Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Wonderful Morning at the Barn, Part Two: Desensitization

After feeding Midnight his lunch yesterday, I put him back out in the pasture and went to see Galahad, who was indoors. It was getting close to time to leave by then, so I decided to do another Walk to Look at Scary Things.

It’s getting harder to find things that actually scare him. These days, he’s wary of some things, but for the most part his curiosity easily wins out.

We looked at the shavings pile and its fence and the pieces of rope hanging from it: no big deal. The newly graded driveway by the arena barn door, which was terrifying (for five minutes) while it was happening on Monday, wasn’t even interesting. So I took him around the back of Barn 8 where the farrier was working.

The noise and the odors of the old-style hot-shoeing methods usually make horses uneasy. Galahad was unfazed. But there was a full trash barrel, which has been scary before and might provide another lesson.

Nope. Not scary. Not even several big, empty plastic bags, which often terrify even seasoned horses. When I pulled one out to show it to him, he sniffed it, grabbed it in his teeth, and started shaking and flapping it all around. That bag, it seemed, was the best toy that little buckskin had ever had! He wouldn’t give it back to me. Instead, he chewed it and dropped it, picked it up and shook it all around, over his head, side to side, making a huge noise that I was really afraid would scare the farrier’s equine customers.

“Desensitization” doesn’t seem to be an issue for Galahad.

Eventually, he was willing to give the bag back to me, and we walked down to the creek to give him a drink of creek water and a little grass. I got cold, and was pleased that when I said to him, “Come on, Galahad. Let’s go,” he lifted his head and walked over to me. I expected an argument, since he hasn’t had grass in quite a while. But he was very good!

As we walked past the barn toward the pasture, I noticed that the rear barn door was still half-shut, and I remembered how nervous some of the horses had been going out earlier. Galahad and I walked over to the door, and he did get worried about it, especially once I pulled it down an inch and it made a loud noise.

Galahad and I worked with that door for probably ten minutes. He’s gotten so that he trusts me as he would his mother (now, don’t you all laugh at me!). I’ve convinced him, though lots of work, that if I say something won’t hurt him, then it probably won’t. It may take him a couple of tries, but at this point in our relationship, he’ll walk up and sniff pretty much anything I set out to show him, even a noisy sliding barn door. By the end of our “lesson,” Galahad was walking calmly under that door, ducking his head to go through, in both directions; and he stood quietly while I raised it and lowered it several inches. We’ll need to work on that a lot more, I suspect, but that was a very good start.

For me, the trust aspect is one of the most remarkable and rewarding parts of my relationship with Gahahad. It’s wonderful to watch his expression go from fright—head up and back, eyes rolling, jaw and lips tight—to curiosity—eyes wide but relaxed, nose and ears forward as he sniffs whatever it is—and then to playfulness—a quick nibble, maybe a lick. Or, in the case of the plastic bag, to full-on play. I sure love that horse.

(Top photo by S. Ryan)

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