse get used to seeing it around the stable, make it as much a part of your horse’s kit as a saddle or brush so the horse will know it is nothing to worry about and will just ignore it. [NB do not carry a bow on public roads, it can be considered a dangerous weapon and you should not be schooling a horse on the road]
Desensitising the arrows
Of all the sights and sounds of archery the arrows can be the most alarming for the horse – they make strange rattling sounds on their backs, they zing when they come off the string and can appear suddenly moving fast in the horse’s very wide peripheral vision.
Start with arrows as we did with the targets and bow – have someone hold the arrows at a distance and rattle, scrape or knock them together, give the horse time to watch and learn that these are not going to hurt them. If they become anxious, then move further away or reduce the noise you are making with the arrows. When they are more confident bring them a little closer.
Once the horse is relaxed with arrows at a distance, we can bring them closer together. As with the bow we aim to be able to rub the horse gently all over with the arrows without them reacting. If we misfire or drop arrows we don’t want the horse to react so next we want to drop arrows on the ground around the horse. Take care not to actually hit the horse with them! Scratch, rub, reward, allow the horse time to relax at intervals all the time.
Once the horse is relaxed around arrows, they need to get used to arrows being passed up to you or collected from an arrow holder, carried in a quiver on their back and rattling about. As with every new thing here work through each step one at a time, working at the pace where your horse is comfortable and rewarding the horse for staying relaxed. If the horse is ok with arrows at walk, can you move up to trot and canter without the horse getting worried?
The sound of arrows flying off the bow and thudding into a target can be quite an unusual and alarming experience for a horse. Start by walking your horse past someone shooting on the ground – this way you can allow the horse to keep a safe distance at first until they feel more confident. Then you can move on to riding past someone shooting at walk. Once the horse is happily walking or trotting past someone shooting, it’s time to put it all together!
Next steps/moving on
Time to get shooting!
Putting it all together
If your horse has been carefully desensitised to each unusual bit of equipment and is relaxed and confident with all these new sights and sounds, then the next step is to get them used to you shooting from their back. Having someone on the ground walking along side your horse is ideal, they can pay attention to how the horse is coping, and let you know whether to keep going or go back a few steps and repeat. They can also be administering all the reassurance and rewards whilst you have your hands full!
Break the shooting action down into each section and practice each step individually as the horse walks along the shooting lane (raise the bow, pull an arrow from the quiver, nock an arrow, draw the bow, shoot). You might need to repeat each action/sequence several times until the horse is relaxed and unreactive to each step, only moving on to a sequence of 2, 3 or more actions once the horse remains calm with the previous action or sequence.
Eventually we want to put it all together and shoot an arrow at walk. Some horses might be completely unfazed by the whole thing, other horses will find the sudden whizz of a bow from their back rather more alarming. But if we have been paying attention to our horse, working at their pace, and giving them rewards and time to relax the horse will soon be able to cope with the whole process. Ears moving gently back and forward, especially paying attention to us and listening with an ear towards us are all good signs. Don’t forget to reward the horse too, they should be enjoying this as well as us.
Next steps/moving on
If it has all gone to plan, it is time to move up the paces and the variety of shots – side and back shots are usually tolerated best by horses, so you might need to work on more desensitising for front shots than other types.
Some lucky horses need to be ambidextrous if they have lefty riders – making sure they are desensitised to shots on both sides is important, and good practice to shoot with our non-dominant hand as well.
Whilst we have been busy desensitising it is useful to remember we want to stand in our stirrups to shoot, so teaching our horse about this is a good idea too. Some horses interpret us standing up as a signal to go faster, this may not be what we want! So spending some time teaching our horse this is not a ‘speeding-up’ cue is also time well spent. Practicing this out hacking or in any situation can be good for our leg muscles as well.
Desensitisation training is not just for archery! We can use this approach for anything new or unusual that we want our horse to be relaxed around.
If your horse unfortunately has a bad experience with or around archery kit, they may form an association between these and the fear, pain or anxiety they felt. In learning theory this is called ‘classical conditioning’ – although the bow or arrow may not have caused the fear or pain, the horse makes a link between the emotion they felt and the object. They then start to see archery equipment as something to be feared. To overcome this, we might need to do more than just desensitising and can use something called ‘counter-conditioning’ – we want to re-build the relationship between archery and the horse’s emotions so that the horse learns a new more positive association to ‘counter’ the previous conditioning or learnt association.
Here we need to pair the ‘conditioned stimulus’ (the things that the horse is now scared of) with something positive, so that the horse learns that these are actually good things because they come with rewards. So we might start again as we did with desensitising, but as the scary thing is presented we immediately reward the horse, we are not looking to reward the horse for being relaxed and interested as we do with desensitising, we should be rewarding much more often – ‘food bomb’ your horse until he starts to look forward to seeing the previously scary thing because it always comes with treats.
Every time the scary thing is around the horse should be rewarded, this might mean multiple presentations at a safe distance, each rewarded, so gradually the horse learns that the thing that was once scary is in fact a really good object to be around as it means lots of treats and rewards. Do not force the horse to interact with the scary thing, let them take it at their own pace until they are comfortable, paying attention to all the fear and anxiety or relaxed and content signals they are giving you. It is much harder to replace a bad experience with a good one so this may take much longer than desensitisation but keep at it, keep all associations positive and don’t attempt to rush things or punish your horse for being scared, and you will get there in the end.
Top tip: It is much easier to teach a horse positive or neutral associations than undo the effects of a bad experience. Sometimes these things do happen but if we can avoid the horse developing negative associations with our archery kit, the environment in which we train or shoot or the sights and sounds of archery, life will be easier and more fun for you both.
Even the best trained and desensitised horse can have a bad day – perhaps it is a new environment or a windy day when things can just be more scary and anxiety-inducing. Perhaps there was a new horse in the field or something unexpected happened about the yard. Unfortunately this might just be when you are away at a competition, which might be packed full of new and unusual experiences which even the most chilled horse can find alarming.
Don’t try and force your horse through this or blame them for not coping as well as they usually do. There is usually a reason for this, even if we do not know what it is or were not there, and your horse is most definitely not being naughty or trying to make you look bad. Running through some desensitising tricks again, and rewarding relaxed and calm behaviour, should help your horse feel more confident and understand that nothing is going to cause them fear or injury.
But also sometimes it is good to know when to call it a day – a scared and panicking horse is not safe to be around, especially if you have bows and arrows in your hands and cannot give your horse your full attention. Taking time out to listen to your horse and working with them to help them cope is what good horse people should do. This is NOT about teaching the horse to ‘get away with it’ but being sensitive and responsive to your horses needs, as well as keeping both of you, and others around the horse safe. Remember: this is supposed to be fun, for you and your horse!