The problem with desensitisation

To be sensitive simply means being able to sense things. Sensitivity means aliveness; being in harmony with life. To be numb is to be dead.

Quote by unknown author

I could stop right there. I think my message is summed up well in that quote. But let’s deconstruct this idea of desensitisation which is often still promoted in training methodologies. It’s not just limited to horse training either, the human world devalues sensitivity and emotional congruence. Hence, understandably it is also very misunderstood in the world of horse training. Strength is associated with words like resilience but that which is unemotional, rather than as a way to regulate emotional awareness. When the body’s emotional reactions to both external and internal stimulus are ignored, it becomes dissociated from our minds. This is what we achieve by desensitisation.

Dissociation is not resilience, it is a coping mechanism that over time becomes dysfunctional as it forms into a habit, accompanied by a sympathetic nervous system reaction that readies the body for fight or flight. You can start to see how that can be destructive. Energy created in the body with nowhere to go is problematic. The body needs to complete the fight or flight activity or it ends up having excess adrenal and cardiovascular activity. Shallow breathing, heart palpitations, restless limbs, headaches, dizziness, sight issues, brain fog, and other symptoms can appear. This is also where pain sensitivities can arise, due to blocking areas of sensory awareness and instead turning it into a pain receptor. Immunity and digestion are other areas are also compromised in this process.

Did you know that athletes have compromised immunity after exercise? This is due to the functions of the sympathetic nervous system to direct blood and oxygen into our limbs, lungs and cardiovascular system during strenuous activities, reducing functions that are for rest and repair, such as digestion and immune system responses.

But horses are big and dangerous, right? We can’t let them react to their sensory awareness…we say to ourselves.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because they are big, strong animals that can easily overpower us.

But no, because shutting down their sensory awareness causes immense internal stress for them, and in most cases it is unhelpful to teach a horse to be helpless. What if it needs to judge a jump, or get out of the way of an object heading towards it, or react when it slips?

So, what can we do instead?

The key to understanding this was identified in a study that was done in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow. In a nutshell, the study found that baby monkeys had an attachment to the comfort of a soft covered inanimate “mother” over and above a wire “mother” giving only nourishment. The comfort was also a factor in their willingness to explore and be curious with novel objects. The monkeys that had a comfort figure were braver with investigating new things, and at the point of being overwhelmed, they returned back to the comfort of the “mother”. After feeling safe again, they ventured away to investigate once more. It is an oscillation of being reassured and at a safe distance from the stimulus, to being able to face the new and scary object. When they return to the “mother” their nervous system is reset, switching between sympathetic pathways inciting curiosity and bravery teamed with a countering parasympathetic pathway of security and safety. This prevents them from being overwhelmed and dissociating. In contrast the monkeys that did not have the comfort figure were unable to investigate the novel object. They remained huddled in a corner showing high anxiety and coping mechanisms of thumb sucking and rocking themselves.

We can learn quite a bit from Harlow’s studies about the importance of emotional security, and partnering this knowledge with how our nervous system is wired for connection and co-regulation (polyvagal theory), we can deem to find more appropriate training methods. Allowing the horse time to investigate and then move away at their own preference, exposing them to small chunks and then allowing the horse to reset themselves with a feeling of security. Bringing a horse friend to help them co-regulate, and also providing ourselves as a model of safety and relaxation rather than coming across as a threat.

So, with that in mind, I accept when my horse feels unsafe and I respect that they need to have an emotional reaction to it. My one rule is that they don’t run me over or strike out at me in the process, but they are allowed to sense the environment and have the time that they need to process it. I realise that by trying to intervene, I can make their reaction worse. By trying to make them feel differently about something, I come across as a threat because I am going against their instinct. They are better to figure it out themselves without me being part of their “issue” with whatever they are getting reactive about. In the end they will be more trusting of my input if it is in line with their own reactions. It becomes the opposite to a vicious circle. The horse is able to trust you as a source of comfort making them more secure in their environment, and feels empowered to react which improves their resilience making them less likely to react.

It comes down to whether you want the curious and brave monkey or the one that retreats into helplessness. In my view, it is more of a challenge for the human to delegate some control back to the horse. Complete dominance is often a far easier prospect for us humans to demonstrate our superiority and prowess. But these techniques of oppressive control do not help our horses cope in the best way for their welfare, emotional regulation, and longevity.