The Sensitivity Sweet Spot
Cami, a very thin-skinned mare, figuring out her sweet spot
I’ve been called too sensitive all my life. Raised voices make me uncomfortable. Violent movie scenes give me nightmares. Snarky comments make me cry. “Toughen up!” is a phrase I heard over and over, first as a child in school, then as a young horse professional, as an assistant trainer, as a woman in a universe still dominated by men. For a long time, I tried to follow this piece of advice. I looked at my sensitivity as a drawback, as something I needed to overcome if wanted to make it in the horse business. Only in the last few years have I become proud of this label instead of embarrassed.
Ali, feeling a little unsure about stepping on the plywood, but at this point she trusts me enough to try it.
One reason for the recent shift in my thinking is that I have always done well with sensitive horses - horses often labeled as too reactive or too difficult. Some trainers don’t want to work with such horses. I find that they’re actually easier to work with than thicker-skinned horses, as long as you know how to approach them.
It’s my goal to get a horse to listen to me without overreacting, to make a horse attentive but not worried. An important part of my job is to help each horse find his unique sensitivity sweet spot. The magic zone between detachment and overstimulation is the only place where learning happens. Tension and anxiety can interfere with horse-rider communication like loud background noise. On the other end, a detached, disengaged horse makes the conversation one-sided and nagging. Only a relaxed, yet curious horse can tune into his rider in a meaningful way.
Cowboy, still sensitive, but also relaxed and curious
I have worked with many touchy horses, especially mares, who have a hard time tolerating being groomed, or saddled or bathed. I have met other horses who are sensitive to noises to the point where a beeping cell phone sends them into orbit. I don’t think it’s a good solution to just back off and tip-toe around such a horse. They do need to learn to function in the real world. On the other hand, I don’t want to desensitize any horses to the point where they ignore their surroundings. I want a sensitive horse to remain sensitive, but - and this is crucial - to trust me, to the point where the horse says, “Katrin thinks it’s ok, so it must be true.”
Sensitive horses who trust their riders can stay relaxed focused, even in an unfamiliar setting like the LaPlata county fairgrounds
A green horse, especially a sensitive green horse, needs to get used to being handled and groomed, to carrying a saddle and carrying a rider. I do many of the things that fall into the rubric of “desensitizing” - only I don’t do them to desensitize, but to build trust and respect between us. I rub horses all over with a blanket and later a flag or a plastic bag until they relax. I teach them to walk over tarps and plywood, to open and close gates, to stand while I take off my jacket and hang it on the fence.
Remy, relaxed and trusting, but attentive
I try to make these experiences as comfortable for the horse as I can, taking all the time that I need. I try to be respectful of the horse’s sensitivity level. I introduce the blanket, or the curry comb, or the flag, slowly and gently. On the other hand, there are times when I have to be firm. Every horse can learn that a kick is not an appropriate response to being handled. The good news is that, with calm, patient daily work and some compromises, like a softer brush or a fleece cover for the girth, most horses will learn to tolerate the common stressors they encounter.
It’s always a snail-paced, gradual process. It’s not much of a spectacle. But in the end, most horses will tolerate the slicker, or the flag or the noise, or whatever else used to sent him into a flight response. Not only that, the horse will develop more confidence in future encounters with other stressors. In other words, the horse will learn to trust me sooner, and more readily, the next time a similar situation happens.
Naji, like most Arabians a sensitive horse - but his sensitivity is what makes him fun to ride
When working with a sensitive horse, I adjust my communication style. My goal is to get through to the horse (which is easy) without overwhelming or overfacing the horse (which can be a lot more difficult). In practice, this means that everything I do slows down. I move more slowly. I use a lower tone of voice. I even breathe more slowly. I give positive feedback as soon as the horse responds. I ask for a response, but try to back off before the horse reaches the limits of his tolerance. For a sensitive horse, I have to show up as my most sensitive self, ready to adjust what I do at a moment’s notice. It’s like a dance: ask, listen, respond, back off, ask again. It has to happen at the horse’s pace, not mine.
Trail obstacles like this gate are a great way to build trust
My goal is not to desensitize a sensitive horse. Instead, it’s to make a horse more focused on me and the communication between us than on other stuff going on. In less than ideal conditions, like in windy weather or at a noisy fairgrounds, I want my horses to be very sensitive, but - and this is crucial - sensitive to me, not everything else. This is why my own sensitivity is not something I want to get rid of anymore, even if I could. When I was younger, I wasted a lot of time trying to become tougher in my work with horses. Now, I embrace my thin skin. It’s not a flaw that holds me back, or a dirty secret I need to cover up. It’s who I am, and the horses seem to appreciate it.
Renegade, another horse who found the sweet spot